Contributed by Luisa Caldwell / A few days before “Babybox” was scheduled to open at Motherbox gallery in Brooklyn, artist, gallery director, and curator Katherine Finkelstein sent out a notice that the show would be physically closed, but that she would be giving individual tours via iPhone. I was intrigued by the invitation, and, while I sheltering-in, I took a tour and followed up with a telephone conversation. The following is a loose transcript of our discussion.
Luisa Caldwell: “Babybox” is a concept show featuring 14 artists, most whom have previously shown at Motherbox. When I first saw the re-announcement, you had attached an installation image of the show, which completely threw me off. I had been to the gallery several times, but the space shown was not Motherbox, plus there was something off about the space in general. Then I took the tour.
Katherine Finkelstein: “BabyBox” is a collaboration with Jesse Cesario and Clare Torina of Flyweight Projects, a gallery they started in the space above their closet. They created a mobile version at 1”:12” scale. The mobile gallery allowed for a larger reach and flexibility than the original gallery. Because of its remote Brooklyn location, it only existed online and in photographs anyway. So at the same time “Babybox” was opening, Flyweight curated “Unsets” a show of my work. Essentially “Babybox” is at Flyweight, but at Motherbox, while my work is on view at Flyweight.
LC: Tell me about the artists and work in “Babybox.”
KF: Ideally this was to be a show that defined Motherbox. Many of the works were made for the show while some existed already and came to be in the show through conversation between the artist and me. Defining things, for me, comes through conversation, by giving the tour, going in and talking about each piece, how they relate to each other and how they relate back to Motherbox’s history, and history between myself and the artist.
Elements that are really important are ideas of “Availablism,” a term I learned from Kembra Pfahler. It’s defined as making the best use of what is available. Several works involve scraps. C Alex Clark’s hologram is literally a scrap from a much larger hologram that they showed previously at Motherbox. Per Billigren’s sculpture is made from excess plaster from a job he was on. His use of vinyl records come from having an excess of them and turning them into canvases. To scale down for this show, but staying with that idea, he used a mini disc. Jessica Green’s weaving is from the previous show called Weaver. With an on-the-wall loom, it was made right in the gallery. The yarn for this piece comes from teaching a yarn spinning class. She sweeps up the scraps afterwards and whatever else has fallen to the floor: hair, lint, etc. and spins ii into “trash yarn.” Flyweight itself came from the idea of availablism. Jessie and Clare live in a small New York apartment, turning the space above a closet into an exhibition space is about how far constraints can be pushed.
There has also been quite a bit of alchemy in the show. Kyle Maxey works graphite onto plaster for the floor of the gallery. It is made reflective through an extensive sanding and polishing process. I see alchemical thinking in the responsiveness to change.
Another emergent theme is collaboration. The ceramic pieces set on top of the Flyweight mobile space are co-made by Taylor Blackwell and Cayla Wilson, and in turn display a miniature Ikebana by Effie Bowen. Their Ikebana are meditative gestures representing a simplified harmony between human, heaven and earth. Having them on top solidifies all the work underneath as being in the earthly realm, which is the space I am most interested inhabiting. Another piece in the show that exists literally outside the box is on a shelf that is always reserved for a mystical overseer. Pvssyheaven’s giant vagina is a fragment from an unfinished project. Someone called it the babysitter, as it looks out and protects the show.
LC: I’m interested in discussing the idea of scale and what happens to perception. For instance, the wall piece by Jessica Green was small when shown at Motherbox, but now the same piece in “Babybox” is interpreted as huge in this space. Some pieces look large and some small, regardless of being inserted in this miniature setting, like Gina Kelly’s charmingly diminutive sculpture remains tiny. The scale keeps shifting in an odd way.
KF: Yeah, there is an uncanniness that happens. And when you’re seeing it on an iPhone it can read as a much larger space. I like the play that happens with perception. Like with Molly Duggan’s paintings, I usually show them at the end of the tour and then put my finger next to them to show how tiny they actually are, measuring 1×1.5 inches. Even if you are told the dimensions it is hard to tell. I wait for the end of the tour to pull back and show that the gallery is really a box on a table. I also think it plays with expectation. If you only see it in photographs you think it’s a massive gallery space; it’s a white cube, with inset ceiling lighting, super polished and formal looking. The space is really different than what the Motherbox is, basically a room attached to my bedroom, holes in the walls from all the years of shows, dirty wood floors and what ever sort of patina happens in a 100 year old building. So “Babybox” gives off the authority of an institution, but really it is a small box playing with authority.
