Unearthing Gardens

Photography Greta Rybus

Published March 2, 2015


Frequently employing paper, plexi glass, and charcoal, Lauren Fensterstock creates site-specific installations that render the natural world in an entirely synthetic and monochromatic way. Inspired by gardens and their varying importance from the 18th century onward, the Maine-based artist distills nature to find the place where it intersects with culture. Fensterstock’s scultpures appear bleak and sleek from afar, but reveal intricate layers upon closer inspection. One such installation appears like a feathery field of black grass, yet was composed entirely of synthtetic materials, directly commenting on the association—or perhaps disassociation—between mankind and the natural world.

Recently, Fensterstock has moved away from the floral and gravitated toward cavernous pieces that imitate stalagmites and stalactites. Her most recent piece, Stalagmite, was created specifically to exhibit during Pulse Contemporary Art Fair in New York this week as part of Armory Arts Week. Prior to the fair’s opening, we spoke with Fensterstock, who also happens to teach Thesis Studio at the Rhode Island School of Design and write art criticism. She was at home in Maine. We were in New York.

LAUREN FENSTERSTOCK: My crates just left this morning, so I’m in the moment of total relief.

EMILY MCDERMOTT: Did you create Stalagmite just for Pulse?

FENSTERSTOCK: Yeah, it’s a new work, a new body of work as well.

MCDERMOTT: Stalagmites obviously come from a cave and most of your art is much more garden-oriented. Where did that come from?

FENSTERSTOCK: For the last few years, I’ve been doing a lot of work with paper and looking at the history of garden designs, the ways different styles represent different ideas about man’s role in the world. The differences between a Baroque garden and a picturesque garden represent two completely different world views. I kept coming across garden grotto, which are artificial caves, and I became obsessed with them because it’s this blend of culture and nature. It’s in a natural space, but it’s really an augmented natural space. Sometimes they would take, in the 18th century, a cave and reform it, cover the entire surface with shells or another kind of ornament, and create a space that really merged nature and culture.

MCDERMOTT: Your work as a whole is an augmented natural space. It’s all based on natural environments, but monochromatic and synthetic.

FENSTERSTOCK: Exactly. I feel like nature itself is a cultural product and we often have these ideas about the wild or nature and that being separate from humanity. But at this point, I feel like most of our experience with nature—you drive a car to get there, you take a picture of it with your iPhone, you understand it because of books that you’ve read and paintings that you’ve seen—we really can’t separate nature from the culture of man at this point.

MCDERMOTT: I assume you live kind of remotely. What made you want to recreate this in such a synthetic way?

FENSTERSTOCK: I grew up in New York and I moved to Maine. I think that everyone who’s made that trek made it because they wanted the isolation of nature, but I never go outside. [laughs] I don’t go to the beach. I don’t go hiking. I don’t ski. I live in downtown Portland in kind of an industrial area, so I don’t have the iconic Maine at all. Most of my sense of nature is from books. I spend so much of my winter here thinking of nature as this aspirational goal, like I want to be in a non-frozen place.

MCDERMOTT: That’s interesting you chose to live in an industrial place when moving to Maine from New York. I figured you would have wanted to escape that.

FENSTERSTOCK: I mean, I live in downtown Portland. It’s an old port town, so there are a lot of artists who move through here. I find it’s a great affordable place to be outside of the city but still have some of the trappings and same kind of people moving through. I live in an old 1820s brick carriage house that we converted into a living space and my studio. Behind the house, which is actually where they used to burry all the horses, I turned into a small garden. The soil is great. [laughs]

MCDERMOTT: Which came first, the art or the gardening?

FENSTERSTOCK: My background is in goldsmithing, so I was doing a lot of work with the decorative arts. Then I started gardening and I was amazed at how much my ideas about gardening related to my ideas about decorative arts. I was also amazed at how much I was stylizing my own garden based on personal aesthetics, not based on anything that was actually natural. That set me off on this whole line of questions about the history of gardens that then became the work. The actual gardening definitely infiltrated and kind of took over. It was like a weed; it took over my studio practice.

MCDERMOTT: How did you first become interested in art, or goldsmithing?

FENSTERSTOCK: I was sick a lot as a kid and I spent a lot of time at home alone, reading and trying to make the things that I was reading. I think that because I did spend a lot of time isolated, making always became a way of understanding things I couldn’t see or touch. I’ve always worked in a lot of different media-painting, sculpture, drawing, and installation.

MCDERMOTT: And you’re also a writer/teacher/critic.

FENSTERSTOCK: [laughs] Oh god. I guess so. One thing at a time, you know?

MCDERMOTT: What’s it like balancing everything? It must be somewhat difficult to go between criticism and then having a creative mindset to make something.

FENSTERSTOCK: In some ways I feel like all of these are very different, but in some ways they’re very much the same. I always think the core of my practice is problem solving. When I’m in the studio, I’m looking at research, at an installation site, and then trying to problem solve how to bring them together. When I’m working with a student or on an editorial project, I think it’s a series of problem solving. I think they feed off each other. Sometimes it’s great to just work with someone else’s work. I learn things from my students all the time. I tend to prioritize one thing at a time, so I’ll be heavily in the studio and teaching a little bit, and then working on writing and the studio has to take the backseat for a couple of weeks.

