Despite the surprising news in mid-January that College of Visual Arts would need to close for good in June 2013, the verdict on that is still out, as it turns out, thanks to ongoing efforts by faculty and alumni to raise funds and community support to continue the institution. Given CVA’s persistent and steep budget shortfalls and relatively lean endowment, advocates for CVA’s future have a tough row to hoe, but there’s no shortage of resourcefulness and determination behind the endeavor to save the school.
Regardless, the semester’s not done yet — classes are ongoing, and the CVA gallery’s still showing work. Indeed, the school’s current Portals on Western exhibition, “Natural Selections” by Duluth-based artist Kristina Estell, makes very clever use of the CVA gallery’s quirky, storefront window display space; it’s a small show, but well worth a visit. “Natural Selections” is a collage installation: a series of tableaux made from representations of various nature-scapes that appear in commercially printed fabrics. The scenes are a motley pastiche of idealized, almost-but-not-quite-natural flora and fauna, representative of a variety of climes and terrains (real and imagined) — all put together, cheek by jowl in a layered hodgepodge of cut-out fabric elements. If you’ve ever flipped through a Cabela’s catalog, you’ve seen just the sort of textiles she makes use of here; and such wildlife prints are ubiquitous in the décor and furnishings of cabins “Up North.”
In a forested scene, Estell’s neatly excised lions are pinned alongside cut-out porcupines and elephants, zebras, wolves, rhinos, chipmunks, brown bears and snow white horses. The background terrain is as much a jumble as the wildlife: hardy, North country evergreen trees are situated next to their more temperate deciduous brethren, which themselves share space here and there with the sort of leggy, wide canopied trees that dot the arid stretches of an African savanna. An arrangement of giraffes and pink pigs peek out from a small stand of birch, near a small herd of picture-perfect deer taking refuge under the umbrella of a nearby acacia tree. A moose wanders through the frame.
The juxtapositions are intentionally bizarre, but the arrangement is even more surprising for its visual harmonies and simpatico textures and colors.
This is nowhere more true than in her scene of fish and fowl: large whales align in a neatly scalloped line in the bottom quadrant of the scene; the whale’s repeated, stylized forms in vivid blue beautifully set off the teeming schools of lake trout, stingrays and orcas, and brightly colored yellow and red ocean fish. Great white sharks grin out toothily from the jumble, and a bed of mixed mollusks and shellfish fill out base of the grouping like pebbles. Mallard ducks jostle the fish for a spot near the crowded mid-line of the frame. The topmost section of the scene is bookended by clusters of birds: owls and finches, cardinals and robins — avian predators and prey, nocturnal and diurnal alike, pinned in place together like best mates. And toward the center, given prominent placement, a disproportionate number of bald eagles, captured mid-flight, steal the show with patriotic flourish.
The artist has created a portal with an artful melange of insects and snakes, and another featuring a higgledy-piggledy garden mix of cultivated plants – fruits, vegetables, flowers – weeds and wild-growing vegetation. In a side-by-side pair of window displays, she’s hung curtains: picturing partly cloudy bluer-than-blue skies and endlessly repeating rocks, respectively.
Taken together, Estell’s tableaux offer a wry perspective on the peculiar ways we envision to domesticate, recast and utterly appropriate our wild environs. But instead of gimmickry or blanket criticism for our modern, consumer-minded sensibilities, the artist’s scenes are notable for their nuance, their complex textures and aesthetic appeal. She certainly makes clear the absurdities behind our grand romances with a made-up “natural” world. But in the look of her pieces, she also admits something of what draws us to such conceits – that endearing wonder behind our vain, childish efforts to tame what’s truly wild and always just out of reach.
“Natural Selections” by Kristina Estell is on view 24 hours a day, seven days a week through June 28 as part of the College of Visual Arts Portals on Western exhibition program. The CVA gallery is located at 173 Western Avenue North in St. Paul, on the corner of Western and Selby avenues.