Alyssa Fanning’s ravishing devastations
Contributed by Patrick Neal, June 29, 2021 3:14 pm
When I first saw the artist Alyssa Fanning’s linoleum prints and oil paintings depicting demolition and littered industrial sites around her neighborhood close to New Jersey’s Van Buskirk Island and the Hackensack River, they immediately brought to mind the empty lots and urban decay bordering my own neighborhood of Long Island City, Queens.
Van Buskirk Island is a site not far from Fanning’s home, a landscape that has been the subject of and given sustenance to her prints, drawings and paintings for many years. The Island, which is surrounded by the Hackensack River, houses a 19th century water purification plant that was abandoned after a merger and acquisition in the 1980’s with company United Waters, later Suez North America. This artificially created island has been home to a diverse ecosystem of plants and animals, and was recently, designated an endangered historic site. It has served as a crossroads and place of contemplation that exemplifies the collision course between nature’s bounty and man-made intrusion. A rare natural sanctuary and cultural institution, situated in a community surrounded by over development and affected by Globalization and Climate Change.
During 2011 and 2012 both Fanning’s and my own neighborhood, were devastated by hurricanes Irene and Sandy. Fanning used photo documentation to observe flooding that washed detritus and debris into orderly suburban streets, and created imagery depicting trash commingling with the symmetric grids of her neighborhood. In my own community, waters breached the banks of the East River and flooded residential lobbies and subways. Addressing these myriad disasters at the time, Fanning remarked, “Devastation on the Hackensack is but a microcosm of a larger state of devastation. There are systems within systems in its watershed and it is just one system in the larger scope of ecology.”
The physical and psychological effects of natural and man-made disasters are the subject of Fanning’s work. And, the depth with which she explores this theme is brought to life through a range of drawings currently on view in “A Thousand Moons and Suns,” her new exhibition at Platform Project Space in DUMBO. The exhibition comprises two related series; “Polymorphic Disasters of the Mind” and the subsequent “After the Disaster.”
Mankind’s role as a super-predator who exacerbates Climate Change is ironically contributing to the demise of the human species itself. There is much literature on the subject, whether told through fact or fiction, that depicts humanity’s hand in altering the planet and an inevitable Sixth Great Extinction. Examples include the dystopic novel The Road as envisioned by writer Cormac McCarthy, or the climate scientist Guy McPherson’s dire warnings in his book Going Dark, or maybe journalist Chris Hedges many observations on the collapse of civilizations.
Fanning’s works on paper of graphite and colored pencil could be added to this list of prophetic artworks. Her compositions embed the effects and aftermath of disaster into intricately fashioned web-like compositions that take into consideration the domino effects of systems breaking down. Considering such disturbing and epic subject matter, one might expect grandiose statements from an artist pondering the magnitude of such themes. Instead, Fanning has developed her own distinct vocabulary and processes for conveying disaster that is modest and sober, done in a way that is highly personal and surprisingly original. As a graphic artist, working mostly on a very small scale, Fanning makes drawings that are astonishingly detailed, delicate and layered. Her compositions are abstract, seemingly innocuous with motifs that can be decorative and pop such as rosettes and roundels, but it’s not immediately apparent what sources they are derived from. They manage to fold incident upon incident, micro and macroscopic terrain, and temporal experience into remarkably intimate spaces while remaining symphonic in scope.
Fanning has spoken about the evolving process of draftsmanship that has deepened and informed her work. Her earlier prints were inspired by the photos she took, the fine details of black and white photography simplified into the negative/positive, flat shapes of pressed ink on paper, a sort of “reverse photojournalism”, where newer technology informs an older medium. These earlier works are more straight-forwardly representational, with a stabilizing horizon line to orient the landscapes. But, Fanning was soon creating collaged, cut paper maquettes from her own photos, as well as others appropriated from news sources, and she has since referenced these constructions in order to flatten and compress space into more abstract and haphazard compositions. Then, in the aftermath of hurricanes Irene and Sandy, followed by several other storms and power outages in her region, she found herself working by candlelight which proved to be a revelation and turning point. The glowing flame of the candle creating shadow play on Fanning’s maquettes, diffusing solid forms with atmosphere, and adding another tool to her kit with which to upturn figure/ground relationships. Her graphite on paper drawing, Trails, 2011, exemplifies this milestone in her work, and points the way forward informing the more recent works in “A Thousand Moons and Suns.”
