The Pasadena Museum of California Art is always bringing exciting art realness to Pasadena, the museum often being overlooked as cutting-edge and interesting because it’s somewhat removed from the heart of the city. They’ve had crazy amazing shows from a show on the Clayton Brothers to last year’s remarkable Roland Reiss show to their NASA installation to a Megan Geckler installation. For the love of all things arty in LA, they’ve had their garage painted by Kenny Scharf since 2004, which is more than most other art spots in the city can say. In addition to their fantastic L.A. Raw show, they now have up a very abstract, heady installation in their Project Room: Nancy Baker Cahill’s Fascinomas.
The show speaks to many themes and relates to everything from the human body to space, which Cahill expresses through video and large panel paintings. We spoke with the interdisciplinary artist on her very cool and slightly ominous show on her inspirations for creating the abstract piece to how it relates to Los Angeles. She has some very, very neat things to say about it all, from her process working with scientists and microscopes to how she wanted to almost add an olfactory element to the show to what “invaders” she sees in Los Angeles.
Fascinomas explores everything from the human body to macro and microbiology. Creating the piece, what were your inspirations? Were there any inspirations outside of the aforementioned reference points? Are there any specific times and/or places that may be reference points some may miss?
There were so many sources of inspiration, but the bedrock of inspiration was the theme that interests me always, which is the body and how it is affected by violence. I had been obsessed with parasitology–invasive species of worms–which led me to the Natural History Museum. A very generous scientist there showed me the electron microscope they use and how it works, which is something akin to magic. I’d come to the museum to see worms and left captivated by a dazzlingly powerful microscope with no source of light (images are generated when the electrons, versus light, bombard the specimen). In the meantime I was reading a number of books, among them, The Body in Pain by Elaine Scarry, Aftermath: Violence and the Re-Making of A Self by Susan J. Brison, and The Thinking Hand by Juhani Pallasmaa. All of the books I read deal with the body in some important way. The subjective condition of pain interests me as it relates to our connectedness to our own bodies and in our ability to empathize with others’ pain. Even the attempt to represent or allude to pain is itself a tricky endeavor.
The installation explores the quiet and implied violence of things that are in the body, but not necessarily of the body. The imagined invaders and growths resist specific categorization, and underscore the limitations of language and science to describe phenomena such as pain, emotion, and memory–which cannot be physically observed, but are nonetheless felt. The best I can hope for is that the viewer leaves Fascinomas slightly unnerved, imagining the phenomena in her own body.
The show features work of yours that spans from painting to video and is quite an immersive experience at PMCA. How does the interdisciplinary nature of the show relate to the content and subject matter? How would the show be different if it were all video or all paintings?
The process of making the paintings by bombarding “specimens” with particulate, sprayed paint refers directly to the process of electron microscopy bombarding objects with electrons. At the same time it evokes the oldest form of mark making known to man, cave-painting, which is another attempt to investigate the unknown. It was important to me that the paintings be animated—using the available technology to make them that much more “real.” I was lucky to receive an ARC grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation which allowed me to work with an expert in After Effects, a wonderful program which can among other things, animate still images. Also, when creating the sound design with my cousin Lisle, a musician and sound engineer, we made the digital sound particulate, mimicking the process by which I painted and creating “sound prints” which represent each animated painting. The scrim serves as both a screen and membrane—with a refracted image against the back wall, a muted echo of what is seen, much like memory.
By engaging more than one of the senses, with sight and sound (I joked in my artist talk that I could have deepened the experience further by piping in smell, although given the ambiguous imagery I might not have guaranteed the experience I wanted), the viewer can’t help but consider her body in relation both to the mysterious, oversized microscopic imagery and as an integrated “specimen.” If the show were all paintings, it would have a dramatic impact, but a less visceral one. Video alone would occur out of context and fail to refer to the original step of mark-making, which not only provided the imagery in the video, but refers equally to scientific imaging.
The show seems almost unplaceable, as if there were not a specific geographic location outside of the human body that it could be placed in. How does it relate to Los Angeles, if it relates to it at all? Did the city inspire you in your process in any way? Outside of the body and in the city, are there any fascinomas in Los Angeles?
The implied universality of the human body as a geographic location is intentional, and yet this show is absolutely also influenced by the city I live in. Los Angeles is a kind of body—with sites of grave injury and sites of health, connective tissue (freeways!) but somehow manages to live, breathe and often against all odds, survive. I don’t pretend to know every corner of Los Angeles, but if there were any obvious “fascinomas” in the city I’d point to our crazy river (channeled in concrete yet teeming with nature), our mishmash of architectural influences, the Baldwin Hills oil drilling fields, the amazing street art in alleys and unexpected places, the pockets of methane gas trapped underground, and the disquieting inequities in experience and wealth co-existing within very few square miles. That’s just a start!
What are you hoping viewers take from the show? Pasadena Museum of California Art is known for its very progressive, smart, fantastic exhibits, which the Project Room exemplifies: how does it feel to be shared in that venue? How did that affect your work, if it affected it at all?
I am hoping that viewers leave moved and curious, with a visceral awareness of their bodies and their intrinsic vulnerability. As for the venue, the museum makes it clear that the project room is intended for installation, which is enormously freeing to an artist. The museum staff was incredibly supportive of and insightful about even the earliest iterations of this work. Of course I feel fortunate to be able to share in this venue and honored to be a part of this wonderful museum’s history! As my first installation, the project room affected my work by allowing me to think expansively and take creative risks I might not have otherwise.
Sounds amazing, right? Well, it is: what a fantastic collision of different interests and art forms! We’re totally digging it. Be sure to make it out to the Pasadena Museum of California Art to see the show (and L.A. Raw!), which closes on May 20. For more information on PMCA, be sure to check out their website. You should also check out Cahil’s website for more information on her, too.