Marks Left Behind – The Work of Camilla Newhagen

What is the nature of art?  That is, of course, the subject of endless debate and many books.  For me personally, what elevates some art is an element of exploration in the work that transcends or informs the object that is produced.

Growing up in a small, socialist enclave just outside of Copenhagen during the politically active 70’s, Camilla Newhagen was surrounded by intense intellectual discourse about the world around her.  The discussions were challenging and engaging.  She developed a heightened awareness of the world that was rooted in that experience.  Her formal education was in art and design at the Danish design school, Desingskolen Kolding.  So, it was a natural progression for her to combine her socially-engaged childhood with her art.  When she moved to America in the late 1990’s, she began exploring the stark differences between American culture and Danish culture.  Art was a vocabulary for that discussion.

I recently met for coffee with Camilla and we discussed the topic of cultural differences.  I spoke a lot about the differences between Japanese and American culture.  For Camilla, it was the somewhat more subtle, but still substantial differences between Danish and American culture.  And, more recently, it has been differences within those cultures in how men and women are perceived and how they interact.

After the meeting and in response to the lively discussion that we had, Camilla sent me some of the ideas and quotes that she was posting on the wall of her studio by way of helping her to formulate an artistic statement for an upcoming exhibition at Jack Fischer Gallery.

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards” – Kierkegaard

Much of Camilla’s work grapples with the idea of making sense of our world by examining the marks that are left behind as we pass through life.  There is this idea that memories are embedded in the objects that we have touched; physically manifested and preserved in these materials.  And, somehow, in ways that are not entirely clear, by utilizing the materials – found objects – in sculpture, those experiences are transmitted and become a part of the piece.

“Psychological scars interest me, taboo and the impact they have on our physical bodies”

Camilla had a studio in the Mission district of San Francisco.  It was an area of San Francisco that was frequented by a lot of prostitutes.  She was fascinated by the physical impact that this life had on its participants.  Aging was not uniform.  From the back, the bodies of many of the women remained attractive.  However, close up, the horrible impact on their faces could not be ignored.  Housed in the same building as her studio was a second-hand store.  Camilla would purchase second-hand women’s undergarments from the store; deconstruct the garments; and re-assemble them into soft sculptures.  The result was an exhibition: “What Women Want” which is more of a question than an answer.

“Identity crisis interest me, new beginnings and transformation”

Moving to America in 1998 after becoming newly married, Camilla started to explore what it was like to be a man vicariously through her observations of her husband.  Her starting point in many of her explorations is specific.  Her process is to study some something specific – in this case, her husband and her father – as a means of understanding something more universally – in this case, men.  The study of her husband resulted in a 2009 exhibition:  “My Husband”.  And, that study continues in a more generalized fashion in her current exhibition which features works re-constructed from recycled men’s suits and dress shirts.  She studies the burdens that men carry in their lives and the marks those burdens leave behind in their unofficial uniforms.

“Things unsaid”

I asked Camilla if she started her work with a specific idea in mind, or if she simply started sewing her pieces together and they took their own direction.  For her, it was both.  There is always an idea that she has in mind when she starts the piece, but she also allows the media itself to exert a measure of control.  The finished piece often continues to have a mind of its own.  Once finished, there is always the question of whether or not the piece is successful.  Does the piece have a voice?  What is it saying?  She will place the piece off in the corner of the room and stare at it for days.  And, interestingly the piece continues to evolve.  Reinterpretation often takes her in a unexpected and different direction.  The pieces do not speak but they have a voice.

Camilla Newhagen is currently studying in the MFA program at Mills College.  She recently exhibited one of her works, Dominatrix, in an exhibition at ARC Gallery in San Francisco:  “Dollhouse” – that was juried by Jack Fischer.  That work led to her upcoming exhibition at Jack Fischer Gallery: “Coupling” where she and John Hundt are the featured artists, that is opening this Saturday, March 12th from 3-5pm.  You can see Camilla’s work in that exhibition through May 7th.  You can also arrange to see Camilla’s work by appointment.