Christina Tenaglia’s Untraceable Artifacts

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  • Photo by Jake Smisloff
  • Untitled (Can’t hold on 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 depends on the method of observation. One implication of this conundrum is that we humans are not objective witnesses to the transmission of light, we are an integral part of this process of luminescence development. With wood, low-heat ceramics, ink, drywall screws, a band saw and other tools of her trade, artist Christina Tenaglia explores the crucial role of the observer in process of artistic creation and apperception. His stand-alone works and temporary in situ installations are invitations to re-evaluate our preconceived ideas about what we may consider ordinary reality and how art communicates enlightening meaning.

Tenaglia, who moved to the area from Brooklyn in 2014, has become one of the main artists currently working in the Hudson Valley. She notes that she is greatly affected by her surroundings and that Tenaglia’s move had a significant impact on her work. This can be clearly seen by contrasting the work done shortly before his move – which was based on placing a single black rectilinear shape on neutral ground – to the noticeably more open space of his recent work, which contains circles and geometric free-form elements.

This summer his work has been featured 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 holds an MA from Yale, Tenaglia verbally frames her artistic practice with economic clarity and uses her eloquence in her position as Assistant Professor at Vassar College.

Open dialogue

His Saugerties workshop, shared with his partner, is a mine of finished works, works in progress, pieces of wood, ceramic elements, stencils and offcuts. Everything seems to be in perpetual becoming. The finished pieces are not the end of his process, but rather are invitations to an open dialogue examining the elusive and potentially revealing nature of everything we see. His art often employs sophisticated visual humor, but his works have a depth that can be discovered by the viewer who is ready to slow down and contemplate them. While her murals and sculptures executed in her instantly recognizable pictorial vocabulary are well known in our region and beyond, she sees her practice as increasingly installation-based.

Tenaglia spent an entire year surveying the Salisbury site, which includes the ground floor of an old multi-storey building once used as a car shed. The interior of the building retains many scars and imperfections accumulated over the years, as well as other structural remains suggestive of its former use. Tenaglia made pieces for specific locations within the site, engaging the old walls and structures in a dialogue, his work and the palimpsest of architecture mutually changing and improving.

Welcoming visitors is a large freestanding L-shaped sculpture constructed from a vertically rising wooden beam with an attached beam resting on the floor and exiting the exhibition space. A simple drawing of indeterminate reference was etched into the sides of the wooden floor section and partially wrapped around them. Was this piece meant to evoke a host, guard, caretaker, or was it just partially painted wood and placed in an interesting way? In any case, the room functioned as a halt which, after a significant pause, led the questioning gaze into the global space. 25 other pieces of different sizes and shapes were found elsewhere in the facility, most of them made with a certain type of wood: industrially treated or natural, locally sourced, reused, finished or not, drawn in color or monochrome, and with or without ceramic attached elements. All the pieces seemed somewhat familiar but ultimately not found in a known category or lexicon. Nothing was, however, hidden. The wooden and ceramic elements were attached to each other and to the walls with clearly visible drywall screws. Support structures were also visible, some resembling popsicle sticks a bit, and were incorporated into the pieces they held in place as visual items to consider.

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"one yellow side one blue side," installation at the Pamela Salisbury Gallery in Hudson.  - PHOTO BY CHRISTINA TENAGLIA

  • Photo by Christina Tenaglia
  • “One yellow side one blue side”, installation at the Pamela Salisbury Gallery in Hudson.

Observers could find pieces that vaguely resembled soap dishes or other utilitarian household items. Other visual elements alluded to parts of the body; larger leaning objects evoked thoughts of totems or figures. Neither clearly abstract nor figurative, the work occupied an underground world just beyond the scope of conceptualization and language, though it evoked emotions ranging from the comic to the tragic. Included in the installation was a charming floor piece somewhat suggestive of an adorable pet as well as a somewhat deeply moving piece consisting of a large branch found placed vertically and adorned with a single ceramic pointing downward. .

Less information, better considered

Tenaglia says of his work: “In an age when information is fast, easy and extremely ubiquitous, but so often substantially insufficient, these works deliberately communicate less. Related to the way we receive and process information, they are meant to confuse or confuse, cajoling a longer look, a slowing down, where less information can be better taken into account. I’m interested in how we group information, creating “chunks” that we combine and store in our memories as cohesive groupings. When faced with partial information, we use our own assumptions, large and small, to complete these fragments. I seek a place of contemplation rather than simple comprehension, privileging the way in which things are lived and interpreted rather than the attribution of direction.

Tenaglia sees polarities such as representation and abstraction as part of a continuum and refuses to align with either approach. It aims to get to the heart of the matter by ignoring the categories. You can see meaning as a category of knowledge and knowledge as an interpretation of experience. As an artist, Tenaglia is after direct experience. That’s why if you go through the fun and games of figuring things out and trying to figure out what you’re looking at, one of her pieces might just amaze you with the reality that it communicates.

Daniel Belasco, Executive Director of the Al Held Foundation, shared a description of his experience installing Tenaglia on the site. The work was part of an exhibition that ended in October and curated by Alyson Baker of the River Valley Arts Collective. Essentially, Belasco said that as he walked up the hill to Tenaglia’s facility, he first saw her as a set of disjointed or disassociated characters. As he got closer, the installation’s underlying structure and formal relationships came to the fore and as he crossed the threshold into the room all the noises and dissonances disappeared. and harmonized and he felt a kind of calm. Having recreated this experience for myself, I can testify that the calm he referred to was palpable and deeply moving.

Tenaglia says the idea for the facility came from her experience with the pandemic, which prompted her and her partner to temporarily move closer to her parents in New Jersey. Away from her studio and a remote teacher, she embarked on a photography project: taking pictures of the homes and properties in the neighborhood around her temporary home. Tenaglia says the practice has focused its thoughts on “care and neglect, life and death, preservation and inattention, access and denial, foreground and background, true and the forgery, the systems and the irregularities – the house as a construction ”.

Located in a grove of beautiful trees awaiting autumn, the Tenaglia “house” built on the hill above Al Held’s studio complex was upside down. Facing the exterior, totemic figures embellished with ceramic signifiers of domesticity and indeterminacy, framing devices and almost geometric painted references to the incarnation, such as those she included in her installation at Salisbury. Passing the “threshold” of Belasco inward, the roofless and porous enclosure was covered with shingles. A large slab of timber stood off-center, erect and level, contrasting with the slope of the hill that flowed below and echoing the odd configuration of Held’s storage building across the lawn, which was built on the side of the downward slope.

Tenaglia, who categorically refrains from titling her individual pieces because she doesn’t want to offer too much information, has surprisingly started naming her multi-room installations. The one on the Al Held Foundation hill is titled: Untitled (I can’t keep it). What can’t we grab? I don’t know, I can’t tell (it’s up to the viewer to decide). But it might have something to do with how a piece of art simultaneously framing and unframing the clear light of a late afternoon can leave you speechless.


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