The Work: Siphonophorae, Processes, and Inspirations

This is an excerpt from the third section of my written thesis document,

"Synesthesia & Siphonophorae: a reflection on the liminal between abstraction and translation"

Henry Siphonophorae, 2021 Beeler Gallery Installation


Siphonophorae. The title of the work comes from a class of deep-sea colony organisms that appears to be one creature but is actually made up of hundreds of individual lifeforms that continually bud and expand.


I had never heard of such creatures until I stumbled across a chapter about them in a children’s book at my day job as a public library assistant. When I read the page on siphonophores in a random Discovery Kids animal encyclopedia it sent me into a miniature existential crisis. The thought of such an alien thing existing on earth at this very moment both repulsed and fascinated me.


A colony organism is a horrifying thought, but also an intriguing one, especially in a time of such unprecedented isolation. When the time came for me to choose a name for my thesis, I remembered the siphonophore, in the cold depths of the ocean, thousands of leagues from the sun.


Alone, but not. Alive, but not.


In a constant state of becoming. To be individual but still the need to be a part of a whole: the paradox of human life. On the micro-scale, the push/pull individual or collective is a constant balancing act for an artist.


In the Studio Seminar, we read an essay by Howard Singerman in which he investigated the communal spaces of MFA programs. In “A Possible Contradiction”[i], Singerman questions the implications of shared studio spaces being a requirement for artists and an obligation for the institutions they are learning in. As someone in an MFA program with an ascribed space for inspiration to strike, Singerman’s points were particularly apt. The titular contradiction is the inherent dissonance that occurs between the Artist Alone (“I know what I am doing/at the end of the day I am the one making my work” -a mantra I recited numerous times during my MFA studies) and the Artist-Who-Cannot-Possibly-be-Alone-with-Their-Own-Thoughts-Lest-They-Court-Madness.


I cannot say my studio practice at CCAD has not been marked by such contradictions. It seems even as an institution that actively seeks to dissolve binaries, art school as a whole can still fall prey to this or that mentality. I watched my cohort, my friends, my colleagues, get ripped to shreds in critiques in our first semester. I heard the reductive, contradictive analyses they received, the disrespect they endured. I received my own. Intentions may have been for the best, but the confusion and paralysis such moments caused did nothing to inspire my practice.


Singerman goes for the jugular by naming the shared artist MFA space as a perfect breeding ground for avarice. After all, one is encouraged to peek over the white walls to see what their neighbors are doing… often only to be wrenched with shame, envy, and imposter syndrome, thus keeping themselves in check. Or worse, Singerman stresses, an MFA program may actively court these unpleasant feelings as a pedagogical construct, distilled and made manifest through 40 minutes of demeaning critique. Binaural thinking ruins potential and leaves no room for the threshold. In this case, one either is the Artist Alone (free, but lonely and psychically tortured in a seductively Byronic way) or the Artist Accompanied (not alone, in a community, or surrounded by like-minded individuals but risking their individuality as sweet Oppen feared, psychically tortured by jealously and wounded pride). That liminality is the key, the nexus of given individuality and chosen community.


Kandinsky’s quest for balance, it seems, turns out to be absolutely necessary for practice, if not composition.

The biomorphic shapes of Siphonophorae bend and twist around one another, teeming with life both separate and as one with the singularity. They spill from their confined spaces into other sections of the piece, perpetually refusing compartmentalization. The grid layout invites the viewer to resolve the image by using the gutter of the wall space along with their own imagination, as one would when reading a comic page.


Some notes on the process: this work was inspired by my desire to reconnect to my illustrative origins and transfer some of the experimental styles of my scrapped comic panels into a single cohesive piece that did not need speech bubbles in order to communicate with the viewer. A cohesive composition with an emphasis on tonal shifts, color, aesthetic pleasure. Control/Escape/Beauty.


I made thumbnails of the original 12 interior panels, scrapped them, tried my hand at some anachronistic canvas panels, crashed and burned, scrapped those, and went back to my twelve original thumbnails. I have always been more comfortable in my ability to work on paper. I acquired some heavy watercolor blocs, blew up my thumbnails into the 12”x 16” size of the paper, sketched out vague outlines in colored pencil, and then went in with gouache, watercolor, and acrylic. I kept the initial sketches loose and gestural, trying to be as meditative as possible while balancing my intuition with technique. A personal automatism in the tradition of af Klint. I expanded the piece into 30 total sheets, planning out the overall finished composition digitally in Procreate before working on the paper. I pressed the finished panels at 300 degrees for 20 seconds until they lay mostly flat with hints of character.


Some notes on inspirations: I dove into the work of contemporary abstract artists like Carrie Moyer, Louise Zhang, Noelle K. Miller, Jackie Tileston, and Xochi Solis.


After studying adaptation in the Dean of Graduate Studies Dr. Jennifer Schuleter’s ADAPT Seminar this semester, I fixated on variation and remixing the concepts and outlooks of these painters.


Zhang’s description of her beautiful paintings as viscera was fascinating[i].


Zhang …it came from Goo Lagoon, 2015 Solis’ process of meditation and layering was validating.[ii]



Solis Wanted Relics, 2019 Tileston’s struggle to translate an internal heterotopic space into a visual dialogue with the viewer was inspiring.[iii]



TilestonSustained Delirium, 2019 Miller’s compositions are illustrative and enchanting, with a delicious frisson of revulsion.[iv]




Miller muscle distend, 2016

Carrie Moyer’s work was a key inspiration. Her paintings are colorful, vibrant, and pulsate with a gentle sensuousness. An interest in her paintings was ultimately the gateway into investigating biomorphic art and the foundations of abstraction, as I will investigate in my next section.



Moyer Afterparty at the Rhizosphere, 2017


I found priceless gems in each of these artists' unique practices and sought to incorporate our collective work into a contemporary abstract colony organism.


References & Featured Artist Websites

 

[i] Louise Zhang, www.louisezhang.com/. [ii] XOCHI SOLIS, www.xochisolis.com/. [iii] Jackie Tileston, jackietileston.com/ [iv] Noelle K. Miller, www.noellemillerart.com/.

[i] Singerman, Howard. “A Possible Contradiction”. The Studio Reader: On the Space of Artists. Mary Jane Jacob and Michelle Grabner, eds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.