Alien Species: … “weird beauty… reflected in a net of a silver light” 
A Useum Installation by John Toth
On View Friday, October 12, 2012–Sunday, February 24, 2013
Alien Species is my latest intermedia fabric artwork created as a collaboration with the ideas, concepts and methods of the painter Charles Burchfield. The process of making this work of art began by researching common themes that Burchfield and I share which include: a love of nature, abstract forms and an interest in the sublime. I have focused on these three common interests in the following ways. I have used the term “Alien Species” to call attention to a long history of evolutionary gains and loses that have come from the migration of people, animals and plants.
- As I read Charles Burchfield’s early twentieth century journal writings I was mesmerized by his detailed knowledge of numerous species of plants, shrubs, trees, insects and seasonal changes in weather. His knowledge of nature is only surpassed by his ability as a painter to capture an abstract sense of the unfolding process of growth and decay. While one species declines another flourishes. For this installation, I have carefully recorded numerous sounds of insects and birds that Burchfield mentions in his journals. These sounds make up the audio track that accompanies the movie that I made of Burchfield paintings that are project onto a fabric environment. I have also incorporated into my installation a web site that allows visitors to sit a computer kiosk and click on audio files that play specific sounds of birds and insects that are referenced in Burchfield’s journal. Some of these sounds are native to this region and some are alien.
- As a painter and writer Burchfield developed his own theory of a pictorial language called “conventions for abstract thought.” This symbolic language allowed Burchfield to represent human behaviors (emotions and ideas) that express his deeper feelings using symbolic representations of nature. In this installation, I have created sculptural representations of some of Burchfield’s “conventions for abstract thought” and created several conventions of my own.
- Burchfield had a great versatility for depicting and understanding nature. He painted the energy of nature and found new relationships between familiar and unfamiliar places. When he attached new surfaces to his old paintings, he crossed borders into unknown or sublime. My own interest in the sublime began early in life. While camping, I would lie on my back and gaze at the shadowy display of moving leaves cast by the sun as it danced on the canvas surface of my tent. In Burchfield’s paintings, the sublime can be understood in many ways, but I have focused specifically on his interest to go back into his older paintings and paint beyond his own borders by adding new details that expanded his horizons. I have used Burchfield’s method of going beyond the borders to create an animation that is projected onto the fabric environment that transforms his paintings in ways that he would not have imagined.
Interactive Useum Experience
Another component of this installation is an interactive experiential art activity that allows visitors to layer their own artwork onto the fabric installation. Visitors can use color markers to draw what they imagine might be beyond the borders of a Burchfield painting. Their finished drawings can then be placed on a overhead projector that projects their artwork onto the fabric environment.
Using multiple data projectors, visitors can click-on audio files of sounds from nature and add their own sounds from a database of nature sounds. The video and lighting design allows visitors to click-on a database of images of paintings by Charles Burchfield that are projected onto layers of fabric.
I discovered my medium as an artist early in life. As a child, I crawled under the quilting frame of my grandmother’s sewing circle. With my back to the cool basement floor, I watched as the sewing needles poked through the tightly stretched fabric. A bright light above the quilt illuminated the salvaged remnants of shirts and clothing that were transformed into brightly colored geometric patterns that bedazzled my eyes. Sitting around the perimeter, the husbands occasionally rose to readjust the clamps holding the quilt to the frame, testing the tension, aware of the surface. My everyday perception of my grandparent’s dark dreary basement was transformed by fabric and light into an aesthetic experience.
As an intermedia artist I have a long history of using stretched fabric and electronics to create my own mysterious places in museums, galleries, theaters, concert halls and schools. The basement light at my grandparents home was replaced by videos, slides and data projectors to illuminate my installations with images of nature and abstract patterns of light. The collaboration of the women in the quilting bee has influenced me to seek out other collaborations with poets (Michael Basinski), choreographers (Ruby Shang, Holly Fairbank, Doug Varone), composers (John Cage, LeJaren Hiller, James Emery, Don Metz), directors (Eric Nightengale, Terry Doran, Shelley Want), actors (Jean Taylor, Alan Nebelthaul), filmmakers (Joan Grossman) and artists (Tom Aprile, Laura Young, Andy Toposki).
In New York my art collaborations have been presented at The Brooklyn Museum of Art, Lincoln Center ("Out-Of-Doors Festival", Samuels Studio), The New Museum, Experimental Intermedia Foundation, The Camera Club Gallery, 78th Street Theater Lab, Access Theater, City Gallery, C.B.G.B.’s, SOHO Photo Gallery and Audart Gallery. At the international level my intermedia fabric installations that have been presented at The National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford, England; Ringacker Hall in Saas-Fee, Switzerland; Fundacion para el Arte Contemporaneo, Mexico City; and “A” Space, Toronto, Ontario.
I have also made a lifetime commitment to teaching. I received a Ph.D. in Media and Communications at the European Graduate School in Leuk Stadt, Switzerland in 2005, a Masters degree in sculpture from the State University of New York at Buffalo and a bachelors degree in sculpture from Washington University in St. Louis.
I have been teaching The Arts at Hunter College in Manhattan since 2004. I have also worked extensively as a teaching artist for Lincoln Center Institute, The Museum of Modern Art, Symphony Space, and the 92nd St. “Y”. I have also taught collaboratively with many professors from Bank Street College, Bard College, Lehman College and the Juilliard School.