Babs Reingold/Artist Interview
Babs Reingold’s The Last Tree exhibit
A conversation with
& “The Last Tree”
With Dr. Midori Yoshimoto, Ph.D.
Artist Babs Reingold is about to complete her most ambitious project to date, which will be unveiled for a solo exhibition at the ISE Cultural Foundation Gallery in New York City this summer (May 4– June 28, 2013; reception May 10, artist talk May 22). The Last Tree will be a monumental installation of 193 tree stump sculptures encased in metal pails, placed in a grid formation to fill the gallery space. The number of stumps corresponds to that of the countries in the world, namely, those members of the United Nations. One large tree rises from the grid, as a symbol of the “last tree” which is in danger of its extinction from the earth. Accompanying video projections and sounds will caution the seriousness of environmental destruction by humanity.
Last January, the author (the curator of the exhibition) had an opportunity to visit Reingold’s studio in St. Petersburg, Florida, and was informed of the conceptual plan of The Last Tree. Several months later, the author also visited Reingolds’ studio in Bayonne, New Jersey, and saw the work in progress – “The Last Tree” and several prototypes of small stumps. Over the course of a year, the artist produced numerous stumps at a steady pace in preparation for the exhibition. During my most recent visit, I asked her about the project in detail, its background, inspirations, and her future aspirations. (For the artist’s brief biography, please see the bottom of this article.)
Midori Yoshimoto (Y hereafter): This is one of your most ambitious projects to date, isn’t it? How long has it taken you to materialize this into a tangible project?
Reingold (R hereafter): First off, I consider “The Last Tree” on par with an earlier installation called “Hung Out in the Projects.” That project had all the elements of “The Last Tree” plus a major scaffold for viewing. It was a bear to complete, much like The Last Tree. To the question of ‘how long’ on this installation, I heard Jared Diamond speak at USF Tampa in 2006 on the collapse of societies. It started me thinking about some kind of environmental installation, but tucked away as I worked on other projects. Poverty was the forefront of my work in that period and “The Last Tree” did not blossom as an idea until 2008. I did a small drawing of an installation idea in my sketchbook in October of that year. I must confess I had not read his book at that time, but I did later.
Y: You’re talking about anthropologist Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005). In your installation statement, you cite his words “What do you imagine the Easter Islander was thinking when he chopped down the last tree?” as the direct inspiration for this project. Have you been interested in environmental issues for long?
R: During Mr Diamond’s lecture; that statement about the ‘last tree’ obviously resonated in me. Before that lecture, I was always interested in the environment in practical ways: recycling, organic foods, sensitivity to the use of natural resources, conserving of nature in national parks, these types of interests. Katrina in 2005 really affected me and pushed the environment in the foreground of my thinking — its effect upon the poorer population of New Orleans, our government’s poor response. That disaster crystallized into my sphere of interest, which has always been how human beings interact within a context, within a framework of time… and circumstances. Aging, for example, and how it affects a woman’s identity and her sense of self. Poverty and its hold on an entire population in the richest country in the world. The environment became another concern as Katrina and then Jared Diamond’s lectures on the Collapse of Societies — his illumination of climate change and our failure to adapt to environmental issues as two of the primary concerns — they got the juices flowing. “The Last Tree” installation, although directly related to our pressing environmental concerns, really harks back to my search of how mortals, me, you, interact within a given environment over time. Because, what is the environment? It’s nature and it’s humans and their interaction over time. “The Last Tree” is really a vision of a holocaust of sorts, humans destroying a vital part of themselves. When you think about it, the files of the stumps in the 193 pails, row upon row, resemble a historical battlefield where all that is visible are the rows of crosses silent over the graves.
Babs Reingold / The Last Tree
Y: Your analogy of “The Last Tree” to the holocaust and battlefield is striking. Now that you mentioned it, the installation does seem to resemble a graveyard as well. Is this work, then, intended as a cautionary requiem for the humanity, which has committed self-destructive acts in the past and will continue in the future?
R: Excellent insight. And to answer your question, in a word, yes.
