Ambient thoughts

Tamara Scronce

Tamara Scronce’s inspiration for her installation art comes from stories about her life.

Tamara Scronce’s inspiration for her installation art comes from stories about her life.

Photo By David Robert

A video image shows a bathtub draining. It’s projected on a gallery wall, much larger than life-sized, but you still have to look closely to see the vague reflection of the artist. She appears in the funnel-shaped swirl of still-clean water before it disappears down the drain.

The shot is an apt metaphor for Tamara Scronce’s whole approach to making art. There are references to her personal life everywhere in her sculptures and installations. Her choices of colors, dimensions and materials come from her own stories, whether they’re little, everyday ones, like taking a bath, or big, life-changing ones, like ending a marriage. She once made a sculpture of wood and unraveled bed sheets—they were a wedding gift—called “Thirty-six Months.” She translated one measurement into another; the sculpture is 36 feet long, one foot for each month of marriage. A lot of her artwork is like that. It’s a codified journal of her life, using temporary arrangements of objects and images as a language instead of text.

Scronce settles into a chair in her office in the corner of the sculpture lab at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she’s an instructor. With a muted-pink cardigan and magenta streaks in her straight brown hair, she exudes a little flamboyance and a little shyness. Her artwork suggests each of those qualities, too.

She talks about one of the ideas that got her interested in being an artist. In college, as an English major, she was struck by a line from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance": “What is true for you in your private heart is true for all.” It inspired a desire to turn inward to her own life for artistic source material that would ring universal to viewers. A few years of graduate art school in Chicago inspired her to refine her approach and aim for a simplified, meditative aesthetic.

Sticking with the meditative approach, Scronce’s new installation at UNR’s Sheppard Gallery is an invitation to slow down and chill out. The exhibition’s title, Inhale/Exhale, is instructive in tone, and the 40-watt bulbs hanging from black cords appear to “breathe” slowly as they brighten and dim rhythmically. By masking the usual severity of the concrete-box room with comfortable, intermittent darkness and sounds of running water, Scronce has made it an environment for contemplation.

The eight-minute video of a bathtub filling and draining features occasional shots of the artists’ hands and mouth catching the water. When she appears here and there in the video, it edges toward being intimate—but it’s only the slightest bit revealing. Scronce comes from the tradition of artists who are interested in conveying a sense of their humanity without giving away all the details. Her visual “journals” tell us she’s been thinking but don’t spell out exactly what she’s been thinking. She says she’s interested in conveying or invoking something, in creating an atmosphere, rather than articulating a specific point or offering a direct translation of her stories.

But there’s a sense that we don’t really need to know the specifics of her intimate thoughts and that she doesn’t particularly need to reveal them. In Inhale/Exhale, it’s more like she’s exploring her own personal concerns than confessing them, and by setting up an atmosphere where it’s easy to have your guard down, she’s inviting viewers to do the same.