"Gina Siepel: The Artist as Explorer," by Lauren Lessing

Exhibition catalog essay, reprinted with permission, from "Currents6: Gina Siepel," Colby College Museum of Art, 2010.


Visitors entering the Colby College Museum of Art in the fall and winter of 2010–11 encounter Bateau in Flight, a video showing a boat being lowered slowly from the upper story of a barn. The precision and teamwork involved in this process, and the boat itself—an elegant, hand-built vessel—reflect Gina Siepel’s practice as an artist. Often working collaboratively, she investigates the treasured American ideal of self-reliance. Venturing into landscapes with deep and complex histories of human habitation, she explores the nature of our relationship to place.

After Winslow Homer

Siepel embraces wordplay in this series of photographs, staged by Siepel and shot by the photographer Mònika Sziládi. The seven color prints are “after” Winslow Homer because they quote Adirondack and Maine landscapes by the nineteenth-century American artist, with Siepel posing as the woodsmen and wilderness guides who appear in so many of Homer’s paintings. They are also “after” Homer because Siepel and Sziládi created them more than a century after Homer painted his celebrations of the New England wilderness and the changes that have occurred in the intervening years are immediately and sometimes humorously evident.  Finally, Siepel herself appears to be “after” Homer in the sense that she is seeking the artist’s underlying ideas and motivations in her own work.

In Portrait of the Artist as “The Trapper,” Siepel stands at the end of a stone and concrete pier that juts into the shallow end of a pond. Like the guide in Homer’s 1870 painting, she turns her upper body to look into the distance while holding a boat steady with her oar, inviting viewers to step into the picture and become her passengers. Siepel is dressed for the woods, but the scene that surrounds her is a suburban park. It is in fact Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau wrote his transcendentalist paean to the virtues of simple living and self-reliance one hundred and sixty years earlier. Park designers have domesticated Thoreau’s woods with stone steps around the edges of the pond, a “beach” of transplanted sand, a park building, and a lifeguard’s chair. Buoys demarcate a swimming area where women and children wade. Siepel gazes away from the shore as if seeking to escape. Thoreau and Homer wanted to escape too, of course. As T. J. Jackson Lears has affirmed, the search for authentic experience beyond the edges of modern civilization is paradoxically fundamental to modern culture.[i]

Siepel’s choice of Walden Pond and its surroundings as the setting for these photographs reveals her deep interest in Thoreau, in whose footsteps she literally walks. By depicting the encroachment of contemporary culture with all of its familiar banality into these formerly wild spaces, the artist echoes Thoreau himself, who wrote, “the whistle of the locomotive penetrates my woods summer and winter, sounding like the scream of a hawk sailing over some farmer’s yard…”[ii] In Siepel’s Historic Site: Henry’s Grave, positioned just in front of After Winslow Homer in the gallery, a short loop of video documents the artist’s pilgrimage to Thoreau’s grave. As a hand places a coin on his simple headstone beside the notes and bits of nature left by other pilgrims, the sound of a passing engine reminds us that modernity is inescapable.

The portable folding boat that appears in four of the photographs in this series originates from another project of Siepel’s—The Boy Mechanic. Using blueprints and instructions from an early twentieth-century series of do-it-yourself books published for boys, Siepel built dozens of objects, including the boat (which is named “Two-Fifty-Two” for the page on which its plans appear). She pursued this project as “a means of exploring connections between object making, self-making, and the American ideal of the self-made man.”[iii] An inquiry into American constructions of masculinity also informs After Winslow Homer.

As Sarah Burns has argued, Homer conceived the New England landscapes that inspired After Winslow Homer as antidotes to the supposed feminizing and enervating influences of modern, middle-class life. Like the vacations that drew flocks of male office workers into the wilderness in the late nineteenth-century, they offer a fantasy of personal and national renewal through bracing contact with rugged nature. Unlike the well-trodden tourist locales peopled by fashionable young women that Homer painted in the 1860s, the undomesticated landscapes that Siepel and Sziládi emulate would, many Americans hoped, produce the kind of tough, energetic, and self-reliant men that supposedly made America great.[iv]

In After Winslow Homer, Siepel also plays with the dual meaning of the word “camp,” which is both an outpost in the wilderness and (as scholars of queer theory have defined it) an aesthetic discourse characterized by masquerade, parody, pastiche, and irony that serves to denaturalize gender roles.[v] In Portrait of the Artist as a Pioneer, for instance, Siepel strikes the aggressive, striding pose of the rugged woodsman in a watercolor Homer painted in 1900, just eight years after the United States Department of the Interior declared the frontier closed. Homer’s protagonist shoulders his axe and surveys a vast field of stumps, seemingly bewildered about where to go and what to do next. Looking over the manicured lawn of a golf course, Siepel seems to ask similar questions: What would happen if she raised an axe to one of these artfully planted trees? If the American wilderness produces rugged men, who is produced here? What, after all, is natural? In After Winslow Homer, Siepel is both a guide and a sardonic interloper in the spaces of modern America. Seen through her eyes, the familiar becomes strange.

