MOLLY KOEHN: EVENTUALLY, EVERYTHING WILL COLLAPSE
Molly Koehn’s art practice consists of working with the uncomfortable, the comedic and the artist as a figure of concern. What is uncomfortable in Koehn’s work is that she returns us to looking at the immediate problems in our surrounding environment with a fresh eye, whether in the urban terrain or the greater world of ‘nature’. What is funny, or a bit cheeky about her pieces, is the way Koehn uses titles and formal interventions to provoke her audience into contemplating what many theorists now refer to as the effects the ‘anthroposcene’, or of human-centric endeavors to re-appropriate different forms of life and natural resources. And both of these strategies make Koehn’s expanding art practice --- which straddles the line between fiber art and installation-based projects --- into something like a cartography of limited-time engagements. In fact, one might even argue that Koehn’s art practice is most decidedly focused on the issue of time, the passing away of forms, and the mounting crisis about whether or not we have enough time left to reverse the degradation of our planetary ecosystems.
Earlier pieces by Koehn, like “Good as new”, are composed of hand-woven ikat dyed tencel, which is a type of colored cloth that she has used as a visual Band-Aid of sorts by placing it on top of over-painted graffiti markings in the urban landscape. Only, Koehn has made her designs to match the mismatched color corrections in what are otherwise, badly done clean up jobs. This is a gratuitous gesture of sorts inasmuch as it overlays the aesthetics of urban decay with a second set of interventions that point to the lack of consideration accorded to the 'quick fix' of simply using whatever is on hand. Koehn's paradoxical relationship to the deployemnt of aesthetic 'corrections' in the cityscape shows itself in the way her peices mimic this mismatch of colors by introducing a difference in material grounds, woven pallets and an attempt to conceal a visual blemish by way of so many absurdist gestures. Nevertheless, “Good as new” is a proposition that aims to create an artistic pun of sorts, or that makes us take a moment to reflect on the notion of erasure, both within the horizon of urban life as well as in the larger need for humanity to 'tag' their environment as a sign of ownership. Thus, Koehn’s pieces address the idea of creating territory, and the drive toward territorialization, as an impulse in western civilization that extends from grandiose notions like 'Manifest Destiny' all the way down to everyday street life. Furthermore, a project like “Good as new” represents a concerted effort at consciousness raising about the need for ‘care’ in the urban environment and its attending conflicts, be they personal, aesthetic, socio-economic, or properly political.
Other pieces like “At least we’re trying” and “Structural dissent” take an opposite strategy by introducing the aesthetics of rust into a blanket-like quilt of the artist’s own design. Only here the organic nature of so many rust stains are set against the geometries of pristine white patterns, which serve to highlight the contrast between naturally occurring processes and intentionally constructed designs. It is, of course, impossible to miss a critique of sorts in works like these, because they actively trade on upsetting the values of the fine art world inasmuch as they are evidence of a ‘stained’ object that resists the reigning logic of reification by adopting the appearance of damaged goods. In this way, the rejection of the rhetorical positions attributed to standard strategies of display, and of ‘cleanly’ presented objects in particular, are here disrupted by Koehn’s nonchalant draping of hand-woven cotton onto a pedestal, or by her simply having a part of this cloth gathered to one side, spilling out onto the floor in an asymetrical manner. But however haphazard such interventions may appear, they are really a means of redirecting our attention to another set of values that exists beyond the gallery walls, and which Koehn in deeply engaged with as a means of thinking through the attending conflicts of ‘culture’ and ‘civilization’, not to mention decay and degeneration.
It is these same kinds of strategies, which is to say, the ways in which Koehn mobilizes a set of dialectic contrasts, that inform her projects with eucalyptus leafs as well. A first intervention with these rather tough fibrous forms consisted of delicately cutting somewhat ironic phrases into individual leaves, which are then forensically pinned to the white walls of the gallery in a way that forgrounds the contrast between nature and culture, organic forms and hard surfaces, or simply growth and commerce in the largest possible sense. Of course, the selelction of phrases like “Save the planet, okay?” being cut into healthy green leaves, and “I’m pretty green” being cut in colorless brittle ones, allows Koehn’s program of tongue and cheek gestures to achieve a greater dialogic play between form and content. And yet, this dialectic contest is itself subverted, or rather, extended to greater lengths by the inclusion of leafs that exhibit lines like “Maybe we’ll all be okay” and “why try”, which evidence a more sanguine outlook. But of course, Koehn’s work with eucalyptus leafs goes a bit deeper than that. Her sculptures, which show how eucalyptus is as enduring a form in our urban landscape as concrete blocks, and her installation of an entire room of eucalyptus leafs in her solo exhibition “Desolation”, also act in service of a greater idea. This idea is that the eucalyptus leaf can also be seen as something of a symbol for how European colonization, and its attending preoccupations, have created many of our current environmental problems. And just like eucalyptus leaves --- which harm birds, steal water from surrounding plant life, act as fuel for forest fires, and function something like nature’s street litter because there are so few organisms that are actually able to consume them in the U.S. --- the problem of displaced forms, peoples, and plant-life all represent a 'growing' problem. And the idea of dealing with issues that are endemic to local, region and global concerns, or which have a geopoltiical dimension, are really the centerpiece of Koehn's symbolic gestures.
