Katie St. Clair Re-imagines Trash to Confront Perceptions of Beauty

Deanna Grayson – “Who wouldn’t want this?” Yasemin Tekgurler ‘19 exclaims when artist and Professor of Art Katie St. Clair holds up a gnarled, mangled piece of rusty metal found alongside the train tracks near Davidson. St. Clair calls the train tracks a “space in between spaces,” referring to places are not often explored and instead passed by or ignored in favor of more traditionally prominent spaces (e.g. buildings or sport fields). St. Clair has brought a group of about seven students and faculty outside of the VAC after her “Coffee + Conversation” event on Tuesday, April 4th to explore this particular “space in between spaces” and search for material to use in her current art project on display in the Van Every Gallery, which is part of the Annual Faculty Exhibition.

Two of St. Clair’s works in the show are what she calls “active painting installations”— spherical forms made up of dyed ice and objects that are traditionally considered waste or trash (e.g. leaves or construction netting) that hang from the gallery ceiling and slowly melt, releasing pigment onto a canvas. As each sphere melts, new spheres will be created in order to replace them. The items that we collected during our walk on April 4th will be incorporated into St. Clair’s next round of spheres.

At her “Coffee + Conversation” event, St. Clair revealed how she ended up using ice for these works through a sort of accidental discovery after she had given up all hope that her work would behave as she wanted it to do so. She first created the works using resin, but then was unable to remove the forms from their molds. Frustrated, the artist wandered outside and sat down by an area scattered with ice. St. Clair thought about how she liked resin because it looked similar to ice when it dried, and then the idea dawned on her to try ice as a medium. St. Clair ended up really liking the way ice has allowed her to achieve her desired visual effect and provoke questions from the viewer.

In these works, trash, including both organic and inorganic waste, assert their importance through their position above the canvas and crucial role as the source of artistic creation. St. Clair explained during her talk that she hopes that a viewer looking at her artwork will wonder why we consider some objects more beautiful and valuable than others. What is the distinction between those objects and the ones we simply discard and deem forgettable?

To help begin this process of critical thinking surrounding the objects that we usually discard, St. Clair brought a group of us outside to the train tracks after her talk to begin scavenging material for her next round of ice balls. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and the group members were eager to direct their eyes downward to find hidden treasures. At the train tracks, I could not help but feel an overwhelming sense of childlike curiosity and joy. I felt so liberated and was suddenly looking at everything that I simply wanted to look at without worrying about wasting time or making miscellaneous observations. Group members were picking up everything and anything, and noticing specific details or features that are ignored daily by pedestrians.

As I reflected upon my experience from Tuesday, I wondered if there is perhaps some deep rationale or justification for the curatorial- like process that society undergoes when it looks at the world, deciding what to keep and what to discard. After all, why else would we restrict the kind of joy that I experienced with St. Clair and the group that walked along the train tracks? I felt angry that I had not been allowed to feel this way since my youth, but also disturbed by the fact that I do not know exactly why. However, my faith in some sense of higher power leads me to think that there must be some reason why we see only certain items as important.

In spite of my belief in the deeper importance of our society’s designations of meaning, art can easily challenge this system. Art has the potential to put us in front of something that we typically do not pay attention to, or are explicitly told not to look at. Moreover, the act of viewing art allows us be our own curators in the sense that we can decide what is important and what is not. We can pick out the “thought objects” that we like, and decide to keep and hold them with us as we turn them around to piece together meaning. We may turn ideas into a question, a revelation, or just some sort of figment of understanding. Thus, when we view art, we are not only looking at the unseen, but also considering the unconsidered. In a way, an art gallery or museum (or any other art-viewing space) might be the only safe haven we have from the potentially arbitrary system of meaning that the world imparts on us.