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Something Fierce


Something Fierce features eight women artists whose work exemplifies an element of ferocity, whether it be expressed in the subject, process or intent.

Sarah Pickering

Spectacular and tragic are words British photographer uses to describe images from her Explosions series, made just as the artist was involved in protests against the UK’s involvement in the war in Iraq. Taken during the day, in pastoral fields of Lincolnshire and Kent, her photos document violent explosions of a variety of highly volatile substances, such as gunpowder, jet fuel, and napalm. Originally produced for the film industry, the effect explosives have more recently been deployed in military training to create a more realistic, and thus terrifying, experience for engaged soldiers.

Prior to Explosions, Pickering created a body of work called Public Order, documenting the riot training grounds of the British police: slightly smaller than life-size neighborhoods and streets where mock violent uprisings are staged for training purposes. Pickering says that much of her work comes out of a sense of rebellion, especially in response to the radical changes in civilian life brought about post-9/11. Along with increased government and military effort in the name of providing security to civilians comes a great deal of loss of individual rights and personal freedom. Her work reminds us that we are never truly out of harm’s way and that much of the infrastructure and policy put in place in the last 15 years offers only an illusion of safety. In 2017 alone, there have been four extremist attacks in England, as well as the deaths of two British soldiers during live-fire exercises on home turf.

An-My Lê

War has been photographer An-My Lê’s focus for more than 20 years. In a segment on the PBS series Art 21 she explained:

I’m fascinated by the military structure, by strategy, the idea of a battle, the gear. But at the same time, how do you resolve the impact of it? What it is meant to do is just horrible.
But war can be beautiful. I think it’s the idea of the sublime—moments that are horrific but at the same time beautiful; moments of communion with the landscape and nature. And it’s that beauty that I wanted to embrace in my work. I think that’s why the work seems ambiguous. And it’s meant to be. War is an inextricable part of the history of high civilization; I think it’s here to stay. But I also think we need to try to avoid it as much as possible. I was not so interested in making work that you see on the news page, which has the effect of wanting you to condemn war immediately. I wanted to approach the idea in a more complicated and challenging way.

Born in Saigon in 1960, Lê came to the United States at the age of 15 as a political refugee. Her work is both a condemnation and a recognition of the power of battle—from her mid-1990s Viêt Nam project; through her Small Wars series, which documents men who reenact battles from the Vietnam War in the forests of the American South; to her Events Ashore project, which captures both militaristic and humanitarian efforts of the US armed forces overseas.

Though An-My Lê’s petition to be an embedded photographer during the war in Iraq was denied, in 2003 she was granted permission to photograph US military training exercises as troops prepared to deploy to Afghanistan and Iraq. Included in the exhibition are selected images from her series 29 Palms, which takes its name from the marine base in southern California’s Mojave Desert where Lê photographed US troops both rehearsing their own roles and playing the parts of their adversaries. The phrase “the theater of war” immediately comes to mind when one views Lê’s dramatic black-and-white images of troops both in battle and at rest. Lacking any sense of bravado, Lê’s subjects as she captures them are at ease, with their guard down in a way that can occur during military preparations but not on the actual battlefield. Almost 15 years later, one wonders how many of these men have survived. And if they are alive, what is their mental and physical state?

Debi Cornwall

“How do you make a life when you’ve been displaced, whether by arrest and imprisonment or by the terms of your tour of duty?” Debi Cornwall asked this question in preparation for creating a body of photographic work about the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, a US military prison at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. Established by the administration of President George W. Bush in 2002 as part of the “War on Terror,” it holds so called enemy-combatants without the typical rights of habeas corpus and a fair and speedy trial. Although President Barack Obama failed in his promise to close the center, the number of detainees has slowly shrunk over the last 15 years, from more than 600 to an estimated 41 as of January 2017.

After 12 years as a wrongful conviction lawyer, Cornwall made a perhaps natural segue to documenting one of the world’s most famous symbols of human rights violation. After waiting nearly eight months to gain access to the prison, she began her visit with a security briefing and an order to not record faces, long shore views, or defense installations. Her camera’s memory card was reviewed and edited, and when she decided to switch from digital to film photography, she was required to develop the film on base, with military chaperones to oversee the process. Per orders, her images of both prisoners and guards are taken from behind, drawing the artist to ask, “How do you tell any human experience without being able to photograph someone’s face?”

