Rachel Owens – The Hypogean Tip at the Housatonic

Art Spiel in dialogue with Rachel Owens on her sculpture exhibition at The Housatonic Museum of Art in Bridgeport CT

Rachel Owens, installation view

Rachel Owens seamlessly incorporates rigorous research of history and place in her visceral sculptural environments, offering us not only a feast for the eyes – in form, textures, and color – but also engaging us in a mysterious space where detritus like broken bottles, abandoned coal, and even the dust left from marble excavation transform into new forms. Altogether her sculptures prompt complex ideas about multi layered and urgent social issues of race, gender, history and capitalism among others. Rachel Owens elaborates for Art Spiel on her thought process behind this exhibition.

AS: Tell me about your background and about the premise of your exhibition, The Hypogean Tip opening on February 6th at The Housatonic Museum of Art in Bridgeport CT

RO: I am an artist living and working in Brooklyn NY and for the most part I work sculpturally. I grew up back and forth between the South, Midwest and a little bit in South Africa. I received my MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago. A combination of growing up with a fierce single mom and shuttling around between both semi-rural and politically charged international places certainly formed my interests.

I worked in conjunction with the Housatonic Museum of Art which is presenting the exhibit and the Mary and Eliza Freeman Center, which is responsible for saving and transforming these two historic houses into a center for history and culture. The Freeman Houses still stand in what used to be Little Liberia. Described as a “peri-urban multiethnic enclave” the community of free African Americans and Indigenous Peoples was forming by the 1820’s, well before the Civil War. Constructed around 1848, the houses were owned by the sisters Mary and Eliza Freeman. These unmarried women not only built and owned their own homes, but also were providing mortgages for their neighbors at a time in history when no unmarried woman could even have a bank account. Women couldn’t vote for another 72 years! At the time of her death, only PT Barnum in Bridgeport CT bested Mary Freeman’s wealth.

The beginnings of the show initially came as an extension of the larger project Life on the Other Side of a Cracked Glass Ceiling in which landscapes and architectural sites are cast in broken glass and then placed on scaffolds for interaction with viewers and performers who identify as marginalized. The Mary and Eliza Freeman Houses offered us such a rich and incredible story of these two truly radical women, and after Robbin Zella the museum’s director first told me about the houses and then introduced me to the executive director of the house’s foundation, Maisa Tisdale, I was enthralled. As the research developed, I began to see this very complicated bigger picture of gender and race but also the industrial revolution, capitalism and its impact not only on a community but also its ecology. All these impacts are still playing out today. What happened and is still happening in this tiny spot in Connecticut is like a perfect encapsulation of what is happening and has been happening all over the United States.

Freeman house, courtesy of Mary and Eliza Freeman Center
Macintosh HD:Users:m-rachel.owens:Desktop:freeman rendering.jpg

L, as the houses stand today and R, a rendering of the future preserved homes. Photos courtesy The Mary and Eliza Freeman Center.

AS: In Stamatina Gregory’s in-depth essay A Stage to Hold History, she says that “Quiet survivance, creative adaptation, connection, gestation: states of being, tacitly coded as feminine, in spaces humbly built and decidedly unmonumental.” Would you like to describe your work in that context?

RO: The sculptures are all made from the molds of both architecture and landscapes that are of the every day. Those houses are not “grand” but they are colossal in significance. For me they are like these stoic, steadfast beings that have insisted on surviving – poking us as human onlookers to please pay attention. The landscapes are also quiet, but again, they persist regardless of the power plants and development. All the works and their subjects are like beacons of the survival of things that are easy to overlook but extremely important. The materials as well are for the most part detritus, forgotten and disregarded. I am turning broken bottles, dirt, abandoned coal, and even the dust left from marble excavation into forms to be reconsidered. I like to say that I make things that are, built broken. To me that means, wrapping the fragility and the cracks and fissures right into the strength that it requires for an object (or a person) to stand.

AS: Your installations seem to be particularly site specific in terms of architecture and history. What was your approach to the project, from research to material and installation?

