Thomas Motley in conversation with Elisa Lendvay and Sara Cardona
The unique design and location of the Beatrice M. Haggerty Gallery at The University of Dallas proved a most fitting space for the exuberant content of Sara Cardona and Elisa Lendvay’s exhibit, titled Meridian. Picture a giant treehouse, spanning the edge of a steep ravine, extended over a leafy canopy of thick post oak trees. From the gallery’s atrium entry, visitors enjoy a dramatic bird’s-eye view of a sylvan campus below. Under gallery director John Watson’s sculptor’s eye, Cardona’s and Lendvay’s lively celebration of nature, a Gaia shout-out, projected joyous meridian energy-lines from gallery to surrounding woods. Meridian expressed the artists’ shared interests in earth’s natural shapes and cycles, regeneration of discarded or out-of-fashion cultural designs and hardware, and celebration of movement, of dance.
The harmonious synchrony of works in Meridian affirms the artists’ longtime friendship since adolescent years: neighbors, in the hilly Oak Cliff section of Dallas. Their art dialog was never more important than during the pandemic. Meridian was the culmination of an ongoing supportive critique between two artists with school-age children at home and studio. Cardona and Lendvay’s installation design was completed over many months and conveyed to John Watson mostly through phone communication. The artists’ successful installation plans were aided by their admiration for, and familiarity with, the Haggerty gallery space. So simpatico were the works in Meridian, Watson spoke of serendipitous pairings, surprise matches of chance that occurred without artifice, simply by casual, temporary deposit of pieces when first brought into the gallery.
Cardona’s monumental, site-specific, Miles and Miles of Texas was the agreed-upon first positioned piece. It spoke volumes of connected reference to the show’s ensuing assembly. By chance, Lendvay’s playful Modulations had been plopped down nearby, in a direct sightline toward Miles and Miles’ pediment-like occupation of the adjacent wall. The artificial pampas of Modulations gestured toward Miles and Miles, as did their floor-shadows. The pampas’ delicate salmon-pink fronds were repeated, refrain-like, throughout the sensuous relief-folds of Miles and Miles, weaving warm strands through cool, blue waters. Cardona’s fluid, fast-moving relief pieces like Miles and Miles are printed on flexible Tyvek paper, folding in and out of space, looping upon themselves like wild amusement park rides. Cardona channels Baroque enthusiasm for breath-taking, multi-layered surfaces.
Lendvay’s works offer a seductive play of opposing textures, from the softness suggested by fluffy artificial pampas fronds to the spikiness of old metal bottle caps, tempting to the eye’s touch, but tactility perhaps best untested. The artist, a latter-day Romanticist, likes to convey fragility and delicateness using galvanized metal wire and steel pipe. Shadows, customarily intangible forms, become manifest elements for Lendvay, as in the lacy White Fan Palm, casting overlapped shadow-lines that appear to be hand-painted on the wall. Notions is a totem of stacked ovals, gestating a mango seed at the center intersection of lines that mimic attenuated vertebrae or artery. Nearby Riff Raff…Que Serra, Sera, is viewed through Notions’ open spaces, not unlike a pair of glasses turned on end. Riff Raff… visually stands on a like-minded single foot, with similarly intersecting rings rising out of its fragmented mélange of mosaic and map-like patterns.
Lendvay, a discretionary bricoleur, has embraced and reclaimed the flotsam and jetsam of contemporary society, dusted the stuff off, found its natural sheen and substance, and clothed the redeemed things in clean, new garb. With the precision of Judy Pfaff’s meticulous method of painting and scraping and painting again on assorted bits and bobs, Lendvay is a revivalist. The artist uses sculpting materials, cast plaster, papier Mache and welded steel to create the bent metal pieces with textural, shaped bodies applied to surfaces.
