Published May 17th, 2022 by Russ White
Ahead of their upcoming Discussion Series, each of the six 2019 McKnight Fellows in Visual Arts talks to us individually about their practice
This is the fourth in a series of articles profiling the six distinguished artists chosen as 2019 McKnight Fellows in Visual Arts, a grant program for mid-career artists in Minnesota that is administered by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Culminating the two-year fellowship (delayed last year by the pandemic) was a McKnight Discussion Series:
The first was on May 24th at 6:30pm at MCAD, featuring Janet Dees, Steven and Lisa Munster Tananbaum Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, in conversation with Leslie Barlow, Mary Griep, and Melvin R. Smith.
The second was unfortunately canceled due to Covid-related scheduling issues. It would have featured Henriette Huldisch, Chief Curator and Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Walker Art Center, in conversation with Joe Sinness, Alexa Horochowski, and Tetsuya Yamada.
Photo by Rik Sferra
There is a temptation, when you’re writing about an artist, to start in the gallery. To begin with their finished works, their completed thoughts, to uncover what the artwork reveals about the artist. It’s sort of like solving a puzzle backwards — placing your pencil in the center of the maze and winding your way back to the start. And in the case of Alexa Horochowski’s work, the gallery provides an embarrassment of riches: her large scale installations — at places like Rochester Art Center, Nemeth Art Center, and the Soap Factory — are eloquent, sober reflections of both her material and conceptual processes alike.
But these gallery installations also offer an incredibly wide range of media to focus on. Horochowski (pronounced horo-hō-ski) has worked in bronze casting, metalsmithing, video projection, sculptural drawing, found object installation, zine-publishing, and most recently flag-making, to name a few. The artworks she has created all share a sensibility at their core, but to nail down how they all fit together, how such a variety of work can emerge from a single studio practice, you have to leave the exhibition space. You have to go outside. And preferably, if you’re able, about 6000 miles south.
“I feel like my identity was formed by the Patagonian landscape,” she tells me, during a studio visit at her home in Powderhorn Park. Though born in Missouri, Horochowski grew up in Argentina, the granddaughter of immigrants from Spain and Ukraine. Despite moving back to America when she was ten, those wide, wild vistas still call to her. “My work is a lot about that — the landscape and the yearning for that landscape.”
What sets a landscape painter apart from a common passerby is simple: they have stopped to pay attention. And this is the foundation of Horochowski’s practice: observation. Her work, in any medium, stems from paying a keen level of conceptual attention not just to the natural world but to how we interact with it.
“I’ve been thinking about my lineage,” she says. “It’s farmers or fishermen, working class people. I visited Galicia, and they have their vegetable gardens and their chickens. They’ll cook, they’ll fish, they’ll harvest stuff from the shore. They are very much in touch with the land, a total immediate connection.”
A few moments later, the thought has distilled even further into something simpler and more compact: “You know, I’m just a peasant,” she says, laughing.
Top: Installation view of O Horizons at Nemeth Art Center, 2018. Bottom: installation view of Club Dismunución at the Soap Factory, 2014.
That connection to life and land is evident in her home studio as well, where her large collection of rather massive plants rub elbows with her artwork. It’s the sculptor’s dilemma: where do you put all these things when they’re not on view at a gallery? Here, Horochowski’s pitchfork sculptures — fiercely simple and elongated like stick figures — stand in a tight scrum next to a ten-foot-tall Norfolk pine tree. Nearby lays a pile of hand-sewn flags; next to that, a coiling black mass of cast bronze kelp hangs on the wall. It may sound like a clutter, but it’s actually all very well organized, dusted, and cared for. On a bookshelf under the window sits a thoughtful display of small sculptures and mementos from Horochowski’s youth — bits of petrified wood and found boleadoras, round projectiles that are used to hunt the South American ostriches native to Argentina.
Through the lens of a love for the land, her wide-ranging work starts to coalesce. The farm provides the context for her pitchforks and weathervanes, her cast bronze John Deere and Asgrow Corporation Farmer Caps. The found world provides much of the rest, as in her dark, hynoptic videos of kelp tossing around like alien spaghetti in the surf. It’s all a meditation on connection to and disconnection from what we call “the natural world.” Our terminology itself keeps the wilderness at arm’s length, at our own peril. There is a menace to Horochowski’s work, a sense of stomach-pit dread that should be well known to anyone paying a lick of attention to our climate crisis. Much of her work takes the form of a lamentation, though there is also a sense of calm reflection and dutiful documentation as well (she got her BA in Journalism, after all). However you frame them, they are a human reaction to a time in our history when our relationship with the landscape has gone sour.
But she’s no scold either. There is an earnest curiosity to her observations, a sense of adventurous wonder that comes through in both her conceptual explorations and her material investigations. A residency at Mammoth Lakes, California, brought her face to face with Methuselah, the oldest known living thing on this planet, a bristle-cone pine tree that is 5,000 years young. “People show up, just like me, take a picture and then they walk away,” she says, “and I was just thinking about that relationship of the super brief moment of snapping a shot and then walking away from this 5,000 year old being who’s been there, who owns this history. I was fascinated by this interaction.”
Her own snapshot of Methuselah factors in to yet another project — another medium — a photo book that ruminates on the scale of time. Preserved on each page are photos capturing moments from the life of this tree (which is much smaller than you might imagine) and the lives of the artist’s family. These are moments that have been, in a way, artificially elongated through the medium of photography, snatched from the flow of time and preserved. And of course some day, on the scale of eons, they will be lost as well.
Top: One of Horochowski's two rescue cats, Doodles, sits among the artist's collection of sculptures and ephemera. Photo by the author. Bottom: The artist with her siblings at a petrified forest in the Patagonia.
It should also be noted that peasant is a political term, and Horochowski brings an awareness of how class and commerce complicate and inform our relationship to the land. It’s no surprise that, in a country where we don’t often know our own history, we don’t often know where our food comes from either. Certainly not who grows it.
She is interested in those connections as well, perhaps stemming from the way politics have impacted and interrupted her own life. Indeed, her family history is the story of human lives caught on the winds of geopolitical turmoil. Her grandparents fled Europe during the first World War, following a flow of immigrants to Argentina, whose indigenous populations had already been rocked by two centuries of colonial influx. After her father’s surgical career took the family from Argentina to Missouri and back again, the family had to flee another crisis, the Dirty War, which landed them back in the United States for good when Horochowski was ten years old. Eventually her father made it back to his home, where he lived among an olive grove for the past 27 years, until, sadly, his passing at the end of April.
The story is reminiscent of one of Horochowski’s simplest and most powerful bodies of work, the Vortex Drawings. Here, automatic drawing meets found object sculpture, performance, and videography, as piles of styrofoam cups and packing peanuts coated in graphite or ink are tossed about on large pieces of paper by a circle of carefully arranged industrial fans, angled to produce a man-made current akin to vortices found in nature. What is left behind are portentous, gaping whirlpools of marks made at random but under tight control. It is another form of abstracted lamentation, as though the butterfly got caught in its own hurricane. Single use disposables, like a single life, tossed about by the currents of a closed system.
Top: Vortex Drawings at the Highpoint Center for Printmaking, 2017. Bottom: Just a few of the many flags Horochowski has created, hanging in her home studio. Photo by the author.
Wind gives flags their power as well, but in the case of her new collection of hand-sewn banners, Horochowski is having none of it. Instead of running up poles or streaming above protesters, these flags hang stoic and still inside the gallery. She made the first one as a memorial to George Floyd, an all-black American flag emblazoned with his name. Over the past two years of pandemic and polarization, the series has expanded to touch on Covid-19, the January 6th insurrection, pro-democracy demonstrations in Chile, and most recently the atrocities being committed by the Russian military against the people of Ukraine. An all-white surrender flag features the the Cyrillic word “CHILDREN” over the crosshairs of a target, referencing the brutal destruction of a Mariupol theater in mid-March, which served as a shelter for civilians in the embattled town. Despite having "дети" written so large on the pavement that it could be plainly read by satellite, the Russians bombed it anyway, killing 600 or more civilians. Horochowski's flag is another landscape, and another lament. “Because my father is of Ukrainian descent,” she says, “it’s really hitting a nerve for me.”
Her father looms large in her work of late. She shows me an Acapulco chair she created for a show last year at Hair + Nails Gallery, carefully woven with leather cording onto a steel frame. Like all of her work, it is simple and elegant (and quite comfortable), though it feels more personal. “It’s really a portrait of my father,” she explains, “so I think of it as a sculpture.” The elder Horochowski inspired the piece through his lifelong penchant for mending items instead of buying new ones, like the plastic lawn chairs she photographed him fixing during a trip home before the pandemic. There is a sense of care and generosity in a nice piece of furniture — a work of art scaled to the contours of a human body, telling the story of a human life, and fit for a moment of rest, whether at home or at an art exhibition.
And so we find ourselves back inside the gallery at the end after all, trying to tease out something singular about this wide variety of work. “I feel like I can’t make a work of art that describes it all,” Horochowski says, “so I’m always assembling parts that together communicate something bigger.”
When I ask if she considers herself a sculptor at heart, she demurs. “I’m a material artist, [but] my material investigation is dictated by an idea or concept. I don’t explore and perfect a material or a process [the way a sculptor does] — I embrace materials and processes that are unknown to me, continually embracing learning.”
Exhibitions, at their best, are about that exactly: sharing what the artist has learned, not just what they have created. Gallery spaces are set apart from the world in so many ways — by access, by class, by attitude. They are places defined by their walls, standing at a distance from the natural world and in some ways from the political one as well, at least in terms of the popular discourse.
That is just one of many disconnections that Horochowski’s work seeks to mend, weaving together for us the concerns, interests, and explorations of a life lived curiously. In all of her projects, she offers us a sense of perspective: on time, on place, on the larger forces that shape a society, and on the smaller moments that shape a life. With the exception of the occasional fellowship, there’s not a lot of money in big installations like hers. The value comes in the labor and, before that, in the looking. ◼︎
A collection of objects from NOMEACUERDO LAND at Hair + Nails Gallery, 2021. Left to right: petrified wood, family photo, boleadora, aviator glasses fitted with obsidian lenses, and cast bronze packing peanuts.
Banner image: globe from Beautiful Sky, 2019.
Help keep independent arts journalism alive in the Twin Cities.