Transitory nature of art at the Tang

Posted by Kristin Travagline

Many people find contemporary art confusing. The unconventional structure of Paula Hayes' exhibit, "Understory," at the Skidmore College Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, imbues the art with a refreshingly accessible quality.

In contrast to the bustling nature of the college campus, one cannot help but appreciate the peacefulness of Payne Room, where "Understory" is located. Tall evergreens in green and blue malleable silicone planters, as though the trees are wearing slippers, fill the space.

To the left, a rectangular platform displays numerous glass terrariums of varying sizes. Each terrarium is a clear, round orb, pleasing to the eye in its simplicity. It appears as though the artist grew miniature, magical worlds in her carefully designed pods. Likewise, each terrarium differs in its plants and composition.

At the back of the room, several sets of hand blown glassware and printed cloth napkins are on display, stacked on shelves much like one could imagine them in the artist's own home. Similar to the terrariums, the plates were constructed out of curving, clear glass, resembling the organic shape and texture of a clamshell. Deep ceramic bowls, quite unlike dainty dinnerware, lead the viewer to draw associations with comforting home cooking.

The most surprising aspect of the room is two enormous, dark blue beanbags that rest in the center of the gallery, imprinted with the form of the students who last sat there. Yet, these beanbags embody the spirit of "Understory" and encapsulate Hayes' philosophy on art. In fact, Ian Berry, the associate director for Curatorial Affairs at the Tang, conducted most of his interview with Skidmore News from a deep seat in the middle of one of the bags.

Hayes is a Skidmore alumna. She grew up on a farm not far from Skidmore and spent her time at the college discovering what the life of an artist could entail. After she graduated from the college, Hayes moved to N.Y.C. and received her Master of Fine Arts from Parsons School of Design. While living in the city, Hayes supported herself by developing a gardening business.

The smaller portion of "The Understory" that is located on the second floor of the Tang is based upon the artwork that Hayes made during this earlier period of her life. Accompanying this section of the exhibit are personal touches from Hayes' journey as an agricultural artist. In the center of the room is a large tree branch suspended by the ceiling with a yellow cloth draped from the extending limbs. Below the branch, on the floor, is a mixture of colored tissue paper, glitter and wood chips. In comparison to the main exhibit of "The Understory," one can sense in the chaotic mezzanine Hayes' initial struggle to balance her two passions.

Gradually, Hayes learned to merge her artistic passions with her gardening practice until they seamlessly evolved into a single lifestyle, represented by the main gallery of "The Understory." In subtle ways, Hayes' dilemma in striving to merge her agricultural knowledge with her life as an artist exemplifies her greater desire to create art that interacts with life, which is illustrated by the way that students literally leave their imprint on the beanbags.

"Paula is trying to figure out how her artwork can intersect in the spiritual life of people and how artwork can interact with our everyday health and good feeling, as opposed to just being something at arms length that is in a gold frame on a wall," Berry said.

Skidmore student Melinda Kiefer '11 also interacts with the exhibit on a first hand basis as she helps Hayes maintain the terrariums as part of her job at the Tang. During her interview with Skidmore News, Kiefer was in the middle of removing mushrooms from one of the terrariums with enormous surgical tweezers.

"A really big, important part of Paula's work, even her mission as an artist, is to have you interact with her art and experience its transitory nature. I've changed the terrariums up and that's okay because I'm doing it and it's my aesthetics. I've even added some crystals and just fun things," Kiefer said.

To ensure that students and faculty interact with the exhibit, Hayes and the Tang faculty have planned a series of 10 dinner parties throughout the course of the academic year, which will be held in the gallery and eaten on the hand blown dinnerware.

Although the dinners are by invitation only, campus wide events are being held in conjunction with the meals. One such event will be held on Sept. 25 at 1 p.m. at the Tang. There will be a panel discussion given by local farmers followed by a "hands on party" in the college garden.

"I would like to encourage students to think about how plants, and food and their lives can be intertwined with art and what happens at the museum. I think sometimes people don't see those things as connected. This is really about a holistic experience," Berry said.

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