The Unplaceable Artifacts of Christina Tenaglia | Chronogram Magazine
click to enlarge Perpetual State of Becoming
Photo by Jake Smisloff
Untitled (Can’t hold onto it), installation at the Al Held Foundation in Boiceville.

The unpredictable resolution of light into a wave or a particle requires the presence of an observer and is dependent on the method of observation. An implication of this conundrum is that we humans are not objective witnesses to light’s transmission, we are integral to this unfolding process of luminescence. With wood, low-fired ceramics, ink, drywall screws, a band saw, and other tools of her trade, artist Christina Tenaglia delves into the crucial role of the observer in the processes of art making and apperception. Her stand-alone works and site- specific temporary installations are invitations to reevaluate our preconceptions of what we may take to be ordinary reality and how art communicates illuminating meaning.

Tenaglia, who moved to the region from Brooklyn in 2014, has emerged as one of the leading artists currently working in the Hudson Valley. She notes that she is greatly affected by her surroundings and Tenaglia’s move impacted her work significantly. This can be clearly seen by contrasting work done shortly before her move—which was based on the placement of a single black rectilinear shape on a neutral ground—to the noticeably more open space of her recent work, which contains circles and freeform geometric elements.

This summer, her work was shown in several important venues highlighted by two major installations: one at the Pamela Salisbury Gallery in Hudson and the other on the grounds of the Al Held Foundation in Boiceville. A skilled conversationalist who has a Master’s Degree in art from Yale, Tenaglia verbally frames her art practice with economical clarity and employs her eloquence in her assistant professorship at Vassar College.

An Open-Ended Dialogue

Her Saugerties studio, shared with her partner, is a trove of finished works, works in process, wood pieces, ceramic elements, stencils, and off cuts. Everything seems to be in a perpetual state of becoming. The finished pieces are not the end of her process, but are instead invitations to an open-ended dialogue examining the elusive and potentially revelatory nature of all we see. Her art often makes use of sophisticated visual humor, yet her works have a depth that can be discovered by the viewer who is willing to slow down and contemplate them. While her wall works and sculptures executed in her immediately recognizable pictorial vocabulary are well known in our region and beyond, she sees her practice as becoming increasingly installation based.

Tenaglia spent a full year considering the Salisbury site, which encompasses the ground floor of an old multistory building once used as a carriage house. The building’s interior retains many of the scars and blemishes accumulated over the years as well as other evocative structural vestiges of its former use. Tenaglia made pieces for specific locations within the site, engaging the old walls and structures in a dialogue, her work and the architecture’s palimpsest modifying and enhancing each other.

Greeting visitors was a large freestanding L-shaped sculpture constructed out of a wooden beam rising vertically with an attached beam resting on the floor and extending back out of the exhibition space. Emblazoned on and partially wrapping around the sides of the floor section of wood was a simple drawing of indeterminate reference. Was this piece meant to evoke a greeter, a guard, a watchman, or was it just wood partially painted and placed in an interesting way? In any case, the piece functioned as a stopping place, which, after a pregnant pause, led the enquiring eye into the overall space. Found elsewhere in the installation were 25 other pieces of varying sizes and shapes, most made with some type of wood: industrially processed or natural, locally sourced, repurposed, finished or not, drawn upon in color or monochrome, and with or without attached ceramic elements. All the pieces looked somewhat familiar but ultimately unplaceable in any known category or lexicon. Nothing was hidden, however. Wood and ceramic elements alike were attached to each other and the walls with clearly visible drywall screws. Support structures were also visible, some looking a bit like popsicle sticks, and were integrated into the pieces they held in place as visual elements to be considered.

click to enlarge Perpetual State of Becoming
Photo by Christina Tenaglia
"one side yellow one side blue," installation at the Pamela Salisbury Gallery in Hudson.

Observers could find pieces that looked vaguely like soap dishes or other utilitarian objects of domesticity. Other visual elements hinted at body parts; larger leaning objects summoned up thoughts of totems or personages. Neither clearly abstract or representational, the work occupied a netherworld just beyond the reach of conceptualization and language though it summoned up emotions ranging the spectrum from comic to tragic. To be found in the installation was a charming floor piece somewhat suggestive of an adorable pet as well as a somehow deeply moving piece made of a large found branch placed vertically and adorned with a single downward-pointing ceramic.

Less Information, Better Considered

Tenaglia says of her work: “At a time when information is fast, easy, and overwhelmingly ever-present—yet so often substantially insufficient—these works are deliberately communicating less. Related to how we receive and process information, they are meant to baffle or confound, coaxing a longer look, a slowing down, where less information can be better considered. I am interested in how we group information, creating ‘chunks’ that we associate and store in our memories as coherent groupings. When confronted with partial information, we use our own assumptions, big and small, to complete these fragments. I am looking for a place of contemplation over simple comprehension, prioritizing how things are experienced and interpreted over assigning meaning.”

Tenaglia sees polarities such as representation and abstraction as part of a continuum and refuses to align herself with one approach or the other. She aims to get to the heart of the matter by ignoring categories. You can see meaning as a category of knowledge and knowledge as an interpretation of experience. As an artist, Tenaglia’s after direct experience. That’s why if you cut through the fun and games of figuring things out and trying to know what you’re looking at, one of her pieces might just floor you with the actuality it is communicating.

Daniel Belasco, executive director of the Al Held Foundation, shared a description of his experience of Tenaglia’s installation at the site. The work was part of a show that ended in October put together by Alyson Baker of River Valley Arts Collective. Essentially Belasco said that walking up the hill toward Tenaglia’s installation he first perceived it as a set of disjointed or disassociated personages. As he got closer, the installation’s underlying structure and formal relationships came to the foreground and as he crossed the threshold into the interior of the piece all the noise and dissonances disappeared and harmonized and he experienced a kind of quiet. Having recreated this experience for myself, I can testify that the quiet he referenced was palpable and deeply moving.

Tenaglia imparts that the idea for the installation came out of her experience of the pandemic, which led her and her partner to temporarily relocate closer to her parents in New Jersey. Away from her studio and teaching remotely, she engaged in a photography project: taking pictures of the houses and properties in the neighborhood around her temporary home. Tenaglia says the practice focused her thoughts on “care and neglect, life and death, preservation and inattention, access and denial, foreground and background, real and fake, systems and irregularities—home as a construct.”

Situated in a grove of lovely trees awaiting autumn, the “home” Tenaglia constructed on the hill above Al Held’s studio complex was inside out. Facing outward were totemic figures embellished with ceramic signifiers of domesticity and indeterminacy, framing devices, and quasi-geometric painted references to embodiment, like the ones she included in her installation at Salisbury. Moving over Belasco’s “threshold” to the inside, the roofless and porous enclosure was covered with shingles. A great slab of wood was off center, tabled and leveled, contrasting with the slope of the hill flowing away beneath it and echoing the odd configuration of Held’s storage building across the lawn, which was built into the side of the descending slope.

Tenaglia, who adamantly refrains from titling her individual pieces because she does not want to offer too much information, has surprisingly started giving names to her multipiece installations. The one on the hill at the Al Held Foundation is titled: Untitled (Can’t hold onto it). What is it that can’t be grasped? Don’t know, can’t say (that’s up to the viewer). But perhaps it has something to do with how a work of art framing and simultaneously unframing the clear light of a late afternoon can leave you without words.

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