Ever since Quappi Projects opened in Portland in 2017, the gallery director and curator John Brooks has offered a mix of Louisville and New York artists, with the intention of cross-pollination — offering new art to both cities.
That cross-pollination is taking an interesting turn this week when Brooklyn artist Vanessa Albury visits the gallery, using a grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Art to explore her Louisville lineage. She’s spending this week creating a new site-specific body of work, “All Things That Are, Are Light and Soot.”
The exhibition, a collection of mural-size cyanotypes, opens Friday, Sept. 21, with a special reception.
Albury grew up in Nashville, but throughout her childhood she spent plenty of time in Louisville visiting her mother’s family, including Albury’s grandfather.
“My grandfather had a machine shop that made wrought iron gates by hand for, I want to say, 60 years,” said Albury in a recent interview with Insider Louisville.
The work she is creating this week was inspired and influenced by that machine shop, which closed down just a few years ago. The building, located in the Portland neighborhood, has passed to new owners.
The techniques of her practice are based in analog and darkroom photographic processes. Sometimes she uses those old processes, sometimes she repurposes materials or objects from those processes to create sculpture and installations, and she also has used the objects from the processes as subjects to be explored in other media.
Outside of the physical process of making her art, there is generally an exploration — either implied or explicit — of how light behaves.
“Photography is possible because of the physics of light, because of the way light passes through our atmosphere, and so I really enjoy going into those (ideas) and exploring them,” said Albury.
In the case of “All Things Are,” the conceptual and material aspects interact with a strong and complex set of thematic ideas that include time, family and memory, all of which combine into a meditation on the ephemeral.
She first studied cyanotype and contact printing while getting a double bachelor’s degree in studio art and French, as well as a minor in art history, at the College of Charleston. She had never used the process in her work until she became inspired by a real-world limitation she encountered during a 2014 residency in Norway.
“I wasn’t going to have a darkroom, or an enlarger, and I figured that would be a great opportunity to explore what my photography-based practice would be without the essential elements of traditional photography,” she said.
Most readers are probably very familiar with cyanotype, but they likely know it by another name — “blueprints.”
Albury’s cyanotypes are contact prints, where light basically makes a very complex silhouette onto a surface, such as paper or cloth, that has been prepared with a photosensitive mixture of chemicals.
In Norway, just when Albury started playing with cyanotype, a nearby junk store was going out of business and the owner offered Albury her pick of the shop’s contents.
“I was walking through the store and I saw this broken chandelier,” she recalled. “The nice thing about a chandelier, those crystals on it allow light to pass through, but it also distorts light, so you get these really great patterns and play,” she said.
The interplay of light in her Norway prints went one step further. Her stay in Norway coincided with the midnight sun, where the sun remained visible throughout the night.
“I thought it would be interesting to take a broken light fixture, something that is supposed to emit light and can’t do it anymore, and pair that with this permanent sun,” she explained.
After her first experience with these contact prints, Albury knew she wanted to do more. Back in New York, she often found herself in aging industrial spaces, old warehouses and factories.
“A lot of buildings are a hundred years old or more. I’ve noticed all these amazing industrial windows that don’t get cleaned,” she said. “They just hang out for decades, collecting dirt and dust … They get this really great character.”
These thoughts about windows simmered away in Albury’s brain, and in the meantime, she and Brooks where discussing the possibility of her presenting work at Quappi.
Back during those childhood visits to Louisville, Albury spent time with her extended family. She heard old stories about members of her family who had passed away, including a number of Native Americans further back on the family tree. As an adult and artist, Albury began trying to track down more information about them.
It was a difficult and slow process. Kentucky’s Native American population experienced forced migration and murder at the hands of white settlers and the American government, neither of whom seemed to have kept very good records of their actions.
“It’s not really written anywhere. It becomes oral tradition. It’s passed down at the dinner table and holiday parties,” said Albury.
The lost history, the accrued dust of time on industrial windows — including the dust in her grandfather’s machine shop — and her ongoing fascination with cyanotype all collided to created the concept for “All Things That Are, Are Light and Soot.”
With the support of the Foundation for Contemporary Art, she’ll be working in an old warehouse in Portland, making huge contact prints of the large windows there, with their own layers of grime and dust.
“And maybe some of the soot on the windows came from my grandfather’s machine shop that was four blocks away,” Albury noted. “I started thinking about my Cherokee ancestors that lived on Six Mile Island, and the dust and the dirt they kicked up. Maybe some of that ended up on those windows. That’s the history we have. That’s what’s left. That’s what I’m sure of. So I’m taking this opportunity to use light to make an imprint of that history.”
“All Things That Are, Are Light and Soot” hangs at Quappi Projects through Nov. 4. There is an opening reception on Friday, Sept. 21, from 5 to 9 p.m. The gallery is located at 1520 Lytle St.