SEE- November + December 2009
It is meticulously constructed. Its
precision—the time and care Fensterstock
put into it—is central to its power.
My First Maine Landscape
2004, butterfly wings on paper, 25.5” x 26.5”
Lauren Fensterstock, who lives in Portland and just won the Maine Arts Commission Fellowship Award, has cast cherries in silver; she has set diamonds in soap, rubies in red potatoes, and sapphires in bananas.
The soap cracked, the potato shriveled, the banana withered and turned black: she called those pieces “What Happens.” These days, she quills strips of paper into intricate, elegant shapes, then douses them with coal dust and assembles magical black gardens with—literally—smoke and mirrors. Her constructions are ravishing and repellent. They appear to be exquisite objects of desire, until you realize what they’re really made of. Fensterstock works in the paradox of permanent art and ephemeral life; she locates the sublime in that quick passage between dust and dust.
At first glance, this looks to be embroidered, or intricately quilted. Overlapping medallions suggest fields, maybe a mountain range, horizon and sky, a few stars. But there are tiny marks that no human hand could achieve. Fensterstock has constructed her “landscape” from the wings of butterflies.
It’s possible to see this image as pure, seductive pattern, and the title as whimsical. But it’s impossible to look at it without thinking of the dead creatures Fensterstock used to make it.
It is reminiscent of creepy nineteenthcentury arrangements of feathers, made when confidence was limitless, and nature was infinitely abundant.
It gives rise to contradictory emotions: amazement at the transformation of material, delight at its beauty, pity for the sacrificed butterflies, a visceral disgust and fascination with dead things. How long will this last? Will the wings lose their luster and fall apart? Will it still be beautiful then? These emotions and questions are central to its art: we’re answered with mysteries.
How could she make this? “It’s about cruelty,” Fensterstock says. “That’s the official answer.” And the unofficial one? “They were rejects, butterflies that were missing parts: a leg, an antenna. They were useless for science. They were going to be thrown away.”