SANTA FE, N.M. — Back in her 20s, Jill O’Bryan spent a year painting landscapes in southern France, studying art at a school that also taught her how to look, how to see.
The landscapes were lovely, but still there was a separation: she at her easel, the land in front of her.
In an installation opening tonight at the Center for Contemporary Arts, O’Bryan shows works that are immersed in the land, that examine interaction and connection between the human body and the land, that show the breath of rocks and the artist, and how they affect each other.
“Mapping Resonance,” on display through March 12, is “an articulation of the idea of time and its resonance; it places the body within the landscape,” said curator Angie Rizzo.
And it’s very much a statement of O’Bryan’s relationship with New Mexico and its Eastern Plains, about 90 miles east of Santa Fe, where she lives about five or six months a year when she’s not in New York.
“Twenty years ago, I first started coming to New Mexico. I fell in love with the land, as everyone does,” said O’Bryan, who grew up in Connecticut. At first, though, the immensity of the New Mexico landscape was a little frightening. “I had a compulsion to lie down on the ground.”
Taking the ground into her embrace led to her tracing the patterns of the mesa rock, laying a 10′ x 16′ paper over the swept surface and using a chunk of graphite to make a frottage – a rubbing – of the detailed surface. The resulting images combine the micro and the macro, with the cracks and contours of the rock creating the sense of an aerial photograph of a large expanse of earth.
But that’s only part of the installation that will fill the Muñoz Waxman Gallery.
Other drawings of the same size, which O’Bryan said she calls “on and just above the ground,” offer “not a recording, but a much more intuitive” impression of what lies underneath. “It kind of hovers above,” she said of this presentation of the land.
With those large images lining the walls, viewers then can wind their way through long wooden platforms on the ground that hold some 38 impressions of indentations in a rock ledge. O’Bryan calls them “metates,” made with India ink and tea. “I think of them kind of as shadows,” she said.
Plaster, rustic, cone-shaped vessels also will be placed in stands throughout the space, not just containing light, but also reflecting it outward and upward, she said.
O’Bryan offered a quote to describe the kind of art she wants to make:
“In the presence of the image that dreams, it must be taken as an invitation to continue the daydream that created it.” – Gaston Bachelard, The poetics of space, 1994, quoted in Melissa Kwasny, Earth Recitals: Essays on Image & Vision.
“I do think there will be a feeling of contemplation, a quiet meditative space to be in,” Rizzo said of the exhibit. “Also, there’s plenty of room and space for people to move about freely, to rest and look.”
O’Bryan is represented by Gallery Joe in Philadelphia and Margarete Roder Gallery in New York, and she has had her work in exhibitions throughout the United States, and in Spain, Iceland and Germany.
This is her first exhibit in Santa Fe, though, she said.
“I really am excited. It’s like home base,” she said, adding that former CCA curator Erin Elder invited her a couple of years ago to put an exhibit together. All of the work was created new for this show, O’Bryan said.
On the walls leading into the installation, O’Bryan will have two of her breath drawings: She makes a mark for each breath she draws, over hours, days, weeks and more, ending with an incised representation of each inhalation over time.
“The body is the center for all these,” she said. “It’s tactile, it comes from a desire to extend being in the body.”
The breath drawings relate to Buddhist Tonglen meditation, which O’Bryan said she isn’t accomplished enough herself to practice, although she does meditate and is interested in Buddhist thought. “The idea is you breathe in fear, transform it and breathe it out,” she said.
Ultimately, these works are about the passage of time, she said. “I’m literally archiving breaths, making a grid.”
“What I really enjoy about them is how they make the breath visible,” Rizzo added.
“For me, it’s a real cause and effect,” she said of O’Bryan’s works. “Everything is interconnected; your breath continues into the world. And time is a force itself – it creates rock formations.”
Public programming for the exhibit will include a dance performance with Uroboros, which is creating a site-specific score and choreography, according to Rizzo.
A mindful breathing meditation workshop also is planned and Elaine Ritchel of Santa Fe Art Tours will offer some “close looking” sessions for small groups of people to explore “the art of looking at art,” she said.