Some creative projects begin without a map. In this Three Stages post, artist B. Lynch traces the journey of her Reds and Greys multimedia art (now on view in New Gilded Age at the College of the Holy Cross), which has grown into a richly detailed, sci-fi influenced world.
Commencing a new project is a mysterious process for me. In 2012, I was bumbling in the studio seeking a toothy scheme to occupy me for an extended period. Dipping into old drawing notebooks I decided to make a three-dimensional version of a favorite motif – a horse/man. Not a centaur but a horse-headed magical figure. I decided on a 10 inch figurine made mostly of paper, wire and paint. He was braying loudly with scary teeth, dressed in splendid red and gold clothing with a swirling cape, holding a striped wand.
I didn’t know what I was doing but I reveled in making his costume details and conveying his implicit violence. In quick succession I made my Queen with her sword, and Hornman with his martial stance and crescent moon staff. The red figures all wore elaborate red and gold outfits and conveyed power. Still groping forward I wanted a foil to these dominating personages. My first Grey figure was abject, lying on the ground, his cook-pot hat flung off of his head, bloody guts spilling out, he was never going to be alright. This assessment of the average person’s power and agency frightened me. The humble Greys had a simple uniform: men had loose pants and a tinpot hat with a uni-sex long-waisted jacket; women wore the jacket over a full-length black skirt with a modified beret. Each carried an emblem of their work. Then Wolfman showed up, all teeth and tongue, a more dapper dresser, he wore a close-fitting vest and pointy shoes. His magical talisman is a book which he holds high as he proclaims his message.
Part-way through 2013, I got a lucky break. The Historic Northampton Museum and Education Center chose me to work with their collection. This was a turning point for the nascent project. I saw History revealed through material objects. The 18th century and the early 20th century objects presented a dichotomy as I viewed the goods of the rich and the ordinary. The furniture, personal items, and costumes of the 18th century were beautiful and elegant and what we are accustomed to seeing in a museum. In contrast, the shelves of humble tools, kitchen, trade and transportation implements made clear the lived experience of the majority. My Eureka moment was understanding that objects, in themselves, reveal inequality of wealth and demonstrate how psychologically these objects reinforce the rights of the powerful over the toilers. I used the collection to make miniature versions of 18th century elite goods: a lovely table, chair, and sideboard complete with willow ware platter. I made elbow length gloves and a portrait framed in “gold.” These objects were constrained again by my rules of making things with paper, wire, paint and some wood. These conditions give my figures and their objects a consistency and keep them from being too perfect. The Greys had a shovel, pail and rag for cleaning, bicycle, cane shopping cart, megaphone, cast-iron pot and bow-saw.
I realized I had the makings of a sci-fi fantasy universe. The two factions of the Red and the Grey explore how power, wealth and work function in society. Who has what, how that impacts democracy and what grave imbalances may do to de-stabilize society. I have set up a time-bending allegory – how can the 18th century Reds, with all their fantastic fashion sense, possibly be served and consort on various levels with the Greys, who seem to be from a future dystopian time? The Greys work a lot, their clothes are suggestive of uniform (is it prison? a refugee hand-out?), their technology is early 20th century. The Greys seem to have definite purpose in their actions, in contrast to the Reds with their infinite leisure.
What does it mean that the Reds don’t work with their hands? Do they have a passion to follow or is self flattery their go-to position? If their own needs are paramount can they empathize with others? Do the Greys become cogs, not humans?
Framingham State University’s Mazmanian gallery hosted my solo exhibit, Extravagantly Absurd, in late 2018. For this installation my Greys were literally in cages hung from the ceiling. I planned this effect before the locking up of children. To my horror, my prescient depiction seemed like a futuristic fiction story come to life.
My Way of the World solo installation in 2019 at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire filled all six galleries. My miniatures inhabited their camps and palaces. The Greys serve the Reds but via juxtaposition and my foray into video storytelling, we also see the discontent seething under the surface. I was given the opportunity to use their collection to create a reading room where visitors could consult books that provide source material for me, while bathing in red light, courtesy of theatrical gels.
Artists such as Hogarth and Watteau and writers like Voltaire and Goethe, Twain and Melville underpin my ideas; along with contemporary inspirations such as Matthew Barney, Yinka Shonibare, William Kentridge, and Jan Svankmajer. All of these artists ask what is a good life, or explore moral choices.
New Gilded Age at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester MA is theatrically conceived, using all the layers of my many depictions of characters to build a fictive world. The in-person visitor has several choices in how to navigate the space. My work is allegorical and overtly theatrical. By theatrical, I mean that audiences can see that there are inconsistencies with real-life, but the viewer grants inner permission to accept the reality as presented. All fantasies and sci-fi fiction rely on readers’ ability to let go and buy into the alternate reality. New Gilded Age is, in essence, a stage populated by my created characters and visitors to the gallery.
Vaneeta, one of my most referenced Reds, has her mirror in which she can gaze unceasingly at herself. A recent Grey character, Knitter, needed her basket of wool, a chair that was constructed of rude materials and a knitting project. Now I don’t know how to knit, but I needed to learn so I could knit her tiny project. It was a week of intensive struggle and if you asked me to knit today I would be flummoxed. But I loved making her knitting and miniature scissors that open and close. She sits behind Vaneeta as an attendant during the performer Saltimbanque’s puppet play. All of these characters frequent my videos and 2D representations.
At the far end of the gallery playing in a loop is my five part Red Baiters video series. My protagonists play their parts in this surreal world, where they might be two or three dimensional, depending on the scene. I compose soundscapes of collected sound and digital sound files to create a layered emotional punch for the videos. They are bereft of dialog, so the viewer must decide on the meaning.
To create the New Gilded Age installation I made a scale model for the team to hash out details. We had to stay flexible as the Covid-19 crisis upended schedules and plans. The gallery, led by Meredith Fluke, was determined to create a fully realized and textured virtual experience (which you can see in a time-lapse video). The college’s video expert shot interviews with Meredith and myself and created a video tour of the gallery, which I narrated. Additionally, I have found new ways of interacting with my audience: I made a video touring my studio and exploration of my Toy Theatre. I gave a webinar talk and have had two class visits by Zoom. The dedicated exhibition website features videos, still images of the show and an introduction to my characters.
For in-person visits (by appointment), the installation layers images, sound and meanings. The gallery has created a mock playbill for viewers and free buttons featuring the players. As the characters assume their personalities and roles, they take over the show. These players suggest alliances or hither-to-unsuspected narratives. The sci-fi nature of the project allows freedom to explore ideas. The viewers can find their heroes and villains and consider, perhaps, better solutions for the two factions. The Reds and Greys are featured on my website: www.blynchart.com.
New Gilded Age runs from October 13, 2020 until February 5, 2021.
Images: all images © B. Lynch.