Elizabeth Newman Kuiper’s new exhibit rewards the contemplative viewer
Elizabeth Newman Kuiper, who’s 45 years old, has been studying and making art for most of her adult life. She’s lived in Chico for 13 years, and during that time she has presented four solo exhibits (at the Chico Museum and the 1078 Gallery, among other locales) and participated in numerous group shows here, in addition to several one-person shows elsewhere.
I’ve seen her work on several occasions and always have found it compellingly evocative, the creation of an intelligent and self-aware artist who isn’t afraid to tap deeply into the intuitive.
Her newest exhibit, Assemblage and Collage, nicely mounted at the Humanities Center Gallery in Trinity Hall on the Chico State University campus, is both a progression from and a recapitulation of her earlier work. Newman Kuiper has always used found materials—thrift shop stuff, old wood and pieces of furniture, buttons and cloth—but earlier she employed them mostly to make free-standing, sculptural assemblages. Then she moved in a more pictorial direction, creating wall collages that have an almost two-dimensional, painterly quality.
Now, as the title of this exhibit suggests, she’s merged the two approaches. Many of these 15 wall pieces have forceful sculptural elements; they hang like paintings, but with their strong 3-D elements they also leap out from the wall. And even those that are primarily collages are strongly and unconventionally framed with old pieces of wood or other found materials. The work shown in the photo above, “forest for the trees,” with its use of old table legs on the sides to create a classical effect and a piece of weathered wood on top, is fairly typical.
Look at the piece more closely. It shows the outline of a male figure as defined, in part, by the field of words inside his body. The words are from an old book or article about mining, and the figure as a whole is set against the backdrop of a page from an old collection of geological survey maps of Northern California. A slash of gold paint runs, river-like, from top to bottom, and several twigs of cedar are collaged onto the surface surrounding the figure.
The result is a kind of meditation on the earth and how we use it, with emphasis on gold mining in this area. But it’s not didactic in any way; it merely asks us to consider these things. Who, it might be asking, can’t see “the forest for the trees"?
Newman Kuiper’s earlier assemblages were largely autobiographical explorations of memory, dream, childhood and womanhood. Gradually her vision has expanded, becoming less directly personal and much larger and encompassing. Now she’s concerned with the earth and nature and the natural process, including death and decay, and the oneness of it all.
Many of the pieces include old maps varnished in as backdrops to other elements, including leaves, bits of glass, flowers and old wallpaper. Some seem to focus specifically on Northern California and its land and history, while others seem to have a global perspective that’s conveyed by the artist’s use of maps of the earth as elements of her collages. And there’s an East-West spiritual and cultural element conveyed by her use of Catholic imagery (images of monks and the Madonna) as well as hexagrams from the I Ching and evocations of Taoism (one piece is entitled “yin/yang,” another “east meets west").
Newman Kuiper says she carefully avoids being too explicit, however, insisting her work is “all about ‘come in and find out.’
“My hope is that my work is complex enough,” she explains, “for someone to be able to live with it over a lifetime and still open new avenues of contemplation.”
It’s also quite beautiful, though not in a decorative way. The pieces are lovely, but they have integrity. Nature is present in all her aspects, and the rawness of some of the materials—the old wood, for example—minimizes preciosity. This is exceptional work that should be seen by anyone interested in Chico art and artists.