Swan Vision presents
Ghosting Time: New Work by Mary Ludington and Lisa Nebenzahl
September 7 – October 26, 2019
Opening Saturday, September 7 from 2:00 to 5:00 pm
The way of the artist is distinguished not so much by time as by the transmutation of consciousness into aesthetic form. This practice is best shepherded by an open heart, which can reconcile the dignities of life, suffering and death. Sometimes grief powers this process, yielding gifts even more profound than the courage required for its crucible. As the great eco-philosopher and Buddhist scholar, Joanna Macy, once said “The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe.”
Broken hearts are abundant today—as our species resists the call to transmute worn out, unsustainable systems into collective practices that affirm life in this biosphere. Yet, from this chasm—between the old and new paradigms—we may still receive guidance (across time and tradition) from artists, scientists and enlightened teachers. Tibetan Buddhism describes the interval between death and rebirth as the bardo. The space of transmutation. When consciousness transmutes one state of being to the next, life flows and evolution occurs.
Artists Mary Ludington and Lisa Nebenzahl exemplify such deep transformational practice. Their work testifies to the sanctity of true witness, the sublimity of nature and the stillness found outside the constraints of time. Both artists see with clear eyes and clear hearts; trusting the ancient ones (rock, sky, plant, water, animal) for steady wisdom and solace. Ludington and Nebenzahl make their reconciliations known with such reverence that the love once lost, seems found.
Throughout her long career as a documentary producer, Lisa Nebenzahl has engaged the space between storied ideas and images. Her keen interest in seeing and her desire to provide guidance through visual means have been steady impulses since art school. While Nebenzahl’s current work is a natural manifestation of her true nature, her artistic identity re-crystalized following her attendance to the terminal illness and death of her oldest and dearest friend. The intensity of this experience yielded a profound shift in Nebenzahl’s consciousness, opening a portal into a whole new way of life.
Over the past five years, Nebenzahl has realized an accelerated independent studio practice creating liminal and beautiful images that encompass the being-ness of longing, love, loss, resilience and recovery. Her subjects are ephemeral—including light, shadows, plants, water, sky and clouds—found, usually, in or near her Minneapolis home and on the North Shore of Lake Superior. She has created many hundreds of photographs of the light and shadows in her bedroom, paying homage to Emily Dickenson, who wrote 1800 poems in hers. Nebenzahl’s Emily Series illustrates that expansive vision supersedes the implied containment of three-dimensional territory.
Choosing to partner with chance and experimentation, Nebenzahl navigates technologies that collectively span nearly 200 years of innovation. She shoots with an iPhone, creates photographic montage with an Epson printer, folds photographs of the sky into geometric sculptures, prints photograms directly on pebbled lake shores, translates select images into cyanotypes, polymer gravure and palladium prints and creates artful, archival specimen boxes to display her sculptures.
Nebenzahl’s signature imagery contains no trace of human endeavor (save for her homage to the great surrealist, Rene Magritte) but frames the elemental and existential things that comprise life’s pristine backdrop—suggesting a fresh and safe place to land. Yet, even here, on some timeline, it is transitory. And while Nebenzahl surrenders to this truth she does seems to capture what cannot be. Perhaps the expansive grace of her inquiry is the reason.
In her recent series of polymer photogravure diptychs, she juxtaposes, side-by-side, austere images of earth and sky. Through this arrangement, Nebenzahl upends the logic of horizon to vertical position, aligning it with the posture of the viewer. Here, the viewer seems implicated as the third thing – the human horizon—or bridge between earth and sky. (It is worth noting that within the human energetic system, this switch point literally resides in the heart chakra.) These Zen-like double landscapes feel like rest (re-set) stops for the 21st century—inviting us to pause, release the separation and embrace the consciousness of ‘both/and’. This is the stage for transmutation.
In her audacious new “constructograms” Nebenzahl employs the photographic image in multiple ways to manifest quirky new celestial realms. Here, she captures her magical ‘Lumens’ (photographs of clouds, water and flora folded into crystal-shaped sculptures) in a suite of direct-contact prints and transfers their photographic likenesses onto etching plates. In the final polymer gravure prints, the schematic shapes of these 3-D forms float like benevolent asteroids, calling attention into the velvety void of un-charted territories. Several flash gold or silver leaf embellishments—suggesting, perhaps, the complete joy of creating a brand-new world.
Mary Ludington is a passionate and empathic photographer who has, for many years, worked with and companioned the energy of animals. She is well known for her animal portraits and a powerful photographic style which is remarkably fresh and unencumbered. Ludington’s photographs consistently reveal the dignity and spirit of the other beings. They also evidence her ecological-self (her live circuit-connection to nature) flowing freely through the ley lines of her witness. This energy—this unified presence—illuminates her subjects and the landscapes containing them, just as it does the sentient world.
