tour de force (Review)

Thin Air Studio transforms nature at the Weston Gallery and vise versa

Jul 15, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Gnarled tree limbs arc above each entrance of downtown’s Alice F. and Harris K. Weston Art Gallery. Lashed together with twine, the limbs create a web-like mass that spreads throughout the Weston’s lobby, soaring above in great domes, coiling around pillars, growing up and out of the stairwell. An earthy, wooden smell permeates the glass, steel and brick interior.

This dramatic sensory experience is Thin Air Studio’s tour de force, its largest installation to date. Christopher Daniel and Kirk Mayhew comprise Thin Air Studio (a third member, Rich Fruth, went his separate way last year), which specializes in site-specific installation built from natural materials. They’ve constructed mostly outdoor large-scale sculpture — locally at the Cincinnati Flower Show, the Carnegie Visual and Performing Arts Center and Mac’s Farm Sculpture Center, and internationally at the BUGA (Germany’s national garden show) in Munich.

The studio’s work is always fascinating and interactive — viewers can walk through and really experience it. The current Weston installation, which required 16 days and 17 assistants to complete, surpasses its past work in sheer magnitude.

The enormous size of the Weston installation can be attributed in part to its location.

“One of the bonuses of building indoors, especially where there are tall ceilings, is that we can tie into existing structural supports to create taller, larger forms that we usually can’t support in an outdoor piece,” Daniel says.

According to him, the biggest challenge of building indoors versus outdoors is attaching the forms to the ground.

“Outdoors we usually dig large holes in which we can place branches or posts,” Daniel explains. “When building indoors, the floors can be rather slick and the process of constructing the major support system takes a bit longer.”

I’ve seen many of Thin Air Studio’s outdoor installations and have never been disappointed. For me, they evoke ancient shelters, twists of human activity married to the landscape around them. However, new interpretations arise when the work is placed indoors. The compression of architectural space upon the sprawling web of wood emphasizes its monumentality and, in a way, urgency. I am reminded of a television show about what would happen to man-made structures if humans disappeared, and how quickly plants, for instance, would encroach upon and break down buildings. It’s a double-edged irony — nature is fragile in the face of the urban development, but the urban environment is also subject to the will of nature.

Thin Air Studio’s installation literally takes over the Weston lobby and feels as if it could continue to grow, filling the stairwell, bursting the windows and squeezing the columns until they collapse. This being said, the effect is not one of destruction but of creation, much like the beauty of a forest engulfing the remnants of an old barn foundation or ivy growing on an abandoned house.

THIN AIR STUDIO’s installation is on view at the Weston Art Gallery in the Aronoff Center for the Arts  through Aug. 30. Get details and find nearby bars and restaurants here.