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Outside the Box

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In a corner of her Burlington studio, right next to an unfinished picture frame, Jennifer Koch stores dried insects in cigar boxes. "This one's from Zaire," she says, lifting an exotic relative of a cockroach off its mooring. "But the rest are local."

Welcome to Koch's kingdom - a breezy space overlooking the Winooski River that doubles as the artist's home and headquarters of her business, "Frames for You and Mona Lisa Too." Koch, 40, is the latest recipient of the prestigious Barbara Smail Award - a prize bestowed by Burlington City Arts on a "mid-career" Vermont artist. Also, her work is on display through March 25 at the 215 College Artists' Cooperative Gallery in a joint exhibition with mixed-media printmaker Sumru Tekin.

If you ran into Jennifer Koch on the street, you probably wouldn't typecast her as a surrealist. But make no mistake: This Burlington bohéme, with her modest smile and silvery mane, is up to something deliciously weird. Though she happens to be a highly skilled printmaker, Koch concentrates most of her artistic energies on "box constructions": wooden rectangles of varied shapes, sizes and colors that showcase, among other things, re-assembled Renaissance paintings, fake plastic bones, feathers and - in her latest series - 5-foot zippers.

It's impossible to savor Koch's work without recalling 1930s surrealism. After all, artists like Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray pioneered the incorporation of the "found object," or "readymade," into museum-worthy art. But the most important influence on Koch's work is Joseph Cornell, the original - and highly eccentric - "box constructionist" extraordinaire.

Cornell, an enigmatic recluse who crafted hundreds of boxes in his Queens garage from the mid-1930s until his death in 1972, secured a place for box art in the American canon. A frail, wraith-like man who loved to haunt the shops of Manhattan's Greenwich Village, he worked on the fringes of major 20th-century art movements such as Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. Along the way, he attracted a cult following of movie stars, art dealers and other cultural luminaries. But Koch says she tries "not to use the same world of objects" as did the famous artist. She asserts, "I don't want to be too Cornellian."

Not to worry. At 215 College Street, each of Koch's boxes contains its own bizarre universe. In some, Renaissance paintings have been digitally manipulated, cut up and re-worked into three-dimensional portraits, then festooned with seemingly random found objects - a fake finger, bent paintbrushes, half a scissors. Another three elegant, whitewashed wood boxes - one 5 feet tall - are outfitted with undone zippers. Behind the zippers lie spools of yarn, twigs and metal coils, so that each work offers its own feast of disparate associations.

But look closer and you might notice how the pieces relate to each other. For one thing, they're all rooted in a primary color scheme and a distinctly antiquarian vibe. For another, they all feature bugs. In "Specimen #42," an iridescent blue butterfly spreads its wings. In "Specimen #49," a ring of spotted red bugs circles neurotically around an encyclopedia cutout. And in "Specimen #47, After Ingres," a green Japanese beetle hides amid assorted pencils, a light bulb fixture and a mutilated comb.

Koch's insect motif reflects a long-standing aesthetic obsession. At 52 pieces and counting, her "Specimen Series" has comprised the better part of her artistic production for 10 years. Just as Cornell focused on a small number of aesthetic fetishes - birds, ballerinas, constellations - so too does Koch use boxes to pursue her personal, and etymological, curiosities.

She doesn't let the medium cramp her style, though. Like Cornell, whose works ran the gamut from post-Victorian to early Postmodern, Koch's boxes reflect a wide breadth of taste and influence. For instance, on her studio work table sits a small, antiqued box featuring a manipulated 1843 Theodore Chasseriau painting of two young girls - with beetles crawling across their breasts. On the floor, a thin, white box rises 4 feet off the ground, and its electric-blue interior abounds with canning jars. (Think Andy Warhol on the homestead.) On another table, heaps of string are piled into a box 3 feet square.

"I like the string," Koch says with a smile. "It's like a cross between moving water and Jackson Pollock."

Koch says she's happy to share her current exhibition with Sumru Tekin, whose mostly black-and-white creations evoke the "loose elbow" style of painters such as Pollock or Willem de Kooning. (Like Cornell, both men inhabited New York's avant-garde milieu around mid-century.) "I love the color of black that Sumru gets," Koch notes of Tekin's bold, unframed monoprints. "She doesn't like the reflection of glass, and I don't blame her."

As with Tekin's mixed-media creations, Koch's "un-zipped" boxes engage the viewer in a powerful visual dialogue - peering behind their enormous metal flies feels like an absurd sort of sexual voyeurism.

Firehouse Gallery curator Ruth Erickson suggests that Koch's "presentation language" evokes a natural- history-museum-ambiance. But at the same time, Erickson says, "Jennifer's minimalism enables a more complex reading of simple objects."

This might be because Koch made prints before deciding to concentrate full-time on boxes. Three years ago she returned to the print medium - this time with her husband Gregg Blasdel, an artist and St. Michael's art professor. Their collaborative exhibit "The Marriage of Reason" opened in February at the OH+T Gallery in Boston. Their prints - 4-by-3-foot black-and-white woodcuts - juxtapose bold, mechanical shapes with more intricate, sensuous ones. The same healthy tensions between rigid form and natural contours can also be found in Koch's box art.

As the Barbara Smail Award winner, Koch will enjoy access to BCA's print and craft studios until December. Burlington City Arts Director Doreen Kraft says that, while the $1000 cash prize doesn't allow artists to quit their day jobs, it is intended to give what she calls "an extra push." In other words, the Smail committee hopes Koch will use the year to create a significant body of work. "Jennifer is ready to put her work out to a larger audience," Kraft notes. Koch says she'll use the BCA studios to construct larger-scale boxes that would incorporate "real books, things like that."

Koch numbers, rather than names, her "Specimen Series" - she believes visual repetition speaks for itself. "Looking at art should be about an experience," she says. "That's what making art is about." In this spirit, Koch claims, "It's hard to put [my] work into words."

But as the afternoon light drops off in her studio and she retires to the living room, the space itself speaks volumes about both her collector's instinct and her artist's touch. In one corner sits a "face jug" collection; in another, what appear to be papier-mâché fish. Right above the dining room table rests a thin, saber-length glass tube, corked at either end, with 667 dead Japanese beetles crammed inside. (Yes, she counted them.) Koch admits, "It makes for good conversation."

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