With nods to Gordon Matta-Clark, abandoned textile and print constructions are resurrected through Cardona’s successful surgeries of cut and paste, creating a viable assembly of old cast-off drapes or tents, now exposing unseen layers below, through gaping void-holes. In a way, Cardona is making modern-day, asymmetrical crazy quilts. Cardona’s choice of patterns plays with memory. Surfaces seem familiar, but fold in unusual ways, or have crisp-cut contours that defy their utility and materiality. With abandon, shapes joyously twist and turn themselves into Mannerist-like improbable contortions. The radial design Too Blue to Be True has the hypnotic, rhythmic qualities of colorful laundry tumbling itself over and over in the port-hole window of a commercial dryer.
The interplay of Cardona and Lendvay pieces in Meridian is best described as dance, an artform dear to both artists. John Watson understood this symbiosis and used the gallery space as active volume; that is, no central focus, no hierarchical direction for viewers’ eyes, no chronological beginning or end to the placement of artworks. Viewers moved through the space as if in a dance, not a tour; a dance not following social order or prescribed footsteps, a dance that can begin at any point in space and move to any other.
TM: You’ve known each other since adolescent years in the same Oak Cliff neighborhood, and have been aware of each other’s art efforts for a long time. Your anticipation of the exhibit Meridian must have been exciting. What expectations were fulfilled, upon finally experiencing the actual presentation of your works in the same space at the same time?
SC: I’ve admired and wanted to work with Elisa for a while—her work resonates with me because of its innocence and confidence, both qualities I admire, want for my work and I feel somehow encapsulate our youth growing up in Oak Cliff, Texas. We also share an affinity for chance and surprise- which we invite willingly into our work. Oak Cliff is an unpredictable neighborhood, full of oddity, complications, and latent histories- I do feel this has charged our shared sensibility. Since we could not be in the space together, the show was an experiment in trust and process over control and content.
EL: I love the idea of getting at something that will never be known until all the elements are put together. We were very happy with the energy of it all in that vast beautiful gallery space with joyful bits of color and textured form moving around the room. Sort of a psychologically charged space.
TM: What surprised you?
SC: Surprises came due to John’s curatorial eye. He paired works in ways Elisa and I might have not imagined. The dynamism of the large, open space of the gallery created a playground effect that invited a dance between works—and I mean that sincerely! The Haggerty Gallery is a bit like a ballroom or a hockey rink—it is vast, with industrial, sky-high ceilings. Elisa’s hung works and the installation piece that I created for the gallery (actually inspired by it) generated a theatrical, performative aspect that John’s eye teased out.
EL: Color relationships between our works were more intense than imagined, like the peach and white shapes in Sara’s Miles and Miles with mine in Modulations and Pampas. One of John’s perfect pairings was to line up my hanging piece Plumeria with Sara’s Indian Summer on the distant wall behind, both pieces being about systems of nature.
TM: You both had school-age children at home during the pandemic, so your own studio time and space was adjusted. Which work of yours, in Meridian, is imbued with memory of the effect of sequestered days?
SC: The lockdown created a liminal space at home for an extended period of time for me to work in; emotionally compressing the psychological distance between me and my son, a teen. This was often a challenge to my mental space. Regarding the effect on the work produced, I would say Miles and Miles of Texas was a strong response to my state of mind during the pandemic. This work was both a reimagination of the vast and psychological relationship I have to living in Texas, and an escape of the confines of my relatively small studio, where I was mostly contained. The piece is an homage to the vastness of Texas; its mythology and its physical expanse, which became more imagined precisely through confinement.
EL: Sara and I consoled each other on the challenges of motherhood and being an artist, especially during the pandemic. During that time and still, themes and interests in the studio became even more pressing. My son is in kindergarten, so it was very hands on and I was interested in witnessing him learn so directly, learning basic concepts with him.
In addition to the finished pieces selected for the exhibit, I wanted to visualize new forms and modular parts that could be shipped to make a larger whole in the space. The piece Mirage, shaped reflective vinyl, I needed to see that shape in relation to the other works, a reflection, a sense of presence, or absence.
