Press "Enter" to skip to content

Two artists repurpose history

Artist Binh Danh’s “Military Foliage,” a series of chlorophyll leaf prints,
created using the natural process of photosynthesis (Ellen Newton).

A pair of adjoining moonstruck-gray walls hold 66 chlorophyll prints on dried and pressed arrowhead-shaped leaves. The visual array is striking and reminiscent of a biologist’s plant collection: each specimen flattened and isolated in deep space, ripe for individual scrutiny. The prints begin as military camouflages and dissolve into wispy, organic forms or harden into neat grids and pixels.

On the other side of the gallery space lie works of art that are no less absorbing. A four-sided bureau of cardboard boxes stores fists of threads, strips of fabric and bundles of paper as if preparing materials for another project. Nearby on the gallery floor are two coyotes, born from a mixture of aged newspaper, refurbished fake animal furs, threads and pins. One forms a crescent with its curving torso while the other huddles in a stiff pose near the wall.

Two artists’ exhibits are occupying the Mills College Art Museum this fall semester, bisecting the gallery space into two halves to visit ideas of the past and the present using very distinct inroads. Both Vietnamese-born artist Binh Danh’s “Collecting Memories,” and Mills MFA graduate Kathryn Spence’s “Short sharp notes, rolling or churring whistles, clear phrases,” will be on show at the museum until Dec. 12.

Artist Kathryn Spence created two horned owls withwith recycled materials, such as newspaper and toy fur. (Ellen Newton)

Through black-backed chlorophyll prints framed in black to daguerreotype images set on reflective metal plates, Vietnamese-born artist Danh has produced a concise collection of violence and texture. Danh shows a strong interest in the history of the Vietnam War and its effects on Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, using popular images and new ones to contribute new ideas to the past. Daguerreotype, a technique developed in the 1830’s, was among the first methods of capturing a still image. The artist treats a reflective metal plate with a chemical formula, making it sensitive to light. The artist then exposes the plate to a subject before further chemical treatments solidify the image and the artist frames the plate. Since many of Danh’s images are daguerreotypes, many images reflect the viewer like mirrors at a distance. Only when the viewer steps closer and occupies the image may she or he see the powerful Vietnam War images that Danh has represented.

Danh’s art focuses on the war but also looks at present-day Southeast Asia. One daguerreotype from a hotel lobby in Laos shows a wall filled with posters depicting cartoon children being blown apart, warnings against land-mines and bombs. Another daguerreotype displays a row of heavy armed artillery leaning against a wall, illustrating that what happened in Vietnam decades ago is still visible and very tangible today.

That violence is palpable in Danh’s other photographs of present-day Vietnam. One shot is particularly captivating, for its connection to the famous photograph of a monk in Saigon who lit himself on fire in the middle of the street in protest of the war. Danh takes an interesting approach by photographing the car featured in the back of the photograph. That same car holds a framed copy of the original photo, ensuring that the viewer may contextualize the image and the survival of history.

Kathryn Spence’s exhibit focuses on a different kind of violence. By reusing what others consider waste – fabric, newspapers and fake furs, for example – Spence creates sculptures and installations that mimic the natural world in a theatrical and abstract way.

Spence's coyote of textiles and paper (Ellen Newton).

Spence’s pieces easily morph from the crisp and familiar to the vague and conceptual. In the exhibit’s title piece, a long series of linked plywood frames and drawers carry deposits of fabrics and figures made from a diverse list of things, among them sweaters, plastic, hairpins, beeswax, feathers, wire and swatches. On four wooden posts in the middle of the piece are two great horned owls, their wings fashioned from newspaper and toy fur. Given the sheer variety of materials, the degree of recognizability is striking.

Two other sculptures in another piece depict a pair of coyotes, created from the same blend of recycled textiles and paper. The wary postures of the coyotes and the bric-a-brac construction style convey neglect, abuse and incompleteness.

Danh’s and Spence’s exhibits offer commanding commentaries on human violence. Danh reflects on images of the Vietnam War and illustrates its modern-day effects while Spence’s prodigal patterns of waste reflect the natural world from which they originate. Both artists make a strong argument for reconsidering our ideas about violence as it occurs on a human and industrial level.