Y: Although it’s not directly related to Diamond’s book, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico occurred after the publication of the book. How do you see a connection between the historical incident in the 19th century and the recent manmade disaster?
R: The connection between the two disasters, man and by man, I mean all of us, man is destroying himself, whether it’s scalping an island or fouling a Gulf. I had started the large drawing before the spill – toward the end of 2009, and finished early in 2010. Ironically enough, in April of that year, I had a meeting with the director of the Tampa museum about “The Last Tree” project. It was a day or two after the oil spill and that topic, heavy on our minds, was a major player in our discussion. The oil spill confirmed my project and spurred me along.
Y: Previously, you’ve addressed the issue of poverty through your works, such as, “Hung Out in the Projects” (2010), shown at the Morean Arts Center in St. Petersburg, Florida. Do they relate to your current interest in environmental issues?
R: All environmental issues relate to one another; they cannot be isolated. The Gulf spill is an example of another Jared Diamond statement: “By now the meaning of Easter Island … should be chillingly obvious. Easter Island is Earth writ small.” Let me enlarge upon what I said earlier: The environment is what we exist in… and how we exist in it. How different is environmental destruction to the wreckage of humans trapped in a poverty situation? I have no trouble connecting the two. Both are enormous challenges that we — you, me, artists, writers, our schools, our religions, our legislators, our president, our Supreme Court, you name it — we have to face these challenges. We are the richest nation in the world and our greed, our self-interest prevent obvious obstacles from being overcome. My installations address these obstacles, and hopefully, in some small way, move people to a deeper understanding and action.
Y: I’ve witnessed some parts of your labor-intensive process of making each tree stump. You first stain silk organza with rust and teas, dry it, and, cut it into shapes, and sew those parts with strings and threads. Then, you stiffen the fabric and stuff them with human hair. When they are shaped like stumps, you embellish some patterns and details on them. As the result, they look like small creatures with lives of their own. How did you come up with an idea of making a tree stump out of hair and fabric?
R: Good, I get to talk about being an artist. Although we discuss issues vital to society, to me as an artist they are not intellectual, academic. They are visceral. They play around in my, what the psychologists call the unconscious mind. I do not want to invoke prehistoric Surrealist tenets here or poke into post-this-or-that theory, better to say, intuitive or instinctive reasoning or processes occur within me and are really not available to self-analysis. While objects evolve from these instinctive roots, the history of art comes into play… the sensibilities of artists, again over time, that all-important mark in our lives and past lives. Materials, patterns, colors come into being, formed from years of museum and gallery visits, of talking with other artists and looking at a lot of work. I think back to when President Obama said: “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.” The remark was taken out of context, of course, and became controversial. He prefaced that remark by saying that somebody helped you along the way, the American system helped you and allowed you to prosper – and so on. I feel the same way about my art career. I’ve worked very hard as an artist, but I know that all the artists around me, all the art before, has informed me, again, not in an academic or intellectual way, but underneath, sneaky almost.
From this vantage point, objects are formed, and yes, the process is real, whether a brush mark, a video image, a stitch on a fabric. Yet, before the real, the idea of marking a tree stump out of hair and fabric is an unfolding of my years of being an artist, of using stains on fabric to symbolize the scars on our skins, to using stuffed and stained fabric objects to hang from clotheslines to symbolize the wreckage of a human condition. For example, hair carries our DNA, which exists long after our death. The use of hair in The Last Tree installation exemplifies a human condition that exists even when an environment is destroyed.
Y: Hair creeps out many people. Do you intentionally want to repulse the audience?
R: Yes, I want to both repulse and attract. It’s the push and pull of hair that entices me, the ying-yang. Throughout history, hair has served as a mark of beauty, primarily with women, but also with men. It is a keepsake secreted into a locket or jewelry or pressed into a Bible or diary. Conversely, hair is repulsive. Consider the tendril on a dinner plate. What better than hair to represent a range of human conditions?
Detail from Question Of Beauty
Y: I heard that hair used to be considered precious before the modern age. Victorian women would save their own hair to make wigs, even jewelry, and mourning wreaths. Hair served as a tangible remembrance of someone. Somewhere along the modernization, we’ve lost the sense of considering hair precious, haven’t we? Is treating hair as one’s memento crucial to your work?
