I am still processing Martha Tuttle’s exhibition at Rhona Hoffman Gallery, “An ear, a hand, a mouth, an offering, an angel.” Revisiting the images in my phone’s camera roll, I zoom in on a patch of tufted hand-spun wool or the taught seam where it connects with a swath of painted silk, creating a crisp silhouette of the aluminum stretcher bar just behind. I smile at a photo of an adult and child crouching low to examine the titular installation which consists of small natural(ish) objects—quartz, stones cast into steel, a nut casing—arranged lovingly, meticulously in the gallery corner. (What makes one material more “natural” than another? Tuttle might ask).
The exhibition consists of two such floor installations and seven woven paintings, four of which share the scale and orientation of a Renaissance painting entitled The Dream of Saint Helena(c.1570), by the Venetian artist Paolo Veronese. Housed in the National Gallery in London, Veronese’s painting depicts an angel revealing the location of the True Cross to a sleeping Saint Helena, the mother of the first Christian emperor, Constantine. Tuttle was drawn to the painting’s palette, composition, and narrative of a woman intuiting knowledge from a dream. As an historian of Italian Renaissance art whose research intersects with ecocriticism, I was especially stimulated by the ways Tuttle’s exhibition engages with the history of painting and, at the same time, prompts us to contemplate the complex physical and social ecologies in which art is made and experienced.
Ecology is a common theme in Tuttle’s work, though more explicitly so in previous exhibitions such as “Wild irises grow in the mountains” (2021) which included a work entitled Drought (2021), a touching recording of the artist and her mother, Mei Mei Berseenbrugge, reflecting on their personal experiences of climate change. In the current exhibition, the subject of ecology is not named as such, but rather woven into the artist’s practice and perceived through our experience of the materials and their relations to one another. In spending time with Tuttle’s work, we get a strong sense of her knowledge of and gratitude for her source materials, be they mineral pigments or Renaissance paintings. That gratitude radiates.
Tuttle creates her characteristic woven paintings by hand-spinning, weaving, and dyeing her own wool, and hand-coloring silk and linen with dyes (natural and synthetic) and mineral pigments including graphite, marble dust, and ultramarine ash. She then sews the textiles into bold interlocking polygonal forms, creating patterns evocative of marble and ice, and, in some of the present works, of the internal geometries of Veronese’s composition. In the delicate touch of Helena’s foot reaching out to the window’s edge, for instance, Tuttle reproduces the triangles of negative space around Helena’s lifted foot in Veronese’s painting, using fabrics whose color and pattern emulate the striations of Veronese’s stone wall. The subtlety of this reference rhymes with the delicacy of the gesture, as accented in Tuttle’s title. Yet, while the art historical reference reveals itself to us quietly, its implications are bold, opening larger questions about pictorial composition and the relationship between nature and artifice.
I see, for example, a bold gesture towards perspectival depth in the juxtaposed passages of diaphanous silk and thick wool. They activate a sense of foreground/background, one of the building blocks of figurative painting. The seams connecting these fabric passages (one of my favorite aspects of Tuttle’s work) create a network of intersecting lines that bring my thoughts to the Renaissance perspectival grid and, in turn, the velo (veil)—a compositional tool that Renaissance artists used to translate observed objects into two-dimensional representations. The veil-like qualities of Tuttle’s silk as it extends across the wood and aluminum stretcher, yet another grid, adds a poetic flourish to this trans-historical connection in my mind.
The stretcher bars themselves are quite interesting and play an important role in the exhibition. Delightfully visible through the translucent fabrics, they add a regulated matrix of line, form, and shadow to the dynamic compositional arrangements of the woven paintings. At the same time, they invite us to question the way we categorize materials as either natural (i.e., hand-spun wool) or artificial (i.e., cast-metal stretcher bars). This line of inquiry is echoed in the floor installations, which include metal and glass castings of “natural” objects such as bones and fossils. Crouching down to look closely at these objects in the gallery corners, two thoughts came to mind: 1) the feeling of laying in the grass as a child, marveling at the variety of things and beings that can inhabit a single patch of terrain, and 2) the concept of ludus naturae (playfulness of nature) remarked upon by early modern artist-scientists who saw fossils as “stones with images made by nature.” Nature, to them, could be a playful generative force. An image-maker, an artist.
These Renaissance connections beyond Veronese’s painting likely transcend Tuttle’s intentions, and that is one of her work’s greatest gifts. It meets us where we are, and then opens multiple pathways forward.