by Lucas Wetzel
It was only after all the lights were turned off that I was treated to the most arresting image from Rena Detrixhe’s “Make Time” exhibit at Plenum Space in the East Crossroads. After a quick tour on a rainy December morning, I’d gone back up the stairs to retrieve a forgotten thermos. That’s when I saw the spectral morning light from the south-facing window, a white transparent cloth suspended across it, billowing in and fanned out as if a ghost had just entered.
The intricate threadwork of the curtain looked like a bridal veil woven by spiders, stirred by the slightest wisp of nuclear winter, microfiber gossamer undisturbed by time or visitors. I knew from having just examined it up close, however, that the cloth was actually made of hundreds of dryer sheets that the artist had hand-stitched together with fishing line, a smattering of rose petals and tea bags sporadically suspended in its filaments.
Detrixhe (pronounced “Dee-Tree”) collects and arranges what others would discard, saving everything from onion skins and avocado shells to the coffee filters, tea bags and dryer sheets visible in the exhibit. In another work in the series, “Comforter,” yellow gingko leaves are preserved in dryer-sheet pockets and back-lit by can lights. You can find these leaves in piles on the city sidewalks each fall, but in “Make Time” they become individual museum specimens, like the palmettes etched into ancient Greek pottery.
Next to these works hung a window-sized Tetris board of faded tea bags, each dried and half-filled with sediment, like miniature hourglasses carefully measured out and then forgotten. The two tea bag tapestries in “Make Time” reflect not just the time they took for the artist to stitch them together, but also many hours spent preparing and drinking tea — an accumulation not unlike the cigarette butt monuments your friend made in college, just a lot more pleasant and skillfully arranged.
Detrixhe’s work with natural materials stemmed from an interest in environmental and land art, and the discovery during an advanced drawing course that she preferred to do her sketching with natural materials. Early installation included a rug made of spiky seed pods, an ornate table covering made of seeds, and hundreds of cicada exoskeletons arranged on a tree.
In her senior year at the University of Kansas, where she earned an BFA in visual art, Detrixhe was invited to do an installation in a 150-year-old church in East Lawrence that a friend had purchased and was planning to renovate. The resulting series, “Passages,” is where she began incorporating items from daily rituals such as making tea, brewing coffee and doing laundry, using the byproducts to create detailed quilts and tapestries.
She held an opening for “Passages” to coincide with her friend’s open house party, each of them inviting different sets of friends. She watched from inside as his guests arrived, many of them pausing to try and figure out whether they were viewing artwork or just a radical change in their friend’s sense of home decor.
For both “Passages” and “Make Time,” Rena used a hybrid of synthetic and unaltered natural materials — less a study in contrasts than the pairing of objects whose surface textures complemented one another.
“I found that the dryer sheets actually had a lot of the same qualities I was drawn to in natural materials like leaves and seeds. They were delicate and had interesting patterns, they had an interesting translucency, and when you took them out of context they become just this strange, almost beautiful surface,” Detrixhe says. “I was allowing myself to be a bit playful with this piece … sewing together the dryer sheets to resemble a quilt or comforter for a bed, but creating an object that would certainly not provide any warmth or comfort.”
This month, Rena will take the time conceit a step further in a collaborative installation/performance with Eli Gold called “Full Time.” During the exhibit, which will unfold over the course of a typical 40-hour workweek, the artists will create an edition of 150 blocks and 150 cotton pillows, documenting their production and installing them within the exhibition. “Full Time” will take place at La Esquina (1000 W 25th Street in KCMO) and will be open to the public each day from Sunday, Feb. 15 through Thursday, Feb. 19 from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. A preview reads, in part:
Visitors entering the exhibition during the performance will encounter the sounds of the cement mixer and sewing machine, and witness the repetitive movements of the artists working. This simple manual labor is a visual and tactile way of representing the idea of work as a basic component of human life by reducing it to the sum of time, repetition, and material. The ultimate goal of this show becomes the exploration of the humanness of work and the balance between employment and fulfillment.
“It is a bit of a departure in terms of concept, but still heavily focused on process and repetitive activity,” Detrixhe says. “We are exploring how work and art work are sometimes the same thing, how even creative work has elements of repetition — and a little about the difficulty of getting paid for this type of work.”
Having witnessed the quiet radiance and delicate “motion” of the Plenum Space installation, I couldn’t help but imagine what Detrixhe might be able to accomplish in an airy, world-class, window-rich museum. “Full Time,” a workmanlike production hosted at the bunker-like La Esquina, isn’t that. But it will provide an interesting behind-the-scenes view at what producing such an exhibit might look like, as well as an unguarded look at the daily life of two working artists.
In addition to viewing hours, a reception will be held at La Esquina on Friday, Feb. 20 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., with a discussion from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. including the artists, University of Kansas art history professor David Cateforis, and artist Priti Cox. More information can be found here.