GATHERING / MOMENTUM: recent work by Dana Hargrove

In addition to her independent practice, artist Dana Hargrove teaches painting and drawing courses at a small private Southern liberal arts college, whose mission is to educate students for global citizenship. Indeed, the artist herself can boast of familial ties to Zimbabwe and South Africa, roots in Scotland, and recent receipt of United States naturalization. As a contemporary transatlantique, Hargrove could be the “poster professor” of the present-day enthusiasm for globalization within higher education, a trend with nationwide, even international, currency.

Globalization seemingly offers many benefits—not the least of which is a concomitant increase in cross-cultural awareness and understanding. But the advantages of this jet-set trans-national lifestyle come at some cost, including (but not limited to) feelings of alienation from nature, of disconnection from kin, and of displacement from a particular geographic location. (The Pet Shop Boys turned this dilemma into an international dance-floor mantra in 1996: “I’m single / Bilingual / Single / Bilingual” the vocalist intones over the universal beats of electronic house music.) Hargrove’s recent work springs from—and addresses—these unseen forces in contemporary society.

The artist has chosen the cairn as the organizing principle of her latest endeavors in the studio. Though the English term, meaning an intentional pile of stones that serves as a topographic or mnemonic marker, derives from Scottish Gaelic, the phenomenon itself appears worldwide, from mountaintops to riverbanks to wastelands. These accumulations may be loosely or highly organized (think: Jenga in the landscape, constructed out of rocks) but all arise (literally) from a local community’s needs and a local community’s efforts. These piles are not static: they accrete through time. Though frequently ancient in origin, they readily accept contributions from modern passersby. Fashioned from various and multiple indigenous lithic components, these mounds might be regarded as stand-ins for the complex groups that built them.

Hargrove capitalizes on this metaphor, envisioning her own hand-fashioned objects as multi-faceted entities or family units. As a visual investigation, ASPECT FORMING began when Hargrove took photographs of abandoned industrial buildings in both Dundee and Dallas, isolated the structures by cutting them out from their surroundings, and then reassembled them in unwieldy stacks. Vestiges of this process may be observed in the series called Production of Belonging. The term “gathering” of this essay’s title might here be understood as an activity (a verb) as much as a group of people (a noun). As the artist’s thinking evolved, the overarching project became a sustained meditation on three themes: location, accumulation, and collectivity.

Nature offers several correspondences to Hargrove’s multi-color stacks. The animal kingdom includes sponges (Porifera) and corals (Anthozoa), creatures composed of single organisms organized in colonies and found in Florida where the artist resides much of the year. In terms of individual beings, that handsome and familiar cephalopod, the chambered nautilus (Nautilus pompilius), secretes its own domicile, one nacre compartment at a time, in an ever-enlarging Fibonacci sequence-based spiral. The underwater caddis fly larva produces silk and “decorates” the exterior of its protective tube with indigenous detritus (during the past few years the French artist Hubert Duprat has even “harnessed” the acquisitive disposition of these insects to produce unusual jewelry items, a kind of horizontal cairn in precious miniature).

From an anthropological perspective, Hargrove’s new images fall within a range of human endeavors as well. It is difficult to look at the artist’s boxy pylons and not to think of the adobe conurbations created by the Pueblo peoples of present-day Arizona and New Mexico, edifices that seem to emerge from the desert soil of their own accord. The works that comprise ASPECT FORMING share analogous structures with the polychromed totem poles of the Pacific Northwest Amerindians—but the artist has downplayed any overlapping influence or meaning here. Perhaps a more relevant model might be the midden, a mound (usually of waste by-products) evidencing human habitation. Coincidentally enough, Rollins College, the institution that employs Hargrove, has long owned a well-known midden—Shell Island—in the Wekiva River, not far from the university’s main campus.

In the sphere of the fine arts, that classic (and classicizing) twentieth-century pillar of rough-hewn oak, Endless Column by Constantin Brancusi, bears a hereditary resemblance, especially to Hargrove’s series Right to Roam. So, too, with their plainly geometric profiles and clearly delineated colors, do Anne Truitt’s early stacked hybrid painting-sculptures, such as Catawba, 1962 (Museum of Modern Art) or Summer Sentinel, 1963–1972 (Milwaukee Art Museum). And what about Andy Warhol’s own response to three-dimensional minimalism and capitalist excess, Brillo Boxes, 1964 (Philadelphia Museum of Art)?

The dynamics that all of these phenomena exhibit—accumulation (from the Latin cumulare, “to heap up,” most appropriate for cairns)—implies frameworks of both position (the place where the heaping happens) and interval (the heaping up occurs during a chronological span). Hargrove makes an overt nod to these forces in Hearth to Summit, a series of seven panels wherein a mass of jewel-tone slabs and wedges proliferates during the course of an imaginary day (Yves Tanguy’s last major canvas, Multiplication of the Arcs, 1954 (Museum of Modern Art) seems relevant here). All of these repetitions of compositional elements imply a visual movement that belies the stillness of their final presence.

This idea of visual movement is important because it produces, through recurrence, a kind of impetus that sweeps us viewers along in its intensity (hence, “momentum”). These images pull us, as embodied beings, along in much the same way that a percussive beat guides the listener through a piece of music. Taken together, Hargrove’s cairns, through cumulative effect, generate a force, whether as solo constructions, like Cairn, or as the gallery installation taken in toto.

The combinative character of these mysterious outcroppings—hovering between painting and sculpture, motionlessness and action, fullness and futility—point to another paradox. In his short story “Jonas ou l’artiste au travail,” Albert Camus recounts the meteoric rise and fall of an avant-garde painter. After enjoying hard-won success and then retreating from its manifold distractions, Jonas creates his final image: a blank surface with a smudge at the bottom that is difficult to make out. Does it read “independence” or “interdependence”—? In ASPECT FORMING Hargrove gives us room to decide Camus’s dilemma for ourselves.
—Jonathan Frederick Walz, Ph.D.