Eve Ingalls is on an archaeological dig. She is examining the surface of the earth, and what we have done to it. Whether working in sculpture, paint, or drawing, she is redrawing the earth, with its scarred surfaces, showing us the world after the impact.
Her drawings on canvas at the Bernstein Gallery, on view through Oct. 21, are so large and detailed, benches are perfectly positioned to sink into while taking a good long look.
Not only does Ms. Ingalls work large, but she weaves in minute detail. There are many layers of marking, as well as layers of thought.
“Rescue Site” – the canvas is the size of a garage door – uses ink and graphite to create swirls of tsunamis, spiral terraces, possibly a nuclear waste holding tank, swarming with smaller bee-like markings. There are hatchings to suggest an aerial view of a cracked earth, irregular shapes of nature. And then there are the regular shapes to suggest the hand of man – earthen vessels, arrows, a fence, wheels, and a sort of dotted line from a viewfinder, perhaps in a telescope or a camera, honing in on the coordinates of a small explosion. X marks the spot.
“Broken Coordinates” – also with dotted lines and arrows that take us down onto the planet from an aerial position — show natural formations as well as the built environment. They are watching us – or are we watching them?
There are symbols that repeat: the urn, the arrows, the broken lines, and the wavy lines that suggest mountains and sea. One title, “Human Disturbance,” could describe all these works about what has happened to our planet.
The show’s actual title is “Sited Memory/Underground Shadows,” and is part of the collaborative investigation into the arts and cultural memory organized by the Princeton University Art Museum with participation from other organizations throughout the community, on the 10 year anniversary of 9/11. If the title seems to be referring to the ghosts of that tragedy, it does not.
“Sited Memory refers to holding many moments of time in your body,” says Ms. Ingalls, who lives in Princeton but works out of a 3,000-square-foot barn studio in Hopewell. “It’s sited because of the archaeological coordinates. These are not places I’m remembering, but constructs I’ve created.”
She is more interested in general memory, and the role arts play in memory. “If it were just about 9/11, it would be too narrow,” says Ms. Ingalls, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University School of Art. “For me, it’s what we owe the past… (and how to) improve dealing with the environment so it’s not destroyed by climate change.”
The urn is used because “the vessel has been important as the center of human society. Soil has been rendered in the quintessential shape, and it is used for the storage of things,” says Ms. Ingalls, who has taught at Housatonic Community College, Yale, the Silvermine Guild School of the Arts and the State University of New York College at Purchase.
These drawings, which just float in the niches of the Bernstein Gallery – Ms. Ingalls and her assistant created special brackets from which they hang invisibly – represent a kind of personal archaeology for the artist. They were first created and shown in 1980 “to investigate the methods used to understand previous cultures,” then more recently unearthed and reworked.
“I returned to them filled with the awareness that meaning continues to expand as we ride the tectonic plates. The past is shifting beneath us, and science is uncovering new tools to extend our knowledge. When I reopened the dig, I allowed new layers to appear. The recent layers reveal fewer cultural shards and more devices (charts, graphs, maps and drawings of scientific models) used by humans to understand our world.”
The artist refers to the works as a “persistent palimpsest.” A palimpsest is a very old document that writing was removed from and the surface written on again. Sometimes the older writing on a palimpsest can still be read, and that is the effect given by Ms. Ingalls’ canvases.
“In the process of scraping, digging, erasing, creating and destroying walls and redrawing boundaries, we draw our fears and desires into the surface of the earth,” she writes in her statement. “We leave traces throughout successive layers of cultural development.”
The shape of the canvas, she points out, is the size of a human figure with arms extended, so “you have to physically experience these fragments being drawn. These are not neat landscapes with a horizon line, but draw you in to the experience.”
Ms. Ingalls studied with Josef Albers, who taught a method of improvisatory drawing engaging the body – it was part of the Bauhaus tradition of educating mind, body and spirit. “The body knows – you could close your eyes and find your way with the tip of the hand,” she says.
Starting as a painter, Ms. Ingalls grew tired of the rectangle. In 1997, she ventured into sculpture and formed impressions of her body in cast plaster. It was “like a performance, but not before an audience,” she said. And in 2000, she began sculpting in cast paper – or, as she would say, allowing the paper to collaborate, moving the armature as it dries. One such work in this exhibit, “They Always Like to Work on a Clean Sheet of Water,” has a billowing white sheet nestled with tiny figures: one reading a book, another holding a child, a farmer with an ax, a boat and a tower.
Ms. Ingalls recounts a story from the Odyssey, in which Odysseus, exhausted and desperate for sleep, is thrown to shore. He sees a wild olive tree, with a cultivated olive branch grafted to it. Odysseus sleeps well under the tree. “The best place for a human to rest is where nature and culture come together in a positive and reinforcing manner,” says Ms. Ingalls. “Here, I am questioned that confluence. I’m saying, in archaeology, if you don’t understand something, don’t take it out of the soil to study it. Let’s be careful not to disturb information until we know what to do with it.”
Sited Memory/Underground Shadows is on view at the Bernstein Gallery at the Woodrow Wilson School, Robertson Hall, Princeton University, through Oct. 21. A panel discussion, Architecture at Memorial,” will be held Oct. 18, 4:30 p.m., Bowl 016, with panelists Lucia Allais, Joel Smith and Stanley Katz; free. 609-497-2441.