Today’s feature is another wonderful site-specific exhibition that was on at the Mid-Manhattan Library in NYC recently. Curator and Art Librarian Arezoo Moseni introduces us to artist Winona Barton-Ballentine, followed by an interview between the artist and Alessandro Teoldi, a writer for Paper Journal. 

I met Winona Barton-Ballentine a few years ago when she and a group of first year MFA students came to the Art Collection for an orientation session. Afterwards I was informed by Deirdre Donohue, Stephanie Shuman Director of Library, Archives, and Museum Collections at International Center of Photography, that Winona was working on Artists’ books and taught classes on the subject. I occasionally looked at new work that she posted on her website. In 2013, I found out that she had became a mother and was still busy making art. Her work is fascinating on many levels especially when it teeters between densely packed visual information and monochrome abstractions. The sense of space is particularly challenging as the objects appear in a hierarchical order with no reference to perspective, similar to the use of space in Persian miniatures. In preparation for her exhibition Wild Stainless, Winona and I met a number of times and exchanged emails. Despite her parental responsibilities she worked very hard on her exhibition that has attracted and delighted many viewers. 

An interview between Alessandro Teoldi (a writer for Paper Journal) and Winona Barton-Ballentine

1. The still life in your series Wild Stainless are complex and elaborate collections of objects and food. 

At first sight these objects appear to have been randomly arranged together, but at a closer look the viewer realizes that a very specific and precise process lies behind the surface. Could you talk about the process of taking these photographs? How can you describe us the moment of composition and how important it is to the development of the series?

For the most part I arrange these still lifes (which I consider to also be tableaus) with a primarily intuitive sense of the structural balance, trying to honor all areas of the frame (not giving weight to the top or bottom). In this case I also want to break away from what I’ve learned as a photographer and push my ideas of what should and shouldn’t be done in an image.

Home Study with Romanesco, 2015, Archival Pigment Print, 30 x 20 in

Home Study with Romanesco, 2015, Archival Pigment Print, 30 x 20 in

I create the scenes before setting up the camera and then shoot up to 100 digital images of that set up, from many different angles. From this edit I look at all of the images in Lightroom, and, while partially squinting, edit them down to the images that have most disorienting sense of space and gravity; the ones that tell just enough about the environment without telling too much. There is no post production retouching or altering, however I do balance the light in the images to accentuate a defiance of gravity (by bringing some parts of the image forward and letting others fall back).

These images rest on their ability to reveal the nature of the objects in them, while at the same time allowing them to step out of their natural state of being. They defy gravity, change purpose, and transform their original use. That’s what gives the images meaning.

Home Study with Silicone, 2015, Archival Pigment Print, 30 x 20 in

Home Study with Silicone, 2015, Archival Pigment Print, 30 x 20 in

2. Your recent images are outside shots of places in upstate New York, where you currently live with your family. How much did the experience of becoming a mom inform your photographs? And when did you decide to move from the studio of your kitchen and living room to the outdoor fields and countryside?

I moved outside because I had to be inside. The things I want to do are usually those that take me away from the things I have to do, even if it was once the reverse. Looking at the images now, I see that I was seeking some solace in those outside images. I didn’t want to make and clean up messes anymore. The ideas of gender roles and family history that I had been flirting with in the earlier still lifes grew heavier, and I didn’t want to makes pictures in my house anymore. I wanted to get outside, to see if I could use the same visual rules and techniques, but in a new place. To see what would happen if I applied the same visual rules to a new environment. Also I had to take my daughter for walks twice a day to get her down for a nap, so really it was a matter of practicality.

Tree and Tea, 2016, Archival Pigment Print, 30 x 20 in 

Tree and Tea, 2016, Archival Pigment Print, 30 x 20 in

3. These images (and the object in them) are the in-progress archive of places you have been to. In this sense is interesting to consider the location they are exhibited in: the Picture Collection of the NYPL. People consult this space to find inspiration and to tell a story through the juxtaposition of images taken from different sources. In a similar way your photographs show your story and your objects but they are also willing to lend those objects to the viewers, who can humbly take them and re-create a new picture. I wonder if the Picture Collection was an inspiration of yours in the creation of the series and what other inspirations you had.