The body of work coming from this experience, called Welcome to Camp America, consists of three series. Gitmo at Home, Gitmo at Play shows housing and leisure spaces for both guards and prisoners. Gitmo on Sale documents a vast array of souvenirs, including a Fidel Castro bobble-head doll and a T-shirt that says, “I Love Guantanamo Bay Cuba.” Beyond Gitmo, the last chapter of the work, follows 14 released prisoners in life post-Guantánamo, in nine different countries, including Albania, France, and Qatar. Following the same protocol as on base, Cornwall made portraits of these men with their backs turned to the camera, staring out into what remains of their lives.

Victoria Sambunaris

Victoria Sambunaris is no stranger to danger. In the process of making of her work, she has scaled mountains; descended into quarries; driven the Alaska pipeline (alone); camped in deserts, swamps, and dodgy campgrounds; and stayed in numerous seedy motels. Along the way, she has been pulled over, redirected, and interrogated by a wide variety of authorities in uniform, including park rangers, sheriffs, police officers, border patrol agents, port authority agents, and most recently the Secret Service. In fact, Sambunaris has been surveilled so often that she has considered purchasing a police radio for fair warning.

As an American landscape photographer, Sambunaris approaches her projects by region, having made significant bodies of work along the US–Mexico border, in Alaska, along Interstate 40, and in Texas, all the while turning her lens to natural and human-made markers, including dams, trains, highways, mines, and quarries. For her most recent project, Shifting Baselines, Sambunaris embarked on new subject matter, creating seascapes featuring marine traffic in the Houston Ship Channel. As an international hub for the oil and gas industry, the Gulf Coast region from Galveston to Houston is home to the largest petrochemical complex in the United States, the second largest in the world.

Shipping containers have long held the gaze of Sambunaris, who made her first images of them in 2000. More than 15 years later, the containers still hold center court in her work, whether they are on board a cargo ship or a train. Following in the vein of her landscapes, the seascapes reveal flat planes of view and midline horizons and are presented in formal grids, in the tradition of German conceptual artists Bernd and Hilla Becher. Sambunaris’s images contain no humans, only evidence of the enormous infrastructure we impose on earth in order to support our consumption.

Sharon Core

Surrealist painter René Magritte said, “If the dream is a translation of waking life, waking life is also a translation of the dream.” With three major bodies of work to date, Sharon Core has made photographs based on the work of painters Wayne Thiebaud (American, 1920–), Raphaelle Peale (American, 1771–1825), and most recently Otto Marseus van Schriek (Dutch, 1619–1678). Core’s images are not replicas of paintings but rather translations moving through the process of her interpretation. She asks us to reexamine established precepts of art, turning the notion that a painting is an artist’s interpretation and a photograph is “real” on its head.

In her series Early American (2007–2010), Core’s still lifes are painstakingly composed reenactments and riffs on paintings by Raphaelle Peale, son of Charles Wilson Peale, notable portrait painter of leading figures of the American Revolution. For those viewers already familiar with the nineteenth-century originals, her work is at once recognizable and disarming. While Core had to scour flea markets, antiques shops and the internet to acquire exact period dishes and tableware, securing identical fruits and vegetables proved much harder, as the produce of early-nineteenth-century America bares little or no resemblance to the tamed, antiseptic varieties present in grocery stores today. This led Core to again utilize the internet to acquire heirloom seeds and actually grow the contents of compositions herself, much in the way she had to learn to bake to replicate the cakes and pies found in the work of pop artist Wayne Thiebaud. Whether she is baker, gardener, farmer, or horticulturalist, Core is literally digging in the dirt to create her compositions. This key element distinctly sets her apart from the male artists whose work she appropriates: they are merely recording, while she has actually given life to what you see.

Christine Corday

Christine Corday’s sculpture NOVAE, 2017, measuring 36 x 84 x 5 inches, is an elegant reclining arc made of iron, carbon, silicone, manganese, phosphorus, sulfur, aluminum, copper, chromium, and nickel. Conceived as an intimate alternative to the artist’s otherwise large-scale outdoor sculptures, the work is meant to be lived with in a domestic environment. As if created through alchemy, the sculpture is a result of the artist’s fascination and facility with metal, as she explained in conjunction with the presentation of her work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2015:

Metals are elements. As in nearly three-quarters of our periodic table. Each is so interesting to me, and I intend to use as many as I can. There is something pure to iron, copper, manganese, nickel, etc. that, regardless of its material state from solid to liquid to gas to plasma to condensate, it remains recognizably iron, copper, manganese, nickel, etc. They are changeless in different states. This changeless aspect to this material lends, expands, informs its medium in my work.