“I build compositions through a polymorphous logic combining collaged elements, shadow traceries projected from maquettes, and imagination,” Fanning has remarked on her process. Works at Platform Project Space span the years 2012 through 2021 and it is interesting to see how the studio strategies are translated into two-dimensional forms. Although she is not working sculpturally, the motifs and designs Fanning employs, which include frames within frames, concentric circles, measurement strips and scattered mists of tonality, are on par with Earth Artists from recent and past decades. She shares an interest in forms that solidify and dematerialize, chaos pitted against control, geometry and structure versus atmosphere and dissolution. I’m reminded of Robert Smithson’s gravelly Mirror Displacements, the dunes and deserts coexisting with Nancy Holt’s concrete Sun Tunnels, Gordon Matta Clark’s cut and deconstructed houses, and Andy Goldsworthy’s ephemeral formations with leaves, sticks and snow. Perhaps, more than the others, Fanning shares the ethical concerns and philosophical conceits of Smithson, when considering the hubris and absurdity of man’s efforts juxtaposed against the brute force of nature. They both also share a fascination with non-sites, in-between places that exist somewhere between birth and decay.
These dichotomies are exemplified in Fanning’s drawing Roundell Melting, 2012, which is only six by nine inches and covered in surface activity. A central circular formation of spirals within spirals reverberates out, like water rippling on a lake, and is framed within a spatially ambiguous window. A cloud of sooty ash looms in from the left side, suggestive of a bombing or conflagration. A soft halo of celestial and dappled light peeks through the stratosphere, possibly in the aftermath of a sonic boom or atomic blast, as the bottom section is littered with jagged debris and demolition. The variety of mark-making Fanning conjures up to achieve these effects, which manage to be both peaceful and apocalyptic, is breathtaking.
At a certain point, Fanning began to consider aspects of her work existing as “disasters of the mind”, as she has increasingly relied on her own imagination to generate imagery. As her work developed, the range of other artists from whom she learned is eclectic and vast. For compositional and structural clues she turned to Indian and Persian miniatures and Piranesi’s series of Imaginary Prisons, as well as the spheres and zones of space in Botticelli’s drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy. She has looked at the mark-making strategies of other artists, only to resonate psychically with their mindsets as they explored both dark and ecstatic themes. Examples include the figural and land formations in Goya’s Disasters of War series, and the quirky and expressive glyphs and extended parameters seen in Charles Burchfield’s natural outdoor scenes. In other cases, excursions to museums has been fortuitous to Fanning, as when she saw the daguerreotypes of Girault de Prangey with their clear blue light, or the hidden details in paintings by Mexican artists Miguel Cabrera and Juan Rodriguez Juarez. Fanning’s curiosity to seek out inspiration from past masters is only matched by the degree with which she explores perceptual terrain in order to push the plastic possibilities of her drawings.
It’s important to take note of the word “after” in the title of Fanning’s recent and ongoing series, “After the Disaster.” Her body of work has always had an awe-inspiring focus on the strength and fragility of the natural world, and after points toward a hopeful place, much like a peaceful Arcadia distanced from the meddling of the human species. Around 2017, Fanning introduced color into her work with colored pencil compositions that are declarative and bold, and reintroduced the simplicity of the horizon line.
An example of this is Charlie’s Summer, 2020, one of the larger drawings in the show with a minimal palette of cool grays and electric chartreuse, that enlivens an all over scaffolding of architecture and greenery resembling the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Here, the picture plane reads like a vertical living plant wall teeming with vegetation, or a vast topographic map covering hundreds of miles. Although the piece is entirely improvisational and imagined, the work is informed by Fanning’s impressive trove of art history and eagle eye for perceptual phenomena. Charlie’s Summer, just like the exhibition’s poetic title, “A Thousand Moons and Suns” is indicative of the passage of generations and civilizations occupying the terrain of an Earth and Cosmos that continually refashions and asserts itself.
“Alyssa Fanning: A Thousand Moons and Suns,” Platform Project Space, 20 Jay Street #319, DUMBO, Brooklyn, NY. Through July 3, 2021.
NOTE: This essay was originally written for the exhibition catalogue. Platform invites Two Coats readers to stop by the gallery on Saturday, July 3, at 4:00pm, the final day of the show, when Neal and Fanning will discuss her work. A limited number of catalogues will be available.
About the author: Patrick Neal is a painter, freelance art writer and longtime resident of Long Island City. He recently had a show of paintings at Platform, and he also curated the exhibition, “Being, Human: Portraits by Steve Mantinaos and Seth Ruggles Hiler,” which was on view through April 30, 2021 at The Local NYC in LIC. Neal is a regular contributor to Two Coats of Paint.