R: I am drawn to its polar opposition – the gorgeous head of hair equated to the wad plugging the drain. It’s a way of exploring the attraction-repulsion dynamic in many ways, one of which is of the unsullied beauty and innocence of youth, and what enduring implies in this context. I’ve kept my own bounty of hair, collecting it on a daily basis since 1998. I began forming it into doodles each day beginning in 2005. It became a diary, calligraphy of hair loss and subsequently, a loss of beauty, and then with the forming of the doodles, an aesthetic transformation, a new kind of beauty. This use of hair – as beauty lost and found – has been a major thesis in my work over the past ten years or so. In one exhibit at the Jersey City Museum, I displayed a large triptych where a year’s worth of hair doodles – 365 of them — were hand stitched over the same three blown-up photographs of me as an young child fading over time (see fig: Reingold_QuesOfBeauty). Women who had lost their hair through cancer treatments were deeply affected by the work, its capacity to transform hair loss into an aesthetic statement. I hope the use of hair as a symbol of humanity in the Last Tree installation has the same reaction with viewers.
Hair remains for me a most powerful medium, both metaphorically and literally. It contains our complete DNA and lives beyond our death. Adrian Piper in her piece “What will become of me,” has willed her hair (collected since 1985) to MOMA for this purpose.
Y: I was surprised to learn that you were primarily a painter until about 1995 when you encountered Eva Hesse’s work. Her wax-covered fabric hanging pieces are comparable to your “Hung Out to Dry” series, but yours have clearer social content, referencing to clotheslines ubiquitously found in the projects. Over the last eighteen years, how do you see your sculptural works developed, differently from Hesse’s, Louis Bourgeois, or even Mona Hatoum, all of whom you acknowledge as inspirations?
R: I should mention that it was not only Eva Hesse, but several other significant artists such as Ana Mendieta — she used many different mediums to focus on a variety of themes, feminism, life, death, and place. Petah Coyne is another. She was doing sculptural works with mud, sticks and wax. The mud and sticks pieces, her first big show in 1987 at the Sculpture Center, set her career in motion. I did not visit that show but saw her second show of wax chandeliers at Jack Shainman’s. It blew me away and I continue to follow her work. There are others – Tunga, an artist from Brazil. He experiments a lot with different mediums. Still another is Leonardo Drew, a sculptor who uses a 3-D grid projected from the wall in amazing ways. I realized all the work I was drawn to is sculptural or sculpture-like. These artists led me to rethink my direction and to experiment with a variety of materials. Eva Hesse was just the beginning. I believe I discovered her earlier than 1995, now that I think about it, coming upon her Fiberglas™ work just out of grad school. The others you name, Mona Hatoum and Louis Bourgeois, continue to impact me. Earlier in grad school, Elizabeth Murray inspired me to think of objects jutting from the canvas. I started to experiment in 1989 with fiberglass and projecting objects from the canvas and objects on the floor. I believe all these influences, too numerous to mention, are simply that, influences. I don’t think my work looks like any of their work. After years of being immersed in the art world milieu, I believe all artists strive for a singular voice. Whether they succeed or not is up to history to judge.
Y: Critics might see the elements of Surrealism in your work, in a sense that inanimate objects take on animate quality. Do you place your work in the legacy of Surrealism?
R: As I previously indicated, I think an artist is in debt to former art movements. I don’t put my work into the legacy of Surrealism. Though there are elements of my work that may have the feeling of a surrealist influence – the biomorphic shapes, inanimate objects taking on animate qualities – the connection ends there. I don’t consider myself a Surrealist.
Y: You’ve mentioned the importance of balancing the poetic and theoretical in your work. In case of The Last Tree, if the theoretical comes from the underlying concept of the environmental destruction, does the poetic come from the visceral use of organic materials?
R: That question kind of throws me. I listen to other artists come forth with these lovely articulate statements and I say, ‘Boy, I wish I said that.’ What I see is a balance between the socio-political and formal or aesthetic makeup of the work. The environment places the issue in my sight, then that instinctive jumble within me starts working on it. I like your use of poetic for what I consider the latter musing — the instinctive workings. Perhaps a visceral gut reaction comes forth as a poetic quality. I hope in the end result that my work elicits passionate reactions and not just theoretical contemplation.
