Morgan Wedderspoon’s exhibition Superstratum, on view at Open Studio, is an openhearted questioning of what it means to face our current ecological as well as existential crisis, articulated simply and poetically through the theme of surfaces.
The first surface I encounter is that of the Earth. When I enter the space, there is a long table upon which sits a substantial collection of detritus arranged very loosely by material and size: paper with paper, beehive with chunks of wood, all dime-size plastic bits together and so-on. These mostly fragmentary items have found their way into the exhibition via Wedderspoon collecting them from the ground on the many walks that have been routine for her since 2013. Condensed before me on the white tabletop, the objects remind me of a carpet. The growing rug of lost things and litter that sits on top of our planet—“a new layer in the making”.
As my eyes survey the individual objects, I am drawn to their surfaces: the way they age, wear, and patina. The dullness made by thousands of scratches on large flat pieces of plastic, the satiny black of a burnt piece of driftwood. Cloth, faded and threadbare, water stains on library book cards, crumples and folds, and the soft fray of worn string and rope. All the items hold visible traces of their history, the places they’ve visited, in the skin of their being. These details in surface are reminders of how the world leaves its mark on everything, providing examples of how a post-purpose, incidental existence can make material things look and feel.
Print is also a medium of layers and surfaces and Wedderspoon employs it with subtlety and skill in the six works which hang on the walls surrounding the table. For each piece, she’s chosen a group of objects from her collection and has arranged them carefully on the bed of a scanner, the lid of which is left open so that the background appears a murky black. The compositions correspond, in a hazy, associative way, with the few words of text that have been screen-printed onto the image. Each print has been paired with one of six possible human responses to crisis outlined in Margaret Atwood’s Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth: “Protect Yourself, Give Up and Party, Help Others, Blame, Bear Witness, Go About Your Life”.
Using a scanner to capture the arrangements introduces an interesting depth-of-field effect: the faces of the objects touching the glass are captured brightly and in exquisite detail while the rest of the object fades out of focus and back into the dark. Dirt and dust particles are highly visible. A sheet of clear, scratch-covered plastic, has been placed on the bed before the objects, providing a filter which ties together the aesthetic of wear and creates some visual texture to the otherwise monotonous expanses of darkness. In addition to again drawing your awareness to the surface or interface of the glass and object, the tone created by this method of image capture is mysterious and surreal. The objects appear to be floating and arranging themselves in a dark pond, dream, or paranormal realm. It feels like they are alive or have an agency of their own. Like they are telling stories.
In PROTECT YOURSELF, for example, an organic-looking cluster composed from hunks of beehive, beady Styrofoam, and wire caps speaks to the various ways living beings use materials to insure themselves and their belongings against danger and discomfort. A foundational part of the relationship between individual and environment. The ramshackle provisionality of the aggregate form generates a feeling of urgency, like the emergency dwelling of a doomsday prepper.
HELP OTHERS, which features a robin’s egg (mid-shatter), some bones from different animals, and the shell of a ladybug, reminds us of the frailty and temporality of bodies and asks what our duty is towards all beings that grow, excrete, produce, die, and decompose.
Careful attention has been paid to the surface texture of the prints themselves. They are crisp, high quality inkjet prints that, at first, appear to be entirely a luscious, silky matte. As you move around them, however, this changes. Otherwise blending into the black background, bits of text which have been screen-printed on in gloss become visible when the light hits them, a thoughtful way of involving the viewer and space. I also notice tiny details like a barely-there layer of shimmery ink, like newly formed salt crystals, printed on to select areas of the work (the faux flame of a battery powered tea light for instance). Beauty may be subjective and changeable, but to me, these works are truly striking.
It can be a complicated thing to aestheticize a crisis. Often, aesthetic pleasure, when directed at dire or tragic subject matter can seem ill-fitting and sensationalistic, if not exploitative. And sometimes it trivializes the severity of the issue, doing more harm than good. A reliable way to avoid these outcomes is to start by using one’s own direct experience and work from there with self-awareness and sensitivity. I think that Wedderspoon pulls this off really well.
In utilizing the chance encounters with the objects she finds, she’s engaging with the issue in a localized and personal way. To focus on the small and symbolic as a means of talking about the global and catastrophic also reflects the contemporary guilt and cognitive dissonance of knowing about impending disaster of climate change without experiencing it all at once in one’s everyday life. In this way, it becomes about the psyche of the individual positioned in the context of a global phenomenon.
The tenderness in the artist’s treatment of her objects, her noticing of detail, her tendency towards lyrical associations all contribute to the mood of the exhibition as one of reverence, reflection, introspection, and poignancy. It’s a context of heightened sensitivity in which the fragments can speak for themselves. The meaning is open and suggestive, allowing viewers to consider which choices they may already be making in response to the dilemma of living day-to-day in a dying world. Wedderspoon, with her meticulous attention to the surfaces of things, sends roots down into the deepest questions about the unfolding of our many human histories and our complicated feelings towards them.
 Morgan Wedderspoon. GIVE UP AND PARTY.
The show will be up until April 20th: