Since 2003 I’ve inserted myself into the works and lives of Victorian women scientists and naturalists including Mary Ward, Mary Treat, Martha Maxwell, and Ellen Henrietta Richards. Treating my studio like a laboratory, I literally restage much of the research these women undertook. This accumulative process tends to turn the studio into an embodiment of each historical project I take on, and in turn transform. Transformation is one of the underlying connections across the projects—even before I began working this way, my work had involved liminal states, things in the act of becoming, defamiliarizing and non-linear narratives, close observation and the questioning of categories. This investigative activity and my archival research and writing inform a practice that involves painting, drawing, installation and sculpture. The practices of these women and mine involve careful testing sustained empirical inquiry, structured interaction with daily life, and ultimately world building. As an artist I am dedicated to a hands-on empirical approach, where one attempts to achieve one’s goals and gain knowledge through one’s own daily life, and where one attempts to understand and embrace the interconnectivity of all things.
Sweet Corruptions departs from the work of Ellen H. Richards—a sanitary chemist who studied air, water, and food. Richards was the first female student and then professor at MIT, and brought the word ecology into the English language. Richardsʼ research—like that of the other scientists I’ve studied—points to transformations of organic material that suggest both fluid categories and vast networks of interconnectivity. Following Richardsʼ air, water and food taxonomy, I interweave them through the provocation offered by Walt Whitman in his poem “This Compost”: “Such sweet things are made of such corruptions.” Elaborating on Richards, I see compost not just as a mundane mode of regeneration, but also as an engine of cosmology. Richards’ radical understanding of the interrelationships of air, water, food and human health, and the impact of industrialization on all of these, anticipated the eventual need for an environmental movement and regulatory structures, but also the current disconnect between the state of the environment and the physical and mental state of the individual.
Sweet Corruptions transforms Richards’ early thinking about ecology into paintings, watercolors, texts, and installations in which the detritus of everyday life becomes a complex cosmology. The watercolors are based, in part, on my process, over the course of three years, of preserving my families’ food waste a month for each season. But rather than simple representations of composting, they are attempts to find a graphic means to embody the life world of de- and recomposing objects—that enact this process at different scales with pigment. Now in my third and final year of collecting, I will have a total of 12 months of food waste at the end of 2014. The food waste has been presented as installation in several different forms, including in the historic dining room at the Lynden Sculpture Garden, as well as at the Nevada Museum of Art and the San Jose Museum of Art. As installation, the food becomes itself, a drawing. The drawings (both 2-D and sculptural) emerge not as fanciful still lives of garbage heap composting, but rather as intricate compositions that blend full abstraction with carefully rendered studies of the fauna and flora in my daily detritus.