Space Explorations

Written By Brett Levine // Photography by Beau Gustafson

The capacity to create is one of the most salient and resilient characteristics humans have, and never was it more on display than at the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts (AEIVA) at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Perhaps little known to many Birminghamians, the project currently being undertaken by Colombian born, New York-based artist Jessica Angel was the last one to be begun by the Institute’s founding director, Lisa Tamiris-Becker.

Tamiris-Becker, who had worked with Angel while the director of the University of New Mexico Art Museum, had previously invited Angel to come and speak at AEIVA and only recently finalized a project proposal Angel had submitted in consultation with AEIVA Curator John Fields when she passed away suddenly and unexpectedly.

In a closely knit arts community that has been rocked by the loss of three significant women in less than a year—Tamiris-Becker, Dr. Jeannine O’Grody, and Anne Arrasmith—the impact was profound, particularly given the fact that Tamiris-Becker had been on the ground when the AEIVA had opened its doors in early 2014. As Fields put it, “the suddenness of her death and the significance of her loss literally took everyone by surprise.”

There was also the uncertainty of what would happen next, and figuring that out fell to Fields, who was left with the question of what to do with Tamiris-Becker’s program, particularly the large-scale, complex, site-specific installation that Jessica Angel had proposed. “This is,” Fields says, “quite literally the largest installation that has ever taken place at AIEVA.”

Partnering with the Department of Art and Art History, Angel is both working collaboratively with student volunteers to realize a conceptually complex and intricate work, and sharing her professional expertise by facilitating student learning through workshops and lectures in the departments that share some of her key ideas. The level and depth of her thinking, as well as her enthusiasm, simply must be experienced to be believed.

“I’m in week five of a twelve-week project,” Angel begins, standing in AEIVA foyer. The floor is covered in removable vinyl—as are many of the walls, and much of the ceiling. This is all part of an incredible anamorphic artwork that Angel is creating. What that means is that the work changes as visitors change their perspectives. To make this happen, she literally draws the shapes she wants—from a distance—guiding her assistants with a laser pointer. Colored vinyl is then mapped, cut, and placed to her specifications.

She began with architectural drawings that had been provided by the offices of the building’s architect, the late Randall Stout, from which she built a model. “In the model I had certain plans, but I had to change them,” she says. “When I got into the space I shifted the perspective from my initial design. I did it unconsciously, just by realizing what the natural pathways and patterns are that visitors and students follow as they use the building.” This ability to understand how people move through space is just a part of the fascination Angel has with these questions. Much of her art revolves around these very ideas, whether it is in the minute details of how neurons in the brain function, or instead in the observations of the patterns mapped by the light emitted by distant galaxies.

“I think of the work I do as considering two ideas,” she explains. “Basically, what I am trying to do is explore hard-edged space, which is the architectural space we inhabit, as well as dynamic space, which is more like the conceptual or interpersonal spaces that we create. I often ask my students, ‘What creates space’ or ‘What is mental space?’ These are the reasons that I am often trying to create visual or physical flows—I want to imply the idea of a dynamic in my work.”

In fact, Angel does much more than just imply dynamics. Fascinated as she is with the intersections of art and science, she has researched a range of topics that are reflected in her work, from architecture to optics to cosmology. Of interest now is the Red Shift, the observation of light that occurs outside the sphere of the visible spectrum. Excitingly, Angel has even found a way to share this with visitors to the gallery—although to reveal precisely how this is achieved would be to say more than one should. Suffice it to say that visitors will be immersed in the intersections of the visual and the experiential.

Angel also interrogates our understandings of structure and space. “I’m intrigued by how we understand structure. It exists on so many levels and layers, whether physical or not. Ideas can be structures, or even air can be a structure. So, I’m fascinated by the idea of the hyperstructure, a structure that encompasses these as well as many other ideas.”

In a sense, this is what Facing the Hyperstructure is: in her words, it is a large-scale installation, an education project, and public programming around the ideas of space and architecture. But, more importantly, it is also a study in process because it reflects notions of the passage of time, of vision, of struggle, of setbacks, and of commitment. Facing the Hyperstructure truly began when Lisa Tamiris-Becker and Jessica Angel first connected in New Mexico. It was fostered through their ongoing relationship, then made manifest through a project proposal for AEIVA. It was destabilized with Tamiris-Becker’s tragic and unexpected passing, then salvaged through the vision and commitment of John Fields, the Department of Art and Art History, and Angel herself. It came into being both despite and because of each of these variables—something that many of the readings Angel shares with her students each week would likely reveal.

Now, over the course of several weeks, Angel, her team of volunteers, and a group of dedicated students will engage in a process of spatial transformation, creating an experience that is both beautiful and contemplative. Because it’s a site-specific installation, she began the project knowing it would be on display for a limited time. Standing in the foyer, Fields makes an interesting observation: “Students are shocked when they learn that at the end of this all the vinyl just gets peeled off and thrown away.” But how could transformation be resolved any other way? Perhaps it can be summed up by a simple statement Angel makes while standing in her studio: “I tell my students to think of analogies as ways of creating structures and making connections.” A few minutes later she pauses and says, “Art is a way to learn other things.”

Facing the Hyperstructure is on view March 31 through July 28, 2017. Jessica Angel’s studio at the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts is open to the public during normal operating hours.

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