Y: What are you thinking of creating next?
R: Two projects are in the works. One is “Hair Nests,” a continuation of the series on beauty and aging. It consists of twelve large drawings of trees each with a lone tree branch protruding from the drawing with one nest configured from a month of my hair loss. The nests will be larger than I originally anticipated for I’ve noticed more hair loss during a period in 2012 when I was ill. The second is “Luna Window,” which is part of my series on poverty. These are fabric ladder pieces set into crumbling windows, broadly stated, an attempt at escape from poverty. It is scheduled to open in September 2013 at AC Institute in Chelsea, NY.
Venezuela-born American Artist Babs Reingold creates alternate ambiguities with her wall art and installations. Current focuses are beauty, poverty and the environment.
Works from the “Beauty Series” are the more recent showings, including “I Have A Secret Wish,” University of Alabama’s Visual Arts Gallery and in 2011, the “Pulp” exhibit at Beta Pictoris Maus Contemporary Art, Birmingham AL. In Fall 2011, she created a special work for Miyako Yoshinaga Art Prospects in Chelsea for the “Till All is Green” Exhibition Benefit for Children Affected by the earthquake in Japan. Two works are in permanent museum collections, the Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg, Florida, and Newark Art Museum. The latter was chosen after she exhibited in the New Jersey Arts Annual.
Her wall art and a major installation, “Hung Out In The Projects,” earned a 2010 State of Florida Individual Artist Fellowship. Poverty is personal and long-lived. Ms Reingold spent two-and-a-half years in a public housing project as a teenager. Her recent exhibits on this theme include the “Hung Out…” installation at the Morean Art Center, St. Petersburg; “Flesh Art,” Jersey City University, New Jersey; “Robes,” College of St Elizabeth, New Jersey, and “Media Mix: 4x” at Art Lot, Brooklyn, New York.
She has also exhibited during the past several years at the Art Center of Sarasota and Greene Gallery. Sarasota, Florida; Paul Robeson Galleries, Rutgers, New Jersey; Middlesex College, Edison, New Jersey, The Studio at 620, St Petersburg. Solo shows include galleries in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Savannah, Buffalo, and St. Petersburg; museum shows in Jersey City, Buffalo, Tampa, and Newark. She has works in countless private collections, including Savannah College of Art and Design.
Among other awards are three from Whitney curator Barbara Haskell, a residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, and patron awards from Michael Auping and Doug Schultz while they were respectively Curator and Director of the Albright-Knox Art Museum. Among her curatorial activities, Ms Reingold co-curated with Grace Roselli, a show at Franklin Furnace in Manhattan, titled “Voyeur’s Delight,” which motivated religious picketing at the White House.
Ms Reingold received a MFA from SUNY-Buffalo and BFA degree from the Cleveland Institute of Art. She has studios in the greater New York area and St. Petersburg.
About the Author:
Midori Yoshimoto is associate professor of art history and gallery director at New Jersey City University, who specializes in post-1945 Japanese art and its global intersections. Her publications include: Into Performance: Japanese Women Artists in New York (Rutgers Univ. Press, 2005); entries in Yes Yoko Ono (Japan Society, 2000); an essay in Yayoi Kusama (Centre Pompidou, 2011); “From Space to Environment: The Origins of Kankyō and the Emergence of Intermedia Art in Japan” in College Art Association’s Art Journal (2008); and an essay in Gutai: “Splendid Playground” (Guggenheim, 2013). She guest-edited an issue on “Women and Fluxus” for the Women and Performance journal (Rutledge, 2009) and another special issue on “Expo ’70 and Japanese Art” for the Review of Japanese Culture and Society (Josai University, 2012). Yoshimoto has also served as a lecturer at the Museum of Modern Art, New York since 2004.
You may view more images of “The Last Tree” by Babs Reingold on her website: www.babsreingold.com
ISE Foundation: www.isefoundation.org