Confluence - Framing
March 2020
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Dear friends and colleagues - I hope you and your communities are finding what balance you can in these transformative times. Social connection with physical distancing has been essential to me, and while I'm frightened by what may emerge in the coming months, I also feel privileged to directly experience a time of historic transformation. Thank you for being part of my community. Please let me know what this time is bringing up for you, and if there is any way I can help don't hesitate to reach out.

photographing artwork
In my creative process, drawings and project ideas emerge from an open-sided field of activities, including experiences with friends and colleagues, ideas and reflections, deliberate experiments and casual combinations. I cultivate circumstances that favor new discoveries over expected results, and any moment may provoke a change of direction. It is a demanding and uncertain process. (On this theme, see my post Risk and Certainty.)

How does the sketch in the photo above, begun while observing cooled lava flows at Lassen Volcanic National Park become, when I continue work on it three years later, a drawing about stream bank erosion? And what does pairing these processes in an artwork tell of the forces of nature, or the capacity of images to communicate? Understanding is a learned habit, helping us quickly distinguish connections that are significant from those that are trivial. But in any complex system, every very now and then, the processes of sense-making can be overturned.
Celia Gilens' paintings at Gloria's house
While visiting my aunt in Los Angeles last fall, I admired her collection of my grandmother’s paintings. It’s partly to grandmother Celia I owe an artistic orientation, as she taught me to mix oil colors in her garage studio and showed that painting paintings was something people actually did.

The fabric mats and carved, gold leafed frames she chose sometimes fascinated me more than the paintings themselves. Maybe her delight in frame selection put me on track to make site-specific work, where artwork and context share an equal footing.
framed drawings from the Confluence project
Two drawings from the Confluence project, framed for the (postponed) exhibit at the Monterey Museum of Art

A frame is a simple museum for a single object. Like real museum buildings, frames suggest an attitude toward an object, a prompt for passing between the world and the artwork. And like binoculars and microscopes, frames amplify focus on the thing inside. A fancy frame celebrates; simple frames narrow differences, making inside/outside relationships more proximate. Simplest of all are the edges of the artwork itself.

Yet every edge is also a joint, a Janus facing both into and away. It has been a scientific norm to isolate phenomena, concentrating thing-ness and autonomy for study without contagion from outside factors. The method is powerful and intimate. But such focus excludes much of what provides the actual life of objects and organisms: nuanced variability and exchanges with processes at every scale. In an exhibition of artworks or natural history objects, the conversation between the pieces is just as meaningful as what each piece communicates. Ecology, meaning the study of home, also works to keep parts in conversation with each other. Perhaps that’s why I’ve felt at home making site-specific art on ecological themes.
surveying salmon fry in the Central Valley
Two weeks ago I was preparing exhibitions for this spring, now canceled or postponed; but work in the studio continues. Among my activities, I’m going through field work photographs from the last several years. During a 2015 excursion with FISHBIO near Oakdale, California, biologist Patrick Cuthbert peers into the collecting bucket of fry we're about to count and measure.

Western Sierra precipitation runs downhill across California, and young salmon use Central Valley streams to reach the ocean, returning several years later as adults to spawn. Our bucket holds a subset of relationships across time and space expressed in the tiny fishes’ lives; the data we collected helps show how landscape modifications and water diversions impact fish populations over decades of changes. Like the water reflecting a world beyond the bucket’s edge, phenomena are both contained and communicated across every boundary.

For a wonderful essay on the frame in art, see philosopher Ortega y Gasset's Meditations on the Frame (thank you, Caren Yglesias for this reference). And please look after yourself and others as you move about.
For More on My Work, see

All images by Todd Gilens and copyright 2020, unless noted otherwise.

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