 

A River Twice

A River Twice documents a series of guided journeys up and down stretches of the Kennebec River in Maine during the summer of 2010. The boat that Siepel built for these expeditions is a hybrid of a bateau (a type of boat used on the Kennebec for centuries) and an Adirondack guide boat. Together with the artist’s cluttered workbench and beautifully drawn loft plans, it occupies the center of the gallery, providing a tangible connection to both the river and Siepel’s skillful work as a craftsperson.

In her narration for A River Twice, literature scholar Karinne Keithley Syers quotes the Transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote, “All I know is reception.”[vi] Challenging the audience to emulate Emerson while watching and listening to the video that is the focus of this installation, she asks, “Can we persist in looking at this river until we are strangers here?” Syers is one of eight guides who describe, interpret, and augment what unfolds in two adjacent projections.

Videographers Caitlin Berrigan and Sara Smith recorded the river with a camera mounted on a tripod in Siepel’s boat, carried on foot, and pointed out of a car window, and Siepel has edited this footage in fragments. We perceive the water disturbed by Siepel’s oars as she rows, birds in the sky, the riverbank gliding past, the rocky, shell-strewn shore, and the boat’s occupants as they talk. These disjointed views and sounds deny us gestalt, revealing instead a landscape characterized by inconsistency and constant change. Siepel took her title from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who advised, “You cannot step twice into the same river; for other waters are continually flowing in.”

Siepel’s guides present a similarly rich and fragmented vision of the river. Their divergent interests dovetail in unexpected ways, allowing the audience to make surprising, organic connections. For instance, Biologist Herb Wilson describes how the split vocal cords of song thrushes nesting along the river give their music its texture and complexity. Minutes later, musician Tony Holmquist plays Maine folk tunes on a fiddle, his bow sliding across its strings to create similar harmonies. Registered Maine Guide Nancy Taylor explains that exotic species of fish brought to the river by sport fishermen have displaced native species. Joe Albuit, the proprietor of a campground, similarly evokes a sense of loss when he shows Siepel the haunting petroglyphs of the Red Paint Indians, who recorded in pictures their contact with the Europeans that eventually dispossessed them.

Like history, geography has traditionally belonged to victors. Conquerors affirm their ownership by mapping, naming, and selectively describing the land under their power, while erasing the presence of others. In the landscapes she presents, Siepel rejects such circumscribed views. Her video Historic Site: Arnold’s Way depicts a sign along Maine’s Route 201 marking a turn-off to the spot where Benedict Arnold and his men began an arduous twelve-mile portage en route to attack the British in Quebec during the American Revolution. As if mocking the sufferings of Arnold’s soldiers, cars and lumber trucks zoom past. The wind blows, the trees rustle, and birds fly overhead. No one stops to visit the historic site.

In A River Twice, Siepel similarly shatters empirical understandings of place. As in After Winslow Homer, she makes the familiar strange, and by doing so guides us—not to answers—but to new and startling questions. We are left to contemplate just how we construct our understandings of particular places, and how these understandings help us to define ourselves. 

 


[i] T. J. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880–1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

[ii] Henry David Thoreau, Walden (Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1854), 1:181.

[iii] These words appear in Siepel’s description of The Boy Mechanic on her website: www.ginasiepel.com.

[iv] Sarah Burns, “Revitalizing the ‘Painted-Out’ North: Winslow Homer, Manly Health, and New England Regionalism in Turn-of-the-Century America,” American Art 9 (Summer 1995), 21–37.

[v] See Moe Myer, ed., The Politics and Poetics of Camp (London: Routledge, 1994). Judith Butler has theorized that drag performances in particular “dramatize the signifying gestures through which gender itself is established.” Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1999), xxviii–xxix.

[vi] R. W. Emerson, “Experience,” in Essays: Second Series (Boston: James Munroe and Company, 1844), 91.