9" x 12." Copper liquor, iron liquor, oak gall ink, India ink, ash, charcoal, and graphite on paper. 2016.
TONI GENTILLI combines "anachronistic materials, techniques, and philosophies" in her work that includes a range of photographic processes, drawing and painting. In photography that highlights the mediating lens through which humans view nature and drawings made with wildcrafted pigments, her work investigates the relationship between nature, emerging technologies and human awareness. After 15 years as an anthropologist, Toni went on to earn her MFA in Photography at San Francisco Art Institute in 2013. In 2015, she was an Artist-in-Residence at Chalk Hill Artist Residency and the Lucid Art Foundation. Her work has been shown at Berkeley Art Center, The Compound Gallery (Oakland, CA), The Lodge (Phoenix, AZ), and the Center for Fine Art Photography (Fort Collins, CO), among others. Toni works as the Residency Program Manager at the Santa Fe Art Institute. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
OtherPeoplesPixels: You’ve constructed various apparatuses, including the Vignette-a-scope, that use the iPhone camera to photograph nature. These are reminiscent of the large-format cameras used in early landscape photography. Is showing the camera paramount to understanding the meaning of the photographic imagery?
Toni Gentilli: In the two series The Thing Itself and Eye of the Beholder, I explore the history of landscape photography and contemplate the roles various framing devices play in our engagement with the natural world, both in the past and in a contemporary context. I consider the iPhone as Claude Glass and the Vignette-a-scope both as artworks themselves and sculptural props that are as integral to the projects as the photographs I create with them.
To be clear, neither the iPhone as Claude Glass nor the Vignette-a-scope are the actual camera I used to take the images. In The Thing Itself, I use a DSLR to photograph reflections of landscapes in an iPhone, and in Eye of the Beholder, I use an iPhone to take pictures through the Vignette-a-scope.
OPP: What is being documented in the works made with the Vignette-a-scope?
TG: In these resulting photographs, a portion of the apparatus acts as an analog framing device that assumes the role of digital cell phone filters. The imagery includes a survey of native and invasive flora in a particular geographic region, in this case, Sonoma County in northern California. By including aspects of the apparatuses together with the scenes captured in and through them, I am referencing how photographs are always mediated by the cultural lenses we impose on them, whether they are taken for scientific, artistic, or personal use.
from The Thing Itself
OPP: What is a Claude Glass? Talk us through the iPhone connection in The Thing Itself (iPhone as Claude Glass).
TG: A Claude Glass is a mid to late eighteenth and early nineteenth century device that changed roles in the hands of its users over the years. Initially, a Claude Glass was a piece of polished, typically convex, black glass often surrounded by velvet and set in a wood or metal case, about the size of an iPhone. Usually oval or rectangular in shape, they were employed by landscape painters to view reflections of natural scenes in such a way that the images took on a sepia hue reminiscent of the moody tonal modulations in Claude Lorraine paintings from the mid to late seventeenth century.
The Bourgeoisie further popularized this nostalgia for the aesthetics of the preceding generation during the era of The Grand Tour. This was a time when young, male aristocrats would take a year or more hiatus after completing their academic studies at university to travel through Europe and the Mediterranean and appropriate the art, architecture, culture, and biological specimens of foreign places so as to build their cabinets of curiosity and cultivate their “worldliness.” While on their Grand Tours, these young men would visit The Seven Wonders of the World, famous Greco-Roman ruins, and grandiose natural attractions, to bear witness to their magnificence, and boast that they had stood in the shadows of greatness. Whilst at these locations, they would often view the splendors of nature and human ingenuity through a Claude Glass; literally turning their backs on the scenes themselves to look at the reflections in their handheld devices instead. This level of abstraction and mediated / indirect engagement with the world reminds me so much of how people today use cell phones to document that they were there, rather than having a meaningful and direct / visceral experience of place. Additionally, the penchant to transform images from the present into something reminiscent of times past, a practice that is at least three centuries old, also calls to mind digital cell phone filters made to mimic older analog photographic techniques like Polaroids.
Chlorophyll print from hand-drawn negative on nasturtium leaf. 2013
OPP: I love the chlorophyll prints from on nasturtium leaves from 2013. I imagine these no longer exist. It’s interesting to think that the image is made as the leaf is dying. What role does impermanence play in your practice?
TG: The chlorophyll prints from the Transplant series were made as part of a collaborative installation called, Indicator Species with environmental photographer Marie-Luise Klotz. I transferred a stylized rendering of the Islets of Langerhans, the cell bodies in the pancreas that produce insulin, onto the nasturtium leaves with hand drawn negatives. They were intended to be ephemeral pieces, purposefully imbued with a life cycle of their own, to speak to the fragility and ephemerality of all living things. Impermanence, decay, and transformation are intrinsic to the human experience and everything in the natural world.
I am interested in incorporating these elements into my art to reflect on my personal experience with chronic disease. Plants as both material and content in my work often serve as analogs for my body’s inability to synthesize sugar—I'm a Type 1 (insulin dependent) diabetic—and also to call upon the possibility of healing through herbalism, alchemy, and reconnecting to nature in my art and life. Plants have this extraordinary power to synthesize sugar—life-giving energy—from sunlight and water. These also happen to be key elements in many of the historic and experimental photographic processes I use.
Poppy, Coreopsis, Madder Root, iron, ash, charcoal, bronze ink, watercolor pencil, blood, sugar, and insulin on cotton rag paper. 2015
OPP: What led to the Allelopathic Talismans?
TG: Allelopathy is a biochemical defense mechanism that plants employ to enhance their survival by either having beneficial or negative effects on other plants and organisms in their environment. During a particularly challenging period (health-wise), I turned to my art for catharsis. And ever since then, I have been striving to foster greater integration between my life and creative practice. From this deeply personal, intuitive and vulnerable state, the Allelopathic Talisman series emerged. It is the first project in which I veered away from photography as the method/subject of my work, although, the project has its roots in experimentation with anthotypes, a “photographic process” invented by Sir John Frederick William Herschel in the 1840s. Anthotypes are created by transferring images onto paper coated with “photographic emulsions” made from flower petals or leaves, with either negatives or objects set on top of the paper, which is then put out into the sun to fade, rather than produce a photochemical reaction.
At some point during this period of experimentation, I abandoned using negatives or even making photograms, and started to draw and paint with the plant-based pigments I was making. It was a revelation for me really, an almost divine moment in which the methods and materials I had been working with for several years opened up my consciousness to the synergy they had with my embodied experience as a Type 1 diabetic, alongside my intellectual and artistic pursuits engaging the history of photography, UV light-sensitive chemistry, Natural Philosophy, Alchemy, photosynthesis, and modern biosