Posted 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 third 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
When you picture a tourist, what do you see? Dorky white socks maybe; definitely a fanny pack. And they are almost certainly wearing a camera around their neck. Usually a point-and-shoot, nothing fancy — a simple tool for tracking where they’ve been and what they’ve seen. I suppose these days smartphones are making that stereotype a bit old-fashioned, but either way the tourist’s urge to record remains. For Mary Griep, however, a photograph is useful, but it isn’t enough. She has visited a lot of places, and to really remember a place, to honor it, she’s got to draw it.
In her second story garage studio in Northfield, MN, Griep (pronounced “Grip”) has a recent drawing tacked up on the wall with magnets — 56 sheets of Dura-Lar mapping out the side elevation of a massive cathedral. The whole thing is a good eighteen feet across and taller than the eight foot ceiling will allow. At first, it looks like a blown-up architectural drawing simply embellished with some colors and patterns, until you get closer. It’s a recreation of Chartres, the Gothic and Romanesque French cathedral begun in the late 12th century, and the tells are all there: the rose window, the ornate spires, the flying buttresses. But this is no simple photograph, no straight-forward rendering. Shades of blue, gold, and gray balance beautifully within the precise line-work, hiding flashes of green ivy, collaged text, sky blue bubbles, and a thousand other tiny elements. Griep plays with space and perspective, chopping up the building into blocky chunks that repeat disjointedly, like a wallpaper pattern that doesn’t quite line up. The building is dizzy with detail.
This piece, which took about a year to complete, is the latest in a series of drawings spanning the past two decades, in which Griep has recreated sixteen 12th century buildings from France, Cambodia, Norway, Turkey, Italy, Mexico, and elsewhere. It’s not uncommon for an artist’s career to be structured around a singular obsessive interest — a particular guiding question or undeniable impulse — and Griep discovered hers in 1998, on a trip across Europe with art history students studying Roman ruins and old churches, among them this very same French cathedral. The artist forewent the tourist’s camera in favor of 100 sheets of paper, on which she captured small drawings of the building’s intricate details. Back home, her drawings intrigued her, but somehow they weren’t enough. “I mean, there’ve been a lot of drawings of Chartres, you know?”
Thinking back on her actual experience of walking inside and around the church, the images started to pile up on each other, and the drawings transformed, creating impossible buildings spliced together from multiple perspectives. “What I’m really interested in is what happens if you’re inside and you’re outside [at the same time]?” she explains. “Because our knowledge of a space isn’t that camera vision.”
Top: Studio view, featuring Palimpsest. Bottom: The artist shows the collage work and drawing that happens on the front and back sides of the Dura-Lar sheets, mimicking the inside/outside approach she is taking to her subject matter.
Here in her studio, this latest drawing of Chartres flattens the whole complex out, mashing up several of the building's façades onto a single plane. At the base of each tower is an abstracted collage, not of the arched windows out front, but of the view from inside looking straight up. It’s a sort of architectural cubism, creating a kaleidoscopic vision of interweaving details from the ceilings, floors, and walls, inside and out. Certain aspects repeat themselves, as though you are blinking and catching separate moments of the same structure. The hazy, transparent Dura-Lar allows magazine clippings and silver leaf collaged on the back to show through amongst the ink and colored pencil, leaving the viewer with an immense amount of details to digest.
This contemporary approach to recreating space actually borrows a sensibility from medieval art as well — fitting for a church of this vintage. If you were an artist in medieval Europe, Griep explains, “you should include everything you know. If a horse has four legs, even if you can only see two or three, you have to put four in.” Perspective, foreshortening, and what we would call realism were still two or three centuries yet to come.
Fittingly titled Palimpsest — a word meaning something rewritten or reused, with traces of the original still visible — it is also a meditation on all of the changes this building has been through over the years — including a recent and controversial restoration. A lot can happen in 800 years, but what is it about that span of time and that particular century that has kept Griep so enthralled?
First of all, she explains, “The 12th century is the first time you get a lot of buildings around the world that we still have.” Her subjects are all considered sacred sites, but their religiosity is not exactly what interests her. “Any building that’s left from the 12th century I think is a monument to human attention,” she says. Consider the laborers and artisans who crafted all of those magnificent structures, who chiseled the gargoyles and filigrees, who plumbed and leveled the mighty towers so expertly that they stand straight to this day. The people who cleaned them, attended them, defended them, and rebuilt them after calamity. All those names are lost to time. Or at least most of them; interestingly, the 12th century is also the first time in medieval history that we find a carver’s signature, chiseled into an ornate stone tympanum at a church in southern France: it reads “Gislebertus made this.”
“It was a really interesting time,” she continues. “For one thing, the technology was better, particularly for growing food. And people were going everywhere.” Between robust trade routes, crusading armies and explorers, and the fledgling tourism industry of religious pilgrimage, people got around a lot more than we might assume. And in her own life, Griep was following suit. After completing her first drawing of Chartres (which is similar to this newer version but much more sober and straight-forward), she and her family visited Cambodia, where coincidentally she realized there was another gigantic 12th century religious site nearby: Angkor Wat. “I knew they were contemporaneous,” she says, so why not draw this place as well? Same scale, same approach, and one thirty-one-foot-long drawing later, the Anastylosis Project had officially become a series.
Works from the Anastylosis Project. "Anastylosis" means "the reconstruction of a monument from fallen parts." Top: Angkor Wat (Siem Reap, Cambodia), 2001-2002, Mixed media, 8 x 31' x 8'. Image courtesy of the artist's website. Middle, at left: Franziskanerkirche (Salzburg, Austria), 2013, Mixed media, 48 x 36". At right: Ulu Camii (Divrigi, Turkey), 2007, Mixed media, 8 x 10'. Images courtesy of the artist's website. Bottom: Detail of San Marco (The Marble Carpet) (Venice, Italy), 2013-2015, Mixed media, 18 x 10'.
What followed has been a career of residencies and world travel, during breaks from teaching at St. Olaf, taking her to study churches, mosques, synagogues, Buddhist temples, and a Mesoamerican pyramid. She still grapples with one nagging question: “Is this just a 21st century grand tour?” She freely admits that there is tremendous privilege in being able to travel the world like this, though many came due to professional residencies and not mere vacations. Either way, Griep does not take these journeys or this responsibility lightly.
On the bookshelves in her studio are binders stuffed with research materials on each site, each culture, each history, that she has compiled and studied before every drawing begins. Hers is a very tidy studio, but really everywhere you look there are small stacks of papers, stuffed with post-its and full of details pertinent to any one of her many projects. The experience of a building is not just in its stones but in its stories as well. “The landscape is visible,” she says, “but what happened on it isn’t.”
While living in Thailand for four years in the early 2000s, she says she gained a valuable perspective. “The best part of not living in your own culture is you get decentered. I was not important to Thai culture in any way, shape, or form.” Still, she feels a responsibility to move through these places with integrity. When traveling with students, she would explain to them, “This isn’t your trip. You are here to see what you can figure out about not only this place but about yourself and who you are as a citizen of the world.”
And as a citizen of history. In addition to these large-scale drawings, Griep also has a penchant for making books. They are mostly small hand-bound volumes that are spiral-bound or that fold out like accordions, chronicling interests ranging from climate change to early carnival culture to specific temples she has visited. But her most recent project, sitting out on the drawing table — completed but not yet bound — is a proper tome: some 80 pages, each about 18 x 24” in size. Written on the cover amid an ornate set of tiled designs is the title: Home of the 37 Nats. “This book is about justice,” she says.
Details of pages from Griep's artist book Home of the 37 Nats. The Great 37 Nats, in Burmese Buddhism, are deities similar to saints or angels. "The nats are a little worrisome," Griep says. "They have to be propitiated. They are all people who were killed because of injustice, usually royal injustice, and they have to help you figure out how we get justice.”
Inside is a complicated rendering of the very complicated history of Burma, known more commonly today as Myanmar – though not by everyone. Griep’s book is built around yet another 12th century religious site: the Shwezigon, a Buddhist pagoda completed in the year 1102. It, too, is a reliquary for religious pilgrimages, similar to medieval European churches who tout their own sanctified items – a holy drop of blood, a sacred bit of cloth, a saint’s lock of hair. The Shwezigon, it is said, enshrines a bone and a tooth from the Buddha himself.
Griep’s big book takes its time working through the history of this place. Some pages are finely detailed recreations of tile and stone work in colored pencil mixed with gold leaf. Others feature lengthy quotations, all drawn out in military-style stencils, the artist methodically building up each letter, each word, each sentence like she’s laying bricks. No shortcuts, no skimped labor — a project crafted by hand with solemn respect. The texts excerpt the temple’s construction, its “discovery” by Europeans, and the country’s political history through monarchy, colonization, democracy, and military dictatorship.
Next to the book is another small stack of papers: print-outs of information Griep has received from her Burmese contacts listing details about civilians murdered while protesting against the 2021 coup which overthrew the parliamentary election of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy party and established military rule. The data bring Griep’s book up close to the present moment, weaving together names and perspectives across a full millennium. It is a sad and serious document, and an incomplete one, as any history will be when retold from the outside looking in. Griep ends her book with a quote from John Steadman’s The Myth of Asia: “Any interpretation is in a sense a falsification of the system it attempts to interpret.”
Back here, just this weekend, my wife and I stumbled upon some of Griep’s drawings while out walking our dogs: fifteen sections from her Anastylosis Project drawings all installed together, creating one big patchwork building — a beautiful, poetic sort of Unitarian Frankenstein — on view through the windows of the University of St. Thomas’s Iversen Center for Faith. It is a portrait of a single species scattered across continents, trying to make sense of their places in the world all at the same time. Each of them reached for the heavens in their own way, magnificently, with great care and likely great suffering. And all of them remain beloved enough to have been maintained all the years since. Griep, it seems, has compressed that creative attention into a single practice, trying to make sense of these places all at once. A tourist, she’s not.
“I probably feel closest to the monks and nuns who worked on illuminated manuscripts in the scriptoriums,” she says. “That’s how they passed on knowledge. You were one link in the chain.”
Her drawings, her studies, her binders of research — all drops in a river moving ever forward. A few years of a life spent paying attention, seeing people long gone in the stones and the stained glass they crafted and cared for, in the grime and the death and the majesty of these old places. “I don’t think it’s about me,” she says. “It’s part of an ongoing conversation. How many things do we talk about over a thousand years? This is just my two cents worth.” ◼︎
Tell Me A Story, 2020; Giclee prints, silver leaf, gold leaf; University of St. Thomas Art Collection.
To see more of the artist's work, visit her website. All images by the author unless otherwise noted.