Of course, it shouldn’t come as a surprise then that projects like “Colonize” and “Eat the good, leave the bad” have Koehn embroidering maggot like forms on top of eucalyptus dyed silk, or that we are treated to a display of the same creepy-crawly worms forming a pattern of convergence on top of cotton dyed with rust stains. This is because both of these projects point to the fact that nature has always had its own systems for dealing with infection and decay. That both of these bodies of work are constructed on circular motifs shouldn’t be overlooked either, because the circle can be seen as a symbol for the hermetic nature of the fine art world as well as greater ideas about the circle of life and cycles in nature. In fact, the circle is also an allusion to a celestial globe and the orobouros, which is the hermetic symbol of the snake eating its own tale. Thus, it is no coincidence that this allegorical figure about the self-consuming powers of life, death and regeneration is the archetypal form upon which these two projects are displayed. That both of these series are anti-aesthetic in the sense that little woven worm-like figures are bound to make your skin crawl, even from across the room, follows from Koehn’s general program of challenging the notion of easy consumption. And that beneath Koehn’s concern with living organisms is an abiding interest in the decolonization of value attributed to the houses of high art and their aesthetic distance from worldly concerns isn't lost on the causual viewer either. And that is because this method of creating a strategic sense of critical distance is foregrounded in her art practice by playing with the psychology of perception, the play of misrecognization, and by mixing concrete forms with a rather organic working program. Thus, the immedaite confrontation with gestalt effects, and the use of natural materials as 'stand-ins' for living forms that cover, crawl, and matriculate throughout our streets and nature in the widest sense of the word, is really what Koehn is after by extending this same project under the title of “Invasion”, because she wants her work to stand over and against the ethos of 'disinterested' values that invaded fine art world in the early eighteen century, and which, quite unwittingly, still hold sway in western culture today. Or at least, we don’t have to be shy about saying this is the general outlook that informs her aesthetic propositions.
Thus, when Koehn brings together a piece like “Eventually, everything will collapse”, she is not only referring to the bell jars that have fallen to the floor in the galley space, or the unstable supports which have been fixed precariously to the wall. And she is not just referring to the admixture of concrete and earthen elements that are held together in the jars, which are a defining motif throughout her work and an obvious allusion to the conflict between nature and culture. And Koehn is not simply referring to the dichotomies of display and situation, preservation and loss, systems of containment and entropic collapse, even though these are the dynamic themes that circumscribe her entire oeuvre. While all of this is something that even the casual art patron can appreciate, the hard pill to swallow here is that Koehn is offering up a critique of western civilization as it has fomented what is now referred to as the sixth great period of mass extinction. In other words, "Eventually, everything will collapse" is about the fact that we can no longer preserve the conflict between nature and culture, and it is presented in the form of pickled contents that stand-in for the inability to stock up rations in a survivalist manner. From Koehn's perspective there is no weathering this storm, because the change in the weather is the problem, and not the storm per say. As such, Koehn's critique can be seen to be totalizing, or, if that term makes a certian reactionary portion of the fine art world uncomfortable, than one could just as easily say that Koehn is engaged in critical practices of ‘cognitive mapping’, following the definition of the term given by Fredrick Jameson, which is simply that of creating critical cartographies of concerns about our world, however large in scale or limited in scope they may be.
But make no mistake, Koehn wants you not only to be a little taken back by some of her works but even a bit repulsed, and not just at the affective qualities of her objects, but at the effects of globalization and even 'civilization'. And that’s not just because her projects are what many in the fine art world would refer to as being anti-aesthetic; or because she is using the slowest hand-woven medium as a means of communication in an age of instant information transfer; or because her projects aren’t caught up in polemical positions so much as they are propositions that are informed by situational and relational problematics. While these are certainly the concerns that her art practice engages with, what really makes Koehn’s various projects unsettling is that her critique may not be just about ‘cognitive mapping’, but rather, about cognitive dissonance as a generational predisposition, both inside and outside what we refer to as the art-world. She is, in a sense, mapping the unmappable by working with repression and the representative function of art to create psycho-geographies of the present. In other words, her works are about the key issues of our times that have created both a generational divide and a divided subject, and that subject is the history of achievements associated with western civilization and its 'artistic' discontents. Dada, Fluxus, and Happenings are as much forefunners to her project as feminst art practices, land art, and re-appropration art, only Koehn has transmuted their concerns using the meduim of fiber art in a way that brings the interwoven concerns of an increaingly interconnected world together with everyday actions and interventions that resonate with the wider problems of plantary life. As such, Koehn's art practice has made an indelible contribution to thinking about the problem of time and the untimely in art, which is to say, she is building an oeuvre based on working with the remains of the day in the hopes of building a better tomorrow.
Bio: Molly Koehn in an environmental artist in her second year Arizona State University pursuing her MFA. She received her BFA from Fort Hays State University in Hays, KS, in 2013. Her most recent accomplishments include receiving two national awards, the Handweavers Guild of America Scholarship and Surface Design Association's Creative Promise Award. Both include publications of her work in their respective journals.