TM: As avid gardeners, each of you enjoys cooking with produce you’ve grown. The relationship of food to its source is important to you. Which of your works in Meridian most represents a response to nature for you?
SC: Human relationships to nature are complicated—I feel that since the beginning of art making and agriculture—a kind of creative intervention, nature becomes both an abstraction and a hard-core reality for the human experience. We seek connection to the matrix of Gaia- dropping below self-consciousness. But art making also requires a strange level of awareness within this fluid connectivity. We are arrangers of nature, organizers and composers of its properties— art making mirrors a process of gardening. My paper collages best mirror this process; especially Empire In Decline and Looking for Mushrooms, which are both about the human need for dominance over nature, and the excess that we yield from it.
EL: Preservation of nature is a passion and helping pollinators by growing native plants. My mother always had a basic garden and I have memories of many good meals that started with gathering what was available in it. Our young son is learning to enjoy the fruits of our own family garden in the Hudson Valley, especially the flowers, herbs and greens, and snap peas. Many of my pieces are of the earth, pointing to cycles, gestures and postures of growth/ decay, upward-reaching emergence. The stacked forms are like strata, tree rings, layers of time.
I’ve tried to convey growth, the stance, as in Cala and Notions. I made these in the cold of winter, a particularly challenging season of the pandemic. In Tropicalia I was beckoning warmth and energized motion and marks in charged colors and pulsating strokes. In the lower meridian of the composition, as if below ground, are bulbs and seeds active even in the dead of winter, growing.
TM: How did Meridian, including the title, come about?
SC: At some point in our sharing of images and thoughts, we noted an affinity for lines, implied interior life, projected traces—moving away from solid objects into states of being. I think we also hit on meridians because we discussed spring, recharge, and the idea of latent energy. Meridians covered many types of lines—but mostly sensed lines, not the tangible type. Or perhaps all lines are trace lines of energy or passage—like in the cartoons! The term seemed to span the ideas we both had of physical and metaphysical paths: energy, celestial, topographical, geographical and chi in the body, which we hoped were present in our objects as animated bodies and not static things.
EL: The title, “Meridian” tied together themes that united some of our chosen pieces and current concerns- especially the lines, connectivity, movement, energy, biology, systems, – corpus, a sense place /geography, orbiting forms, and celebration of the cosmological/ celestial, mystery.
In addition to vibrancy of art, friendship, and conversations to pick up from that were meaningful to me, going back to a transitional time in the early 2000s, I knew our pairing would bring certain loved ones and friends together in the space – to celebrate and honor life. As it became an exhibit executed during the pandemic and time of social reckoning, themes of grief and resilience of this moment resonated. As it worked out with timing and vaccinations in the Spring, people were able to emerge, and visit the space in person, together.
Thomas Motley is a Texas painter and academic. Born in Beaumont, he’s been drawing since the age of three. Motley is Professor Emeritus of Art and Art History at Dallas College. His drawings and paintings have been shown in many national exhibits. Recent shows include Mostly Canvas: Thomas Motley, Center for Contemporary Art, Abilene, TX (2020) and fluid dialog: Liz Trosper and Thomas Motley, Bernice Coulter Templeton Gallery, Texas Wesleyan U, Ft. Worth, TX (2018). Motley has lectured at the DMA, the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum, Austin, TX, and the Meadows Museum, SMU. He has published several art museum catalogs, art periodical critiques, and reviews, and NEH research papers on art and literature of the Greeks and Romans. He is a contributing author for Eutopia and has written articles about Mid-Century Modern Texas artists for DB/Zumbeispiel. Motley has received Fulbright Grants to Belgium, the Netherlands, and the UK. Motley is past Board President of Artist Boat, a Galveston non-profit, teaching coastal students about art and ecology, and was Chair of the North Texas Fulbright Teacher Exchange Peer Review Committee for many years. Motley was a printer in the USAF, a Technical Illustrator for Ling Temco Vought Corp, and a resident cartoonist for the infamous Dallas Notes from the Underground. He lives in Ft. Worth.