Plant-like tendrils dangle from the ceiling. Dried leaves and branches mingle with woven shapes from which images of tropical hibiscus flowers and other exotic flora emerge as if by magic. Walking into SF Camerawork’s current exhibition, “Matter in the Hothouse” is like stumbling into a psychedelic jungle — a botanic wonderland that feels both familiar and surreal.
On view through Saturday, the exhibition showcases the work of Chicago-based photographer and visual artist Aimée Beaubien, who beat a pool of more than 200 applicants vying to show their work at the gallery inside Minnesota Street Project in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood. Blending photography with collage, sculpture, textiles and other media, Beaubien’s proposal captured the imagination of judges who responded to the way the artist blurs the boundaries of photography and pushes the medium into new and interesting forms.
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Her resulting site-specific installation transforms the gallery into a fantastical realm where plant matter — both real and photographic — mingles with found objects, including botanical prints, books and textiles.
Beaubien will be talking about her work on Saturday at the gallery but spoke with us recently to shed some light on her craft and enigmatic art. (Note: The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
What inspired “Matter in the Hothouse”?
Aimée Beaubien: I started doing photo installations about seven years ago. One of the very first experiences that I had was returning to an archive of photographs that I inherited from my great-grandmother. She photographed in her garden every day throughout the seasons (during) her lifetime. I had just been doing a residency at the Roger Brown Study Collection. Roger Brown was a very well-known painter from Chicago. He has this incredible collection, and his collection is very democratic — everything from free advertising to works of art that are priceless. I learned that on his property in Michigan, he had at one time a collection of 50 different rose varieties. I started thinking about how a garden is an extension of someone’s personal collection. That made me dive back into my great-grandmother’s photographs and think about different things that I could learn about her and the way that she was tending to her garden but also trying to hold on to ephemeral moments in her garden — these beautiful things that were happening around her throughout the seasons. You know, we all want to hold on to things that don’t last!
Your installation includes weavings and sculptural forms made from photographs. What appeals to you about transforming or blurring the lines between photography, which traditionally is a two-dimensional medium, and three-dimensional form?
Beaubien: So many different things. I think the original urge came because I was always making collage. I was really interested in seeing all these complicated layers, different networks and different systems. And when I would watch people engaging with my work, all these different connections that I had been making with different material sources weren’t apparent. So I thought that if I started pushing some of this material into space, people would see the layers and see the ways that I was making visual connections and physical connections.
Then I thought, “What would it be like if an exhibition space you were walking through felt like a three-dimensional collage?” Because I’m so fascinated by art history and works by other artists, I’m always thinking about (with photography, in particular) how slippery representation is. So because I was photographing material in my studio and then I was manipulating the prints of that material, I became fascinated with seeing these two things side by side and really blurring the lines between being able to tell what is photographic, what is documentation, what is representation and then what is the real thing. That’s when I started including real leaves next to photographic leaves.
The other thing that appeals to me is being able to represent all of these different time cycles. If I’m photographing a leaf while it’s still green and then it’s presented in a photographic form, but it’s beside a dead and dying leaf … what is that gap in time? How am I making connections between those representations of time cycles?
“Matter in the Hothouse” is dense with imagery and color and materials. It’s a very elaborate installation. What was it like putting it together? Was this a solo effort or did you work with a team?
Beaubien: The material that is represented there is about seven years’ worth of material that I’ve been accumulating. It’s been used in different iterations and different forms for other installations. Every time I get a new exhibition opportunity, I think, “How can I transform this material?” For this particular installation, I rented a studio that had the same ceiling height as the gallery so that I could really play with vertical drop. I kept experimenting in this studio space, trying all sorts of different experimentations and manipulations of the material. Then I borrowed a space, and I taped out the floor plan, and I really walked though it to figure out how I could create transformations that would happen from one end of the exhibition space to the other and having this overall effect where there would also be a modulation of the quality of light and then also different uses of materials. There are books in one area. There are all these fabric pieces in another. The intensity goes from warm to cold, and in some areas, there’s denser pockets of leaf material.
I also had a connection to one of the [SF Camerawork] board members because I had come and done a site visit and she made arrangements with a local horticulturist who collected a whole bunch of local plant material for me. So, I was able to incorporate material that I had collected in my own garden and material that was new to me. I shipped everything from my studio, and SF Camerawork arranged for a preparator to put in this material called Unistrut so that I could hang from the ceiling … so they were there installing that on the first day that I arrived. Two people helped me hoist up the three largest pieces, and then it was really me from then on because I’m making a million tiny decisions throughout the whole process. So while I have some components that have already been woven, they get woven into a larger mass onsite, and I’m kind of stringing and connecting everything and weaving it in place there.
Were you trying to re-create or pay homage to an environment that you’ve actually been in, or is this completely a fantastical realm?
Beaubien: I went out on a swamp walk in Florida in December at an Audubon Society natural preserve. As I was walking through it, it reminded me of some parts of the jungle that I photographed in and had traveled to in Brazil. I was just really captivated by the density and all the different qualities of light as it was dappling through that jungly pathway. So I think that’s what encouraged me to let things hang more and then have more variety in the density. So some areas [of the exhibition] were definitely inspired by a three-mile walk though this swamp.
Your work references nature and plantlike forms but also people. I’m thinking of the cut-out hands that are hanging at various points in the installation, and there’s a snake-like hand form that seems to reach out as you weave your way through the installation. Looking at these disembodied hands, there seem to be these qualities of pleading or yearning or connection, but they also feel a little sinister at the same time. How do you view the relationship between people and nature?
Beaubien: It’s so conflicted. I’m definitely thinking about how our hand is now overbearing; how we’ve had too much of a hand in the way we’ve manipulated nature. But I’m also ultimately an optimist, so I’m thinking about how do we hold on to these things? Everything is very much to me about sensation. So the sensation of touching a photograph … how is that different from the experience of being out in nature? What happens, … what does that trigger, to have that photograph of this experience or event in nature or, for me, to kind of completely “world build”— to build this fantastical kind of environment that has connections to nature but it’s certainly more of a fantasy? I think it touches people.
Aimée Beaubien’s “Matter in the Hothouse” will be on view 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday at Minnesota Street Project, Gallery 106, 1275 Minnesota St., San Francisco. For more information, visit https://sfcamerawork.org/.
SF Camerawork hosts a free, in-person artist talk with Aimée Beaubien 11:15 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Saturday at the Atrium at Minnesota Street Project, 1275 Minnesota St., San Francisco. A livestream will also be available. Register for the event at https://sfcamerawork.org/.