Art review: Boxes, books and the 'scars of time'

Don Decker
Margo Klass, "Tea House North," birch, wood, rubber, metal, text papers from "Book of Tea," 2012
Photo by Chris Arend
Margo Klass, "Trailer Queen," surfboard skeg, metal, wood, vintage paper
Photo by Chris Arend
Margo Klass, "Reading Room," birch, plastic, brass, 2010
Photo by Focus Unbound
Margo Klass, "Sun Dog," birch, brake shoes, celluloid cocktail picks, 2012
Photo by Chris Arend

The grandeur of Alaska, with its sweeping vistas, mountain ranges and ocean views, is well recognized by artists. Fairbanks artist Margo Klass knows it too, but she more often finds inspiration for her art underfoot. She thoughtfully selects the diminutive objects based upon their texture and patina, which she calls "the scars of time."

She turns her collected twigs, branches, stones, bones and found objects into small, boxed realms: meticulously ordered, layered and sewn, hinged and fastened. Her show "Proximity," in the Brian Davies Chugach Gallery at the Anchorage Museum, consists of a large selection of her recent constructions. It is part of the museum's Patricia B. Wolf Solo Exhibition series.

The title refers to the relationship between the objects in the containers, often worn or discarded mechanical parts paired with organic forms. The juxtaposition suggests a new relationship, as the objects compare and contrast within the artist's framework.

Klass said the intimacy of the pieces suggests "viewers draw close, virtually climb into the boxes and look around, deciding for themselves their meaning and relationship to the wider world."

The installation is as ordered as the individual pieces themselves: in even rows, uniformly constructed and all rendered in carefully selected earth tones. The detritus of the landscape has been transported and transformed into the new paradigm of a gallery space: outside-in. The gallery arrangement, Klass said, "has the same qualities as my constructions, with the rhythm of the hanging boxes and quiet lighting."

In my view, the pristine sameness of the exhibit is its weakness. Detail is easily overlooked in the overall quantity of objects displayed. The rawness of nature is confined by the safety of her muted colors, measured lines and uniformity. There is repetition in the natural world, but chaos and chance as well. The work could have been bolder had the artist occasionally stepped back or stepped out of her preconceived notions of containment.

But that is not her vision. Her perceptions of the land are framed by her knowledge of art history. "Technically," she says, "everything I do can be traced back to book arts."

She studied medieval art history and sees medieval manuscripts as early artist books, and altarpieces as larger, 3-D versions. She also credits Japanese minimalism in that "the objects and their interrelationships come first."

Any art in boxed format brings to mind the work of Joseph Cornell. Though she sees the connection, Margo says she is more inspired by "artist junk collectors such as German artist Kurt Schwitters, and Japanese architect Tadeo Ando."

I was drawn to "Beached," in which a worn/found work glove is wedged between two rectangular driftwood pieces, with a coil spring adding visual tension. Likewise, "Reading Room" is a mixed-media triptych in the altarpiece genre. In the center panel, a hand-crafted ladder leads to an upper floor where a reader's chair awaits. The side panels contain shelves of small hand-made books. It is charming and thoughtful.

Margo Klass is an accomplished and knowledgeable artist who sees the world around her in terms of design. Just as a photographer crops and edits, she explores the discarded, worn and weathered objects she finds in terms of creative composition. After periods of careful selection, she works in her studio to alter, mend and bind. She is meticulous, detail-oriented and precise as she transforms our world into hers.

Don Decker is an Anchorage artist, teacher and writer. His daughter Julie is director and CEO of the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, where this show is currently on display.

About the artist

Margo Klass spends winters in Fairbanks and summers in Corea, Maine. She has degrees from Purdue and the University of Michigan and a doctorate from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.

Her career as an artist began after teaching art history for more than 20 years. She was inspired by the altarpieces and hand-crafted books of the Middle Ages to create similar contemporary works often using found objects. Her work often incorporates language, notably in collaborations with her husband, Fairbanks author Frank Soos.

She has been an artist-in-residence at Denali National Park and taken part in numerous group shows in Alaska and on the East Coast. She had her first solo show in 2004 when she exhibited at the Dadian Gallery in Washington, D.C. Her series "An Alaskan Book of Hours," part of the "Proximity" show currently at the Anchorage Museum, was shown at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau in 2012.


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