An attribute that sets Corday apart from many sculptors working today is her interest in the interaction of metal and human touch. Considering the residue of a touch to be the start of a dialogue, Corday is fascinated by the resulting oxidization process, which leads to rust. Corday’s practice takes inspiration from her deep interest in astronomy, archaeology, chemistry, cultural anthropology, and, most importantly, astrophysics, in which she once considered pursuing a PhD. As if drawing or painting, Corday creates ridges, cuts, edges, and texture using a plasma torch. Describing her delight in seeing molten metal, the artist likens the process of creating her work to that of the birth of stars, suns, and galaxies.

Munson Hunt

Monumental is the first word that comes to mind when one views Munson Hunt’s sculptures made from ancient trees that have died a natural death. Her Charred Monoliths are rectangular columns that range from 400 to 500 pounds and stand between six and eight feet tall, easily dwarfing the artist. Sourcing her materials from ranches and forests in northern New Mexico, Hunt is inspired by the lives the trees led and what they witnessed in that time. Work made from 300-year-old cottonwoods from Nambe Pueblo brings to mind Kahlil Gibran’s parable: “If you reveal your secrets to the wind, you should not blame the wind for revealing them to the trees.”

Hunt purchased her first chainsaw in 2000, and it was three months before she had the courage to use it. Having learned her technique from a master woodsman, Hunt is never relaxed when using a chainsaw, as the tool requires absolute focus and respect. Despite the dangers, working with massive tree trunks and a chainsaw can be quite liberating, with the resulting sculptures standing tall like guardians.

Hunt also creates spheres from trees. Solid and terrestrial, the feminine to Hunt’s masculine monoliths, they sit like dropped anchors in the desert. To create the blackened finish, Hunt sets the forms on fire using a blowtorch and then oils and polishes the wood to bring up a deep, rich sheen. In 2011 Hunt completed a residency with Bullseye Glass, where she learned to cast from wood. The result, a translucent glass plank standing eight feet tall and weighing 500 pounds, is installed in the center of the fountain in Lannan’s garden.

Roni Horn

Of the many subjects embraced by Roni Horn, water emerges as a constant theme, from her installation Doubt of Water to her performance piece Saying Water to her print series Still Water (The River Thames for Example), where she notes, “Water is a soft entrance to not being here,” a “solvent for identity.” In a series of 15 prints, Still Water documents the River Thames in London, in photographs that showcase the river’s range of colors and textures, with shades of blue, green, brown, and yellow and a surface that goes from calm to turbid. Embedded in each image are tiny numbers that correspond to footnotes, where the artist expounds on a wide range of topics, such as the consistency of water, the river’s history, and, perhaps most notably, suicide.

In an interview with Kathleen Merrill Campagnolo in 2000, in conjunction with the work’s exhibition at SITE Santa Fe, the artist explained, “One of the things about suicide and the Thames that became clear to me as I started to spend more time around the subject was that part of what happens when you throw yourself into the Thames is that you disappear. If you think about the various ways one can commit suicide, that’s a very particular one. The idea of disappearing, I imagine, could be very comforting. Not just to stop being, but to actually disappear.” In an interview the following year in the New York Times she went on to say, “I am convinced the Thames itself is partly responsible for the suicides that end up there. The river evinces intimacy and fear. It possesses a monumentality without scale, and its surface is at once transparent and opaque. I took thousands of images of it, and I have come to see it as the ultimate metaphor, a mirror for our rights and wrongs, a surface in which we see ourselves.”

Of Horn’s 605 footnotes in Still Water, no less than 40 are explicit references to suicide. In her writing on the subject, Horn’s style has considerable range, from the didactic:

Disappearance: that’s why suicides are attracted to it. It’s also why children fear it. It’s a soft entrance to simply not being here. When I imagine the river, it’s something I can enter, something that will surround me, take me away from here. But then the pain of it is less imaginable too. Less than violence or chemistry. (Image A, footnote 2)

to a franker approach:

A young Parisian woman came to London recently to drown herself in the river. It’s curious that the Thames attracts people from far away. I’ve never heard of any other river doing this. (Usually it’s just the locals.) I mean people don’t travel from Canada to kill themselves in the Hudson—or even from Ohio. (Image I, footnote 30)

to entries that verge on seductive:

Getting lost, hidden, silent, alone, private, alone, secret, alone, invisible, disappeared, gone, just gone. (Image J, footnote 41)

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, with more than 44,000 dying annually, or about 121 deaths per day. Numbers are estimated to be higher, but with the stigma surrounding suicide, underreporting and accurate data collection are challenges. In addressing this universal human condition, Horn has created a vehicle for validation, dialogue, and healing.

—Christie Davis, Program Director for Art