I’ve been a regular visitor to the 3rd floor of the Mid -Manhattan Library, which houses both the Picture Collection and the Art Collection, since 2011 when I was a graduate student at in the Bard College/International Center of Photography’s MFA program. At that time ICP librarian Deirdre Donohue introduced me to Arezoo Moseni, Mid-Manhattan Library’s Senior Art Librarian and Curator, who provided a tour of the collection and how to use NYPL’s catalog and electronic resources as well as a NYPL membership card. Since then I’ve been guilty of taking out more than ten books at a time and renewing them more than three times; books with images of old kitchens, cookbooks, stories about decor, furniture, knitting, and food. Deirdre encouraged us to use the library and I have her to thank for a lot of information I’ve gleaned since then.

The long afternoons, sifting through piles of books, was a large part of the inspiration to make the still lifes in this show. I was very intrigued by visual historical trends in baking and cooking. I studied how the evolution of kitchens and domestic inventions were connected to industrialization, commerce, and war in America; and how this was all linked to gender and the ideas that were marketed to women in the home over the last 100 years.

This whole experience came full circle when Arezoo contacted me shortly after I gave birth to my first child in 2013. The following fall I was a resident in LMCC’s Workspace residency, where I was encouraged (both inwardly and outwardly), despite the time constraints of being a new mother, to make this work.

4. What were the challenges of creating work for a specific public location?

While this work isn’t site specific in the physical sense (like a sculpture or dance performance) it is in the sense that it speaks to and about the information that I gleaned from the books in the library while making the work. The biggest challenge of showing here was selecting the right number of images for the space while still maintaining the story.

Burn Pile, 2016, Archival Pigment Print, 30 x 20 in

Burn Pile, 2016, Archival Pigment Print, 30 x 20 in

5. Were you excited to see your work within the context of a public space such as the NYPL?

The library is the best place I could envision showing these images. Not only did I do much of my visual and literary research here while making the images, but people go there to enrich their minds, as well as to find a bit of respite.

The information is free. There’s no hierarchy to who can come to see these images, and no weight on whether they are bought or sold. They’re simply here to be enjoyed, and to be part of the conversation of ideas. That is the most gratifying thing that my photographs can do.

6. Showing the work in a library put your images in direct conversation with history. In your case I think about the history of feminism and the social transformation of women in American society. How important is for you to have a connection with this kind of history? And what books or text have influenced you?

My favorite history is that which is told tangentially- through things like food, music, art, books, and clothes; artifacts of cultural trends and psychologies. A good photograph is one that tells a history without meaning to, without doing so directly. Through the process of making these photographs I’ve investigated the place American women (of a certain age, social class, and race) hold in the home today. I’ve satiated these interests this through investigative texts such as Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born, Secretary Press’s How We Do Both, and Moyra Davey’s collection Mother Reader, as well as through memoirs such as Close to the Knives by David Wojnarowicz which deals with a different form of cultural oppression and expression, and After Birth, 

Elisa Albert’s story of raising a new-born in Upstate New York. Other major inspirations were A Fortunate Man by John Berger, Eating History by Andrew Smith, and finally: Species in Spaces by Georges Perec.

Devonian, detail, 2013, Risograph Printed Book , 16 pages full color, hand printed, unbound , 8 x 10 in

Devonian, detail, 2013, Risograph Printed Book , 16 pages full color, hand printed, unbound , 8 x 10 in

7. For this exhibition you were also invited to partake in an Artist Dialog Series conversation with artist and photographer Justine Kurland where you discussed intersecting ideas within your current and past bodies of work. You both  simultaneously read texts and showed slides. How did this experience enrich your experience of making photographs for the Art and Pictures Collection?