RO: Hopefully it all weaves together, the site and mission of the museum itself is even considered. The Housatonic Community College in which the HMA resides has an incredibly diverse student body with a huge encyclopedic collection, but aside from the galleries where rotating exhibits take place, the works are all installed in the hallways and common areas of the college. You might have a Matisse drawing hanging just next to the library entrance or a case of carved sculpture from Benin near your Psych 101 class, pretty amazing. The museum and the college itself practice this kind of radical accessibility. Little Liberia and the sisters Mary and Eliza were incredibly radical as well, so It made sense to invoke that kind of radical nature of doing. By creating sculptures that can be climbed and walked upon, I’m reinforcing that notion.

After Robbin Zella gave me initial information, Maisa Tisdale was my primary resource and partner in terms of history and sourcing other research. She introduced me to the work of Charles Brivlitch who was the town historian and really the one who rediscovered Little Liberia. His book, “A History of Connecticut’s Golden Hill Paugussett Tribe”, details comprehensive research into Little Liberia, as well as various other documents and oral history. There were also lots of visits, driving around with Maisa to look at other houses, sites where Little Liberia founders’ ancestors had been enslaved, and just listening. Also visiting the protected marshland behind both the houses and the power plant. The entire coast must have looked like that not so long ago. So, through all of that looking, reading, and listening, I found information, sites and materials. It all folds together: history, place, material and meaning. I tell my students at Purchase College all the time to fold it together, these things don’t exist in silos, nothing does.

Landscape mold test in the marsh behind Bridgeport, you can see the smoke stack that rises above the Freeman houses in the distance. Pictured, assistant Savannah Strenz, photo courtesy R Owens

AS: There is a poignant political weight, even underlying activism in this project, as Stamatina Gregory puts it, “critical to envisioning a more just future is an acknowledgement of an unjust past.” What is your take on that?

RO: As I have been working on the project, I have been amazed at how many people have no idea about the houses or the community. The white patriarchy did a really good job of sweeping those radical women and the community under the rug at the turn of the century. But this happens over and over throughout history, power is taken and overtime we forget that power ever existed. The recent business of the National Archives doctoring the photo of the women’s march is a perfect example, they literally tried to do it a couple of days ago. And obviously when it involves people of color, they don’t just sweep – they get out the vacuum. The work is about uncovering that injustice, but it’s also about elevating earlier moments of ascendancy. When the viewer is standing high on the porch in the Housatonic Museum of Art, they are standing high like the Freeman sisters stood. The viewers themselves are embodying and in effect reclaiming and reviving the power of a radical past.

Photo courtesy Rachel Owens

AS: What can you share about the venue and any possible events associated with your show?

There are going to be two amazing performances by Laura Ortman and Lachell Workman. Laura is a White Mountain Apache artist and musician (she was just in the Whitney biennial) and Lachell is an amazing young NYC based artist but grew up in Bridgeport.

February 20, 2020 5:30 PM, Laura Ortman

With varied natural and urban instrumentation, Laura Ortman’s music is known for compositions that alternate lyrical intimacy with layered improvisation, often experimenting with four-track tapes and remixing her own audio catalogue in an evolving dialogue with herself. On Thursday February 20, she will engage the scaffolded sculptures of Owens’ exhibit by playing violin as well as employing native instruments and digital effects.

March 5, 2020 530 PM, Lachell Workman

Lachell Workman will engage with the history of housing in Bridgeport, CT spanning from the work of the Freeman Sisters during the mid-1800’s tying into the history of public housing in Bridgeport. Utilizing two automatic slide projectors Workman will perform a series of choreographed movements that respond to the projected images of the following housing projects, many of which have since been demolished in the city of Bridgeport: Father Panik Village, The Greene Houses, Marina Village, and P.T. Barnum Apartments. Following the performed movements, she will transition to being seated on a scaffold and invite 4 selected guests to recall memories of living in these housing projects.

Rachel Owens

All photo courtesy Paul Mutino unless otherwise indicated

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She holds BA in Psychology and English Literature from Tel Aviv University, BFA from Parsons School of Design, and MFA from SUNY Purchase. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: artspielblog@gmail.com