04 March 2012

Pat Hickman: Traces of Time

When we think of traditional artists' materials, we usually consider plump tubes of acrylic paint and tautly-stretched canvas, anticipating the brush.  Or we envision arrayed pans of watercolors and tablets of creamy Arches paper. Artist Pat Hickman's materials and pigments are not made by Winsor and Newton, but by time and nature, including parts of trees and animals (more on this last below.)  The ubiquitous pigment in this exhibit is not burnt umber but actual rust.

Detail, Silent.

The images in this post are from Pat Hickman: Traces of Time, an exhibit at the University Art Gallery of U-Mass Dartmouth's College of Visual and Performing Arts. The exhibit ran from December 8, 2011 to January 27, 2012; my husband and I viewed the show at the end, so this post is a document rather than a current event. However, explore Ms Hickman's website for more images and for her schedule.

Ms. Hickman, a Colorado native, has traveled extensively and studied contemporary and ancient textiles from Alaska to Turkey. She does not copy ethnographic textiles or techniques, but her work reflects an attitude toward process and materials which is shaped by her study and observation of traditional techniques.

Overview of gallery exhibit.

During her studies, Ms. Hickman learned that Native Alaskans traditionally used the intestinal membranes of marine mammals, as well as fish skin, to waterproof outerwear.  Before we say "ugh," any Westerner who has ever eaten a "natural casing" sausage has eaten the processed intestinal tract of farmed animals.  By using gut, which she obtained first from delicatessens which made their own sausage, Ms Hickman displays her alchemy, transforming a material, nowhere to be found in the catalog of traditional fine art tools, into art.  In these works, there is emphatically no relation between the worth of the piece and the inherent value of the materials - the significance is all in the concept as realized by Ms. Hickman, in her choices and in the skill of her hands.

Silent, animal gut and nails.

In Silent, Ms. Hickman worked with the animal gut in a wet form, and as the material dried, time and moisture oxidized the nails placed within the layers of gut. The casing material also became translucent, with a slight sheen, when dry. The rows and rows of nails, following the convention of vertical tally marks and diagonal slashes,  evoke the most basic ways of counting and of marking time.
Downriver Ravages

 Layers of wet animal gut pressed over old door. Photo credit: Ned Harris.

The image above shows Ms. Hickman working on Downriver Ravages.  She formed animal gut over a rusty elevator door in an old former calico cloth factory.  The textures and rust from the industrial artifact transferred to the animal membrane as the membrane dried and contracted, forming a memory, like a shed skin, of the door.

I'm interested in both structure and skin. The contraction of gut when drying, the pulling power of those membranes, changes the shape of a structure, finally achieving a balance, a resolution of the separate materials. - Pat Hickman, Pat Hickman: Traces of Time exhibition brochure.

Detail, Downriver Ravages.

Time and decay are not just her themes, but also her allies, harnessed by Ms. Hickman in the installation River Teeth.  When trees die and fall in the woods the soft pith decays, but the crotch wood - where a branch intersects the trunk - is denser, and persists. According to Ms. Hickman, these tough remnants are called "river teeth," named by sailors who imagined tooth-like shapes left by trees which had fallen and decayed, not in woods, but in water.  Ms. Hickman collects and organizes these modern fossils.

Detail, River Teeth.

River Teeth.

Foreground: Tumbleweed. Background: Mnemonics.

Detail, Mnemonics. Mahogany-dyed casings.



Ms. Hickman also twists, splices and bends wire, netting and reeds.  She stitches,  molds and burnishes dessicated palm sheaths.  Some of her animal gut works have been recast in bronze, transmuting the gossamer and lightweight into something metallic, rigid and almost indestructible.  While silent, Pat Hickman's work prompts unending conversations about fragility and strength, permanence and change, worth and value.

Gone. Cast bronze of animal gut sculpture.