MaDora Frey, In Plein Air at Whitespace Gallery in whitespec, Atlanta

By February 22, 2023
Installation view of MaDora Frey, In Plein Air, on view at Whitespace Gallery in whitespec in Atlanta, Georgia. Courtesy the artist.

MaDora Frey’s immersive installation In Plein Air is a sensorial revision of the ‘plein air’ approach to landscape painting, retro-forming it into a cave-like project space installation. The tiny space becomes a world that utilizes video projection, natural materials, dichroic glass, mirrors, and other illusionistic elements. 

Installation view of MaDora Frey, In Plein Air, on view at Whitespace Gallery in whitespec in Atlanta, Georgia. Courtesy the artist.

Upon entering the gorgeously aged chrome green door to the anteroom, the viewer is addressed by an expressive log, standing upright on end, concealing a Dan Flavin-esque fluorescent light tube. To the log’s right is a dark rainbow, cracked and seemingly dead in its album cover-sized frame. This wall functions as quiet prelude to the forthcoming sensorial barrage. 

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A visual explosion of light, color, movement, and phenomenological effect packs the space’s largest room, still just gnome-sized. It is hard to imagine that much energy crammed into such a small area. The room comprises several different pieces, some discrete sculptures and two video installations.

Canvas cloth and several dichroic glass or mirror props adorn the space’s back wall. These objects become the projection screen for a verdant video of summer pleasure outdoors. Two three-sided mirror boxes sitting on the floor are echo-chamber portals piercing the expansive feel of the overall projection. The cellphone video cuts between two settings—Frey’s family quarry and DeKalb County’s Arabia Mountain—that are near enough geographically to have similar biomes and material scenery as to appear seamless as one location. The film captures fleeting natural actors, such as a breezy wind moving pine trees and the omnipresent granite of Georgia’s piedmont. Soon enter two human characters: the first is the artist, shot from a distance, in an impromptu happy dance; the second is blonde, and the figure makes a tentative climb over boulders rimming the quarry. Bent over she hesitates, perhaps gazing at embedded fossils in the rock, perhaps contemplating the age of the earth, perhaps rethinking the jump. After a second pause on top, she plunges into the water. The video’s cropping results in the water’s edge aligning with the floor. The erupting splash seems as if it will sprinkle water on the viewer.

Installation view of MaDora Frey, In Plein Air, on view at Whitespace Gallery in whitespec in Atlanta, Georgia. Courtesy the artist.

Canvas drapes the back wall, making a tent in the glowing light. As the scene changes to an orange-raspberry sherbet sunset, the peaked form translates into a view from a campfire, with the night’s shelter in the foreground as the camper gazes at the sun’s retreat. Whiplashed by the adjacent cold fluorescent light fixtures peeking from behind, logs and branches make an icy expanse that sets us back to a winter warmed only by cold dead wood.  A metallic, flattened disco ball-cum-minimalist rectangle subverts the stillness as a puff of air caused by movement or breath wafts across it and sets it a-shimmer.

Installation view of MaDora Frey, In Plein Air, on view at Whitespace Gallery in whitespec in Atlanta, Georgia. Courtesy the artist.

Such usage of painting as a springboard for installation is natural for Frey as her training was in academic realist figurative painting which included self-portraits in lush landscape settings, often at night. In Plein Air is obviously created by an artist who has spent a great deal of time in the natural world observing, mentally recording, and processing events and subtle changes in the flow of time and energy. Her intelligent use of materials to recreate this mini spectacle of nature’s invention, an uplifting simulation of a keenly observed experience on a summer’s day, could only have come from a serious investment of time through research and development. Beyond just a foray into phenomenology, Frey’s work calls into question the future relationship of humans and the more-than-human world: are the technological advances that allow us to experience her simulation of nature a vehicle toward an awakening of nature love, and therefore protection? Or are the very tools she utilizes, extracted from the earth—silicone chipped-electronics, translucent metal oxides on glass, plastic resins—the drivers of climactic changes disrupting the planet?  A small discrete sculpture high in the corner gives us pause as a living sprig of flowering branch is evergreen in its epoxy resin plastic block.

Perhaps more flower bulb planter than digger of humanity’s grave, Frey makes a case for the transformative power of beauty and our ability to evolve, in ethnobotanist Terence McKenna’s words, into “the minded portion of the planet.” Her indulgence in technology sparks the unconscious memory of a romantic stasis when humans were not separate but indeed a deeply functioning part of natural balance’s topology. The resulting experience of In Plein Air envisions an environmental statement of wonder and hope for the future of our scarred planet.

In Plein Air, an exhibition by MaDora Frey, is on view at Whitespace Gallery in whitespec in Atlanta through February 25, 2023.

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