“Shanie Tommasini: Slippery Clump” at the Umlauf

The Umlauf Prize-winning artist uses big, playful shapes and environmental manipulation to look at art, nature, and conservation

“Shanie Tommasini: Slippery Clump” at the Umlauf

The most unnerving aspects of fictional eco-dystopias involve synthetic intrusion into once-natural processes, biological modifications or laborious mimicry of a previously healthy environment, signs that the buildup of destructive environmental modifications got so great that constructive modification became vital. They indicate that surrender to the new-natural would be toxic. With her 2018 Umlauf Prize-winning show, "Slippery Clump," Shanie Tomassini offers a small-scale study of environmental control and submission in a less fraught, more playful context.

Working in both the indoor gallery and outdoor sculpture garden, Tomassini agitates both arenas by blurring the lines between them. The spaces are plainly manipulated. In the garden, the verdant grounds are immaculately kept and the result of obvious grooming. The space is peppered with sculptural works placed alongside paths, some Tomassini's, most Charles Umlauf's. Inside, Tomassini has engineered a misting rig to cultivate growth of moss and spores on the surface of her sculptures. The pieces are gathered on a damp tarp in the middle of the room and surrounded by a get-up of buckets, clamps, tubing, pumps, and wood. Clumps of fuzzy green moss patch the surface of her sculptures.

"How deep is the surface?" Tomassini asks, carving the question into one of the white walls that surround the indoor gallery like a name etched into a tree. In a tree, depth is a sign of age and slow growth, of cycles and seasons. For Tomassini, though, the surface is often illusory, implying nonexistent pliability and hardness at the same time, organic shapes cut in foam and shelled in spray-on concrete. Her sculptures look like the work of giant, clumsy fingers molding butter into new shapes, fighting their own heat and the material's inclination to liquefy. The result is big, playful shapes, seemingly softened and finger-mashed. "Slippery Clump" implies a heaviness that is not there. Her cycles are manufactured, and their parts are exposed. Clay Guy, at around 7 feet tall with a turkey-gobbler nose and the profile of a squeezed stress ball, is not made out of clay.

Tomassini's works in the garden stand out among Umlauf's smooth, mostly bronze figures. Without placards, they erupt from the ground like warped relics. Mud comes up around the bottom of a lumpy radio-like piece, Machine, about 5 feet tall and dappled various shades of gray according to the degree of exposure to the intermittent rain. Puddles collect in the pits of the work and leaves gather in the crooks. Next to a lush, lily-padded pond, the clunky piece looks like a compound anachronism – a lithic monument of amorphous 20th century tech.

Another unnerving trope of eco-dystopias is the use of a monument as a scale of destruction, the Statue of Liberty lost to sea or sand or ice. Tomassini offers up smaller monuments in the service of more subtle, incremental scales of change. The engineered cultivation indoors and hands-off exposure outdoors play with notions of conservation, of artwork, of the environment, and of art's environment. Tomassini houses her slippery clumps in circuitous ecosystems of control, surrender, and change. The surface is evolving, and its depth is never certain.

“Shanie Tomassini: Slippery Clump”

Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum, 605 Azie Morton
Through Nov. 4

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Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum, Shanie Tomassini, Umlauf Prize

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