MCDERMOTT: Can you talk about an experience you’ve had with a student that really taught you something?

FENSTERSTOCK: I always feel like the students are smarter than I am. Often this idea of teaching is a master who’s going to impart their knowledge on the student. I think that’s a terrible way to learn. The students are younger and on the pulse of what’s happening, the things that aren’t institutionalized into pedagogy. What they know about popular culture, the way they’re processing information, the speed that they’re moving—they’re constantly teaching me new things.

MCDERMOTT: I know you look a lot at 20th Century art and Robert Smithson as a reference point. Would you ever consider making land art?

FENSTERSTOCK: I have considered it. Everything that I do has been inside, but I would love to extend outside. I look a lot at his non-sites, which have a correlation between outdoors and indoors. I think it would be interesting to take the work outside and retain a sense of unnaturalness within a natural setting. I’m interested in his notions of time, and with the cave, the cave is like geological time. Some of the references that I’m look at are historic time and I think Smithson is perhaps a post-historic time.

MCDERMOTT: What are some of the other times or who are some of the other artist you’ve been looking at?

FENSTERSTOCK: I’ve been looking at Diana al-Hadid and I love all the minimalists, like Tony Smith.

MCDERMOTT: [laughs] I can see that.

FENSTERSTOCK: [laughs] A lot of black cubes. Donald Judd. But then I love these esoteric artists. I look at this woman Mary Delany quite a lot, who lived in the 18th century. She was an aristocrat. She hung out with George III and made paper collages of flowers. She’s at this intersection of art and science. I’m interested in bringing these disparate things together and seeing how they can all add light to one issue.

MCDERMOTT: What do you look to outside of art for inspiration?

FENSTERSTOCK: I tend to be fairly manic, neurotic, but I’ve been doing a lot of yoga and something about the stillness is something that I want to bring into my practice. Because I’ve been looking at the cave, I’ve been looking at a lot of Paleolithic cave paintings and the shamanic rituals. Somehow the ritual of the yoga helps me connect to that. With yoga, there’s something about it as a practice, ritual, [and] discipline that I think parallels the discipline of the studio. Most of my projects tend to be very laborious. So I feel like finding that discipline in other areas of life can free me to be less disciplined in the studio in a way that I think is helpful, more playful.

MCDERMOTT: At what point did you decide that you wanted to switch from decorative to fine art?

FENSTERSTOCK: I was studying jewelry and working with precious metals and stones, but I never made work on the body. I was never interested in the concept of wearing and carrying, although I’m interested, on an installation scale, how the body moves through a space. Most of my early work started very small scale; I was making things like diamond-encrusted bars of soap or spiders encrusted with rubies. Slowly, the things just got larger and larger and larger until they became environments.

MCDERMOTT: What do you think led to them becoming larger?

FENSTERSTOCK: Once I started gardening and thinking less about an object and more about the site, it necessitated the work getting larger. But I think what’s interesting is the size of my mark never shifted. If you think about making a small painting, you might make tiny brushstrokes, and then when you make a large painting, the size of the mark becomes larger. Because my process is cumulative, the things are still as intricate as when they were jewels. There’s this massive accumulation of that intricacy, like more is more.

MCDERMOTT: How do your sculptures start? How dependent is it upon where you’re going to show it?

FENSTERSTOCK: I love working from a site. If I have a specific project, I almost think of myself like a landscape architect. I think about the room and how people will move through the space, the speed they’ll move through the space, and how I’ll fill the space like you would a landscape. If I’m working on smaller pieces, I tend to do a lot of drawing and still think about those moments of approach and being directly in front of the piece. A lot of my work, from a distance, appears very minimal. They’ll appear just like a black cube and then when you get much closer to it, this massive detail is revealed. So then I’m definitely thinking about how someone will approach it or the stages of approaching it, trying to build in some layers of discovery so you don’t see everything at once.

MCDERMOTT: You have a lot of darkness in your work, but nature is oftentimes not so dark. What attracts you to that?

FENSTERSTOCK: I grew up in the ’80s and I was super gothic and I spend all my time listening to Bauhaus and burning black candles in my room. [laughs] I think some of this is a holdover. I love the way that things in darkness can sort of appear and reappear. It feels like a magical or liminal space. Perhaps darkness is a space of uncertainty where we can escape the normal logic that rules our lives. I’m definitely interested in escape.

MCDERMOTT: How would you define or describe your approach toward art?

FENSTERSTOCK: I feel like I get an itch and I’m always trying to scratch that itch. I feel like the most exciting moments are when I’m reading and some idea kind of breaks my mind and I can’t quite grasp it. That’s when I start running to the studio, trying to draw out something abstract. If I can manifest it, I can understand it.

One experience I’ll mention now that I’m thinking about it—in my research of caves I was looking at the Werner Herzog movie Cave of Forgotten Dreams. There’s this moment in that movie where he’s in this millions-of-years-old geological formation and he’s looking at 30,000-year-old work of human art, across which there is a 20,000-year-old scratch, and then 10,000 years of crystal creation. He’s filming it as a German visiting France and I’m watching it on Netflix in Maine. That is the intersection that I’m excited about.