In recent years, Ludington’s profound affinity for nature has been sorely compounded by her grief about climate chaos, the steady un-doing of the Earth’s eco-systems and what many scientists call the sixth extinction event for the planet Earth. She feels deep compassion for the innocent ones suffering and disappearing. How can she (we) face the fact that her (our) own species is destroying the world? For this, Ludington quotes the great mythologist, Joseph Campbell who said, “When you’re falling, dive”. And this describes exactly what she has done.
Through her passionate dive into the deep time of the Earth’s geo-history Ludington finds a story so old, on a stage so big, that today’s dilemma pales in comparison. Ludington processes her grief within this context—realizing, through her research, it is a complete miracle to be here at all. She is cognizant that the Earth has hosted five mass extinction events 445, 374, 252, 201 and 66 million years ago. High carbon levels triggered most of them, but in each case—over many millions of years—entirely new eco-systems rose to claim her surface.
Ludington is in awe of the eternal life force that drives this planetary theater and suspects that a whole new cast of characters is queuing up again. For the artist, the good news is there does seem to be a future for life on Earth, even if the humans aren’t playing for the long game. Indeed, today’s extinction event is the direct result of human behavior.
Three of Ludington’s large-scale phtographs (Pelican, Geology and Zeus) epitomize the artist’s preoccupation with deep time. In the first, the statured intention of a single pelican signals across a field of blue sky. Arrowlike in demeanor, the ancient bird’s dark profile reads like a key-hole or portal to another realm. Secondly, a mysterious landscape alludes to the theater of previous choices—its weathered territories now obscuring the original script. Lastly, a heritage pony runs with abandon across a sepia-toned ground, holding space for every horse ever constrained by humans. Here, he is completely free; showing every sign that he might just outrun the Anthropocene.
Ludington takes on extinction in a group of photogravures featuring selected works from her series “Mercury Retrograde”, a brooding calendar of darkness and light. Here, she translates six images of insects through the subdued aesthetic of historical printmaking—a choice that relegates her subjects to the past. These monochromatic prints flank a color photograph of a vulture perched in an ancient, decimated tree. The forboding of this work echos the recent international study on global insect decline which warns that radical changes (in human behavior) will be required to avert the mass extinction of insects. To be sure, this is cautionary work. We can no longer safely assume that there is a future. This is tough to get one’s head around. Only the open heart can really take it on.
In this bardo called the 21st century, a vast and ancient world waits with unspeakable patience for the human beings to reconcile the past with the future. Through their work, Lisa Nebenzahl and Mary Ludington illuminate essential processes for deliverance: seeing with clarity, revering other beings and entities, discerning what is fleeting, feeling the grief and choosing life, anyway.
As to the heart, the Chandogya Upanishad offers this instruction: “And vast as the space here around us is this space within the heart, and within it are contained both the earth and sky, both fire and wind, both the sun and the moon, both lightning and stars. What belongs here to this space around us, as well as what does not—all that is contained within it.” And within this space, anything is possible.
–Cynde Randall, August 2019, Maiden Rock, WI
About the artists
Mary Ludington attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, earning a degree in Agricultural Journalism, with a focus on photography, in 1979. Through the 80’s and 90’s Ludington worked in the fields of commercial, architectural and fashion photography with her personal photographic work focused on the landscape and, later, animals. Dogs became a signature subject and, in 2007, Ludington’s award-winning book, The Nature of Dogs, was published by Simon and Schuster. The Nature of Dogs juxtaposes Ludington’s extraordinary photographic work with a range of texts by critically acclaimed authors, including Mary Gaitskill, Temple Grandin, Patricia Hampl, James Hillman, Kevin Kling, Winona LaDuke and Peter Trachtenberg. Over the past ten years, Mary's work has focused primarily on the human impacts to the planet Earth. Today, her eco-conscious photographs of vertebrates, invertebrates and the earth are realized through silver gelatin, digital color and photogravure processes.
Lisa Nebenzahl photographs shadows, light, plants, water and sky—affirming the beauty of what is temporal and embracing the chance and surprise that comes with engaging the natural world. Through her digital and photogravure prints and folded paper sculptures Nebenzahl explores themes of resilience and fragility, loss and persistence and the passage of time. She exhibits her work regionally and nationally, most recently at the Griffin Museum of Photography in Boston and A. Smith Gallery in Texas, where her diptych “Fall/Cloud” received The Directors Award. Her three-dimensional work was selected by curator Aline Smithson for Rfotofolio’s 2018 Selections call. Nebenzahl holds a BFA from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and is a recipient of the 2016 and 2018 Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant. (Her Diptychs and Lumen Asteroids were produced with the support of a 2018 Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant).