Sunday, August 30, 2015

Terra Incognita: An Interview with Shannon Estlund and Aaron Squardroni

Terra Incognita, the Latin translation of unknown lands, pairs the paintings of Shannon Estlund and the drawings of Aaron Squadroni. Both artists explore how landscapes are transmutable narrative histories, revealing human impact through an ever altering terrain. Terra Incognita also references how the phrase is used metaphorically to describe any unexplored subject or field of research, in this case how traces and disruptions in land forms develop into chronicles of human existence. 

We checked in with both artists to get a better picture of their process and inspiration for the work....

Shannon Estlund and Aaron Squadroni:
1. What is your connection to the land? And has your work always centered on using landscape to explore human narratives and sense of place?

AS: Land and nature have always exerted a strong influence on my personal identity. I tend to focus on places rather than people in my work, thinking of myself in the places my art represents. I describe my current drawings as land portraits because I want people to relate to the land in the way that they might relate to another person - unobjectively. However, the drawings are also self-portraits in the sense that the spaces depicted are extensions of me. In the images I am unseen but not absent.

I draw heavily on the notion of personal identity when considering the identity of a place. For a person to have a strong sense of personal identity they must be able to link together the successive stages of their lives in a story that makes sense. I use this idea – linking together past, present, and future in a coherent narrative – to inform my depictions of places. In regard to the second question then, I would say that rather than using the landscape to explore human narratives, I use human narratives (including my own) to develop the identity of a place. 

Aaron Squadroni  Kawishiwi River: Bough

SE: I became interested in landscape after moving from Jacksonville, Florida to Minneapolis. I started using photographs that I had taken in Florida, and then when I took trips back to Jacksonville I would take hundreds of photos as potential source material for paintings. It took some distance to really appreciate how alive it is, and how in comparison the growth and decay is so accelerated. It is intense. The beauty is very robust; the trees are taller, the shapes are sharper. If you go for a walks in the woods you’ll see banana spiders and snakes and alligators. There’s more at stake. I have been working to find this same connection to the land in Minnesota. It is taking more time than I expected. We just moved to a house on Rice Creek, and this area has been very inspiring to me. The paintings in this show are a mix of Floridian landscapes and areas near my new home.

2. For the most part both of your works in the show intentionally depict scenes absent of the human form.  However there is one exception for both of you, Shannon’s piece Gate and Aaron’s piece Kawishiwi River: Bough, which makes the presence of the human form even more pronounced.  Could you both explain why those pieces in particular needed the presence of a figure?

AS: I am developing a narrative about the Kawishiwi River. Human interactions are simply one element among many that shape the story of the river. I want to imply that the identity of the river in many ways supersedes human presence. In terms of logging, hunting or other resource extraction, the parts that are removed seem more important to me than the human acts required for their removal. The piece titled, Kawishiwi River: Bough, however requires a human presence because it represents the closest that human beings have come to being a part of the river, a branch floating in the current.  

Shannon Estlund  Gate

SE: In the piece Gate I painted my daughter, who was three at the time, coming down a hill with an overgrown tree partially blocking her from view. Her small body is balanced against the massive mess of branches, and I liked the contrast in size and shape. The scene is recognizable as a small side yard, with the chain link fence and air conditioning unit indicating the parameters of the space. The addition of her tiny form hints that this area has the potential to be more than a space between houses- it is also a site for an adventure, with more than enough wildness and shadow to captivate one’s attention if looked at from the right angle.

3. Is there a particular location that provides inspiration for your work? Or somewhere you like to visit to recharge creatively?

AS: I like to wander and find a place that surprises me in some small way. Then I sit and just watch what takes place there.

SE: I love natural spaces near suburban areas, I think because these were the sites of all of my childhood adventures. Places that can be explored without taking too much trouble to get there. Places that are a part of the fabric of everyday life, that also hold some mystery, that are just out of reach of civilized society.

4. This is the first time your work was shown together and the first time either of you have even seen the other ones work.  Did showing your work together reveal any unexpected aspects of your own work? 

AS: In combination with the title of the exhibit, Shannon’s work makes me think about the specificity of a place and how “lands unknown” applies to me.

Shannon’s paintings are anonymous to a certain degree which also makes them universal. I don’t recognize the actual location but I understand the place because these locations are common in the urban/suburban landscape. The settings and elements in each painting are familiar, yet their origin is unknown. Because of the dual impact of the familiar and unknown, her work evokes a movement into dream and memory for me.

When thinking about my work in this context I realize that I am trying to differentiate the Kawishiwi River from other rivers in the state. The river is known in a general sense but unknown to most as a specific and distinctive entity. I want to uncover and establish a robust identity that personifies the Kawishiwi River. I hope to transform the river from a stranger to a friend.

SE: What has been interesting for me is that my work looks almost loose next to Aaron’s very refined style in these pieces. And then when I look at the work by Joel Janetto and Jesse Ruiz in the other gallery, my work seems very reserved in comparison. When I am working on a piece in my studio, I tend to think of particular pieces as being either very spontaneous and loose or very controlled. Seeing my work in this context helps me to see that there are vast amounts of space in either direction, which helps me to broaden the way that I think about making.
5. What’s next for both of you? And what direction do you see your new work headed? And how does this current body of work differ from what you have done in the past?

AS: I have a number of drawings in this series that I still want to make. I am also interested in starting a group of drawings about a different location on the iron range. I may try using taconite and raw iron ore as drawing media.

SE: I plan to continue working with landscape but pushing the boundaries of what I feel comfortable with in terms of inventing more of the imagery. I also have some objects that I am playing with in the studio. I have a solo show coming up at the Crisp-Ellert Art Museum in St. Augustine, Florida in May 2016. It is a very large space, so that is what I will be working toward in the coming months.   

Aaron Squadroni  Kawishiwi River:Sky
Aaron Squadroni:
1. Your drawings are created with copper, which has a strong conceptual link to your subject matter. Could you talk about your process in creating the work and about your connection to the Kawishiwi River?

AS: I start by painting Stonehenge drawing paper with silverpoint medium. Silverpoint medium is a variant of gesso that is abrasive. When metal objects come into contact with the paper surface covered in silverpoint medium, metallic flecks rub off. This drawing process was popular in the renaissance but artists tended to use gold or silver since these metals showed minimal tarnishing. I use copper wire that I place in a lead holder for drawing. I then file the end of the wire to a point to allow for more detail and control. Once I make a mark on the paper it cannot be smeared or erased. 

Copper has been contained in the rocks of the Kawishiwi River for many thousands of years. It is now highly sought after by mining companies. Using copper as a drawing meduim is important to me in this series because of its role in the history of the Kawishiwi River and its impending impact on the river’s future. Copper also has a certain delicacy due to its lack of value range. The resulting lightness of the drawings require the viewer to approach close to the image. A narrative of the Kawishiwi River is revealed slowly and formed from a series of intimate exchanges between the viewer and the artworks.  
Aaron Squadroni  Kawishiwi River: Mask

2. Each piece in the show is actually 2 images combined into one. Can you talk a little about how you decided which images to combine together and how they inform each other…you can use just one of the works as an explanation since the background on each of the images is very detailed. 

AS: Each portrait merges an image of the landscape with a symbol or object from the landscape. I begin with research. I then choose topics I consider to be important for creating a narrative. Currently, I have a number of topics that I want to address in additional drawings. One is the method of underground mining that is proposed below Birch Lake. For this drawing I plan to use an old diagram of the Soudan underground mine as a base image. This becomes a symbolic map, showing how the foundations of the lake will be hollowed out. Then I will consider what kind of experiential image of the landscape might be overlaid with that to act as either a complement or foil. In this case, I intend to start with images inside mine tunnels as well as images of mine shafts where they emerge from the earth. I will play with various combinations through sketching and digital manipulation. During this phase of experimentation, accidental discoveries and unexpected combinations lead to new ways of envisioning the subject matter. If I end up with an image that I anticipated from the outset then it usually is too predictable, causing me to start the process again. Once I have created an image that I am satisfied with, I make a drawing of it using copper. The drawing process is important to me as a means of softening and reinterpreting the unrefined parts of a digital image.

3. How do you see being an Architect intersecting and informing your work?

AS: Architecture can be very freeing because of its restraints. The precision and rigor that is possible and even expected in architecture is something that I appreciate and translate to my art making process. Unfortunately, architecture has also made my process of creating artwork more cerebral, less organic, and less intuitive. In the future I hope to strike a balance between the logic of an architectural approach and the spontaneity of an intuitive approach.

Shannon Estlund Jones Creek
Shannon Estlund:
1. Your paintings use a variety of application techniques to create your natural spaces. Can you a talk a little about how you decide what mark making techniques to use and how it varies from painting to painting?

See answer to #2

Shannon Estlund  Golden Hour
2. In your statement you say the natural spaces are a combination of real and imaginary…How do you see the balance of real and imaginary informing the viewers experience with the landscape?

SE: Everyone brings their own filter on reality with them wherever they go. Recently I’ve been interested in how narrow that filter is for humans. We can’t know what the world is like to a creature using echolocation, electric or magnetic sense, or to a creature whose sense of smell is the dominant sense. And then there are imagined senses, and the potential for subtler senses that can be developed. The way that these pieces are painted makes the filter more visible by exaggerating it. For me, the mark making is as much the subject of the painting as the source imagery. Each painting is executed differently based on the experience of the place. I want to make the sensory experience more immediate for the viewer.

3. The scale of your work varies from fairly small to large canvases, do you immediately visualize a space in a specific scale and how do you think that affects the viewers experience with the work?

SE: Both small and large pieces begin with an idea of wanting to explore something about a moment or place. It’s in the execution that they diverge. The larger formats allow for more exploration in the process, because it just takes longer to get an idea down on a large panel and my thinking and moods change as I work through it. The smaller pieces are sometimes more direct, the thinking through the process a little simpler. I think this is appropriate and relates to the experience of the viewer because the smaller pieces can be taken in all at once, while the larger ones need some examination of the parts as related to the whole to fully understand the image.