LC: When you first gave me the tour, you began by speaking about the figurative sculpture at center. You said it was the first piece you decided on for the show. Can you talk about its relevance to the curation of Babybox.
KF: Yes, it is by my mother Barbara Schnitzler, an architect by training, and she does these beautiful figurative sculptures. I wanted to feature my mother’s work, acknowledging a theme of “mother” literally and figuratively. Her piece is the anchor, and it solidifies the show in terms of what I want Motherbox gallery to be. She made this cast bronze piece for the show, with my idea that everything would orbit around it. Motherbox is a space where artists are met on their level, like allowing children to be what they are. Art babies. Like Ben Ripley’s photograph of grapes. He is working on a new process making prints out of wine. He described the piece in the show as a test strip and I liked that. I keep making baby metaphors, but then I saw “Babybox” as an incubator, as an opportunity to try something out, a space to nurture.
LC: And speaking of nurturing, your younger brother is also in the show.
KF: Harry Finkelstein is a painter and has been making a lot of paintings about animals. He knew what the show was about and so through conversation, arrived at painting of a turtle called “A Turtle I Kept In A Box As A Kid.” He also made the tiny wood frame. I like how there are animals in the show- Molly’s cows and wool from Jessica’s sheep. I like animals being part of our world and I like them being in the show.
LC: We haven’t talked about the installation in the upper corner by Gabriel Rivera. I love how it is in direct conversation with Jessica’s woven piece.
KF: The piece is cheese cloth dyed in indigo and adhered to the wall with a starch compound. addresses space and architecture. He waited till everything was installed, and by then the conversation was all about virus and spreading, and it is visible in the works structure.
His pieces are done on false walls so that when they are removed they become gorgeous panels that can be hung or framed.
LC: Yet another shift in scale! That is really interesting how the piece inadvertently took on the reality of coronavirus. In fact, “Babybox” was my first virtual tour. I know virtual tours existed, but I had never done one and now that is all I do being no alternative. But in my mind you were on the forefront of this new method of viewing art during quarantine.
KF: It was intuitive really, an organic outgrowth and response. I want to mention that intuition is another theme that continually appears at Motherbox. For me one show emerges from the previous via conversation and time. This is the 15th show. I live with these shows, I wake up and I’m in the show. I get to know them intimately. Virtual tours were the solution. You can share photographs, but I think there is something tender about holding the phone in my hand and having it be individualized, and having a conversation with the lone viewer. It isn’t rote like a prerecorded video. But this show really feels like it was meant to be seen this way. I feel like Motherbox is in rhythm with the earth, and not that Motherbox knew that there was going to be a pandemic, but that it was ready to be responsive to it. And there is some magic in it, feeling as though we are right for the time.
LC: Speaking of magic, I want to close by mentioning how beautiful the photographs of “Unset” look at Flyweight Projects. There is something mysterious and mystical about the space that is created, like a temple. It evokes sacred spaces, and even sacred geometry with an eternally rising and setting sun video you shot in Marfa, Texas. I read you used a process in which the camera lens is removed, flipped, and held in reverse against the camera body towards a light source. Any light passing through the lens forms a circle. I love the crystal-like objects you hand-polished from broken prisms, really quite special.
KF: “Unsets” relates to “Babybox” through many of the themes mentioned. A certain alchemy happens with the small darkroom prints that were made with prisms. Clare curated the show by essentially mining my bedroom, choosing peripheral scraps that could be overlooked if it were a bigger show. Some of my test strips are put in this show as well. I put myself in their hands.
“Babybox,” curated by Katherine Finkelstein, featuring Per Billgren, Taylor Blackwell + Cayla Wilson, Effie Bowen, C Alex Clark, Molly Duggan, Harry Finkelstein, Jessica Green, Gina Kelly, Kyle Maxey, Pvssyheaven, Ben Ripley, Gabriel Rivera, Barbara Schnitzler. Motherbox. To take a video tour,please DM Katherine at IG: @motherboxgallery
About the author: Luisa Caldwell’s recent solo shows include Smack Mellon and Long Island University. In 2018, she was a visiting artist at the University of Iowa. One of her public projects is permanently on view at East 180th St. Bronx in the MTA Arts for Transit Program.