Penelope Umbrico's work is both easy and difficult. It is easy in the sense that it packs a punch, it has an immediate visual impact that grabs the viewer, the more brightly colored pieces, such as Sunsets or Broken Sets, in particular. There is a wow factor and a beauty to them. Some of her other collections fall under an aesthetic category that is rooted more in visual interest than beauty. They are not immediately striking. They do not have the bold colors and patterns that grab my eye. Instead I want to look closely, take in the details.
In either case, whether initially "beautiful" or "interesting" I am pulled in. The multitude of like images make me want to explore. Despite the grand scale of a piece in its entirety I do not want to scan it from afar, take it in as a whole, but I begin to dive in and examine its constituent parts. I look for differences in the objects and similarities between them. I notice how images are cropped, how they are placed within the frame of the picture, and how they are organized as a group. Umbrico's work makes me consciously consider composition much more than I normally do. Usually, when I look at a painting for instance, I might note aspects of the composition that stand out or seems particularly effective, but rarely do I wonder to myself why the artist did that. Yet in Umbrico's work I find myself frequently doing just that. Why did she put that group of remote controls there versus there? I know the answer is the same as a painter's, that it has to do with the same compositional principles and personal choices of the artist, yet my impulse is to seek the answer in my head not in my eye.
This brings me to why, despite the scale and accessible subject matter of the pieces, I say her work is hard. There is no doubt that even though the subject and visual impact of her work is recognized immediately, once I have taken that in, - which I do fairly quickly - It moves into the conceptual. As I said, I look closer. It is kind of like opening up a box I find on the shelf. When I first lift the flaps I get a general sense of its contents, but then I start digging and pulling stuff out. I want to know what is at the bottom of the box, underneath everything. I need to hold things in my hand, touch them, not just look. That's kind of how I take in and experience Umbrico's work. I get a general look, then I delve into it piece by piece. But then there comes a point when I may or may not have found what I needed, but either way I put everything back in the box and the box back on the shelf. I feel that way about Umbrico's work as well. I am looking for something is not really there, and once I have thoroughly checked it out I ask myself, so what?
But the answer is surprising, because there is something in her work that stays with me, that compels me ask the so what? not in a dismissive way, but as a a real question. Why this? Why these things? Why like that? Why now? What am I really seeing? Why am I lingering here?
Paul Shambroom's excellent introduction to Umbrico's talk helped me to begin to answer these questions by putting Umbrico's work into a greater context. Then when Umbrico herself gave such an in depth description of her process and what she is trying to explore, I had even more food for thought. I loved Umbrico's curiosity and intellect, her playfulness too, and admire how she follows her thoughts and ideas and continues to explore them down different avenues and circle back to them from a new direction. Her talk was enlightening and entertaining. I felt like I was given the opportunity to sit beside her as she works and get a real sense of who she is, what she is doing and where she is going with it. I felt included somehow. I think that is rare in an artist talk.
Still there is a part of me that felt her ideas make for great conversation yet stay there in that realm. For me her work's impact is more intellectual than emotional, so that once I have thought about it, and considered those thoughts for a while, I usually find myself done with it. It is not the manifested piece that stays with me but the thoughts that arise from them, and those thoughts are interesting but, for me, limited.
At one point in the talk Umbrico described her work as involving a certain amount of compulsiveness. That is evident as one considers the process of its creation as well as the final piece. But I do not share that compulsion, so where do I go from there? Still wondering, and I think that may be the power of her work right there.
April 21, 2013