Justine and I worked closely to bounce ideas off of each other while preparing for the conversation, but the live performance was much more spontaneous than we had planned. I felt really fortunate to experience her working process first hand over the months leading up to the talk. In turn it was extremely helpful to have constant feedback during the editing and brainstorming process. It really helped bring something to life that I had been incubating for a while, and surely gave new life and direction to the images that I’ve made since hanging the show.

Below is an excerpt of the text that I read there. It’s a combination of personal texts written by me about my experiences as a new mother/artist in a new home and landscape, but I clumsily assumed my two year old daughter’s perspective while writing them. This led me to write more stories from her perspective of experiences I perceived her to have. These texts exhibit the fluidity of our voices during the early stages of our mother/child existence, where only a thin barrier separates us.

THE MEADOW:

In 2015 a Polar Vortex covered the northeast of America. It was below zero at night for two months in a row. She strolled me down for my nap until the snow got too deep to stroll, then she walked me in the carrier until the snow got so deep that she couldn’t lift her legs out of the holes her feet made. Hundreds of marvelous snowflakes clustered on our clothes as she walked.

Today we walk together, holding hands, past the old frozen tea party, up over the hill, onto the meadow path. We walk into the squishy, crispy, burned up, mown down, curly-like-Siya’s-hair grass. A few rotting apples cling to the trees, too high to reach and kick into the tangled brush around them, where deer and coyotes trample around, partaking in the abundance.

Walking Boards, 2016, Archival Pigment Print, 30 x 20 in

Walking Boards, 2016, Archival Pigment Print, 30 x 20 in

FRIENDS 

I’m arranging robin, hop hop, and teddy on the pink and yellow camping chair. music is playing. I’m wearing striped tights and a dark blue shirt. Mo-ma is in the bathroom and mom is typing on her computer. “NO!” I throw mermaid and hop hop. Crying. No!!! I run over to mom crying: “your friends, are they ok?”. Pushing on the keys of her computer, she grabs my hand and starts to tickle me. “Oh, your naughty!!” mom says. 

She takes hold of my hands, getting up off the couch, starts to spin me around. We walk over to my chair and look at the pile of friends on the floor. “Friends, are you ok?” I say. I pick them up. Holding them all I try to sit in my mini camping chair. I’m arranging them again and again. “What’s in here, Robin? What’s in the chair?”. I’m kneeling with my hands against the wall. Moma is washing dishes now. “Oh no, Moma is going to get them, get rid of my friends. You’re naughty you’re naughty you’re naughty! Get rid of those guys!”

NAPPING

She has one minute to write today, so she has to write something. She ate lunch and meditated. Maybe she shouldn’t have done those things because I’m waking up from my nap now and that means the time she would have spent writing is quickly coming to and end, and she won’t see it again until tomorrow morning. I am fully awake and crying “I get out” with increasing intensity. I lunge forward against the stroller straps. 

She appears with a soft voice: “how was your nap? you didn’t sleep for very long today, huh? Alright sweetheart….”. Unclipping the grey plastic buckle, she lifts me out. My head wobbles from side to side on sleepy muscles as I push some fuzzy fine hair out of my face. In one quick motion she sits down and I lean back against her. I squeeze my eyes shut as she pushes her face against mine.

8. How did the culmination of images and text that came together in this show and talk inspire your work leading to new possibilities for future work?

Since completing this body of work Wild Stainless which merged both still lifes and landscapes, I’ve been making more landscapes in upstate New York. They explore visual, as well as residential, and commercial spaces. I’m also working on a new project which explores, through documentation, ways in which the Catskill Mountain region is revisiting agricultural lands through educational farming, permaculture, and new types of businesses that exist on old land. I’m always scheming up new book projects, and hope all of the ideas noted above will take form in a book of some kind in the not-to-distant future, starting with a book of images from Wild Stainless this fall.

NYPL exhibition page: https://www.nypl.org/events/exhibitions/winona-barton-ballentine-wild-stainless-photo-walls-picture-collection-exhibition

NYPL event page: https://www.nypl.org/events/programs/2016/04/09/wild-stainless-winona-barton-ballentine-justine-kurland-artist-dialogue

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