The Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton, New Jersey is currently featuring a solo exhibition of mixed media artist Nathan Skiles called “The Clockmaker’s Apprentice”. Creating objects with an innovative usage of only foam rubber, Skiles challenges the viewer to look beyond the obvious. The artist painstakingly creates an experience for viewers to participate in, confusing our sense of immediate recognition. Skiles has embraced the unique architecture of the museum’s first floor gallery by installing all 100 works in a way that would lead the viewer on a sort of treasure hunt. Follow along as Hi Fructose gets a look in with commentary from the museum’s Director of Exhibitions Jonathan and artist Nathan Skiles.
Jonathan Greene – Director of Exhibitions:
Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to chat with us. What was it about Nathan Skiles’ work that drew you to include him for this exhibition of works?
Nathan Skiles was a perfect fit to kick off the exhibition program for the 60th anniversary of the Hunterdon Art Museum for a variety of reasons. First, his work is extremely unique and visually arresting. Intended to be an immersive environment, the installation of 100 cuckoo clocks in and around the first floor gallery at the Museum, entices the viewer to enter the world of The Clockmaker’s Apprentice and thereby interact with the artist, even when he is not present. One of the highest compliments I can pay to an artist is to say that if I saw their work at any place, at any given time, I would know right away that the work was theirs. I can say this with absolute certainty about the work of Nathan Skiles.
Nathan Skiles also serves as an important bridge between the past and the future at the Hunterdon Art Museum. The Hunterdon Art Museum has a deep history in contemporary art, craft and design and the work of Nathan Skiles incorporates all three of these elements harmoniously. Skiles’ art is a hybrid of traditional craft and cutting edge, contemporary art with a design element present in every step of the creations.
As a curator, one of my main goals is to engage the viewer in a process of exploration. To do this, the work has to be mentally stimulating, as well as viscerally engaging. Skiles’ use of color, choice of vessel (the cuckoo clock) and selection of collectible adornments command the viewer to explore and interact with the art. When coupled with the available information regarding the materials and his process, this is where the exploration begins.
When you view Skiles’ work, what do you see it conveying to the audience?
Art is one of the most subjective things imaginable. My goal is not to predetermine what gets conveyed to the audience, but to make sure that the art is engaging enough to elicit some kind of response from the viewer. I want viewers to feel comfortable in formulating their own opinions and ideas, but I also want to provide them supplementary information about the work and the artist to further enhance their experience.
For me, Skiles’ work conveys a sense of confidence in his craft and subject matter. To openly trick viewers into believing something made entirely of foam rubber is the real thing or some amalgamation thereof, an artist has to trust himself and his process enough to know that most viewers will endeavor to explore. Nathan Skiles doesn’t make work because he thinks people will like it; he makes work because he wants people to react to it. Whether it be confusion, heartfelt adoration or abject disdain, Nathan Skiles is the type of artist who makes the viewer have an opinion and in so doing, he succeeds in an area where many others have not.
Thanks for taking time to discuss your recent museum exhibition with us. How long did you have to prepare for this, and did you already have a concept for what you would show and how the install would procede?
Last spring Jonathan and I began to talk about the possibility of putting together an exhibition. Our talk originated out of a discussion about the things I’d been working on, where the new work was heading and what I’d have ready.
For this exhibition I wasn’t interested in creating an installation but wanted to stay open-minded about allowing the identity of the exhibition space to influence the work, a sort of reflexive relationship. It wasn’t until I made a trip to the museum in May of 2011 that I had any real sense of how the architecture of the space plays such a major role in the look and feel of the shows.
The Hunterdon Art Museum occupies the remnant shell of a mid-nineteenth century gristmill. With its low, rough-hewn beams and white manicured gallery walls the space is fertile with obvious and subversive assertions. Until that point I had no desire to continue working on the cuckoo clock images that made up the better part of my work for the past 3 years, but the semi-rustic interior of the museum and its adjacency to the picturesque landscape of Clinton, NJ quickly changed that.
In short, any preconceived notions I had about the exhibition were quickly put aside.
How many new works are in this show and how long have you been preparing for this sort of showcase?
The Clockmaker’s Apprentice is an exhibition of 100 unique sculptures, which I produced over the course of the preceding 7 months.
Do the pieces in this show come from one body of work, or series, or are there selections from several points in your career?
This exhibition has material and iconographic ties to my older work but is a contained body of new pieces comprised of 3 slightly divergent series. The 3 series are titled Golems, Frankenstein’s Monsters, and Shoggoths respectively.
I started working with what I refer to as the Golems; these are cuckoo clock sculptures that I added the iconography of woodworking tools to the front of in order to create an image of a face, a kind of self referential, arcimboldo-esque portrait.
The Frankenstein’s Monster pieces were once Golems that upon finishing I dissected and recombined to create a new, more disorganized face out of remnant parts.
Shoggoths, referencing the protoplasmic creature created by the weird fiction author H.P. Lovecraft, were created as a mutation of the aforementioned process. For these 5 pieces I created a number of blank clock forms that were cut into fragmented forms. These forms were then recombined and tools were added to create complex compositions and radically disjointed faces.
Tell us a little about what an exhibition like this includes. Are there speaking engagements where viewers can meet the artist and hear your thoughts on the work?
The Hunterdon Art Museum has a vibrant educational component, including youth programming, classes and workshops.
Working with a museum like this affords additional forms of engagement with the public. Before the opening, we invited the community to participate in a conversation led by my colleague Andrew Atkinson and myself. We also installed a vitrine of additional component pieces of the sculptures that children were allowed to take and we organized a conversation via Skype between myself in my studio in Florida and a class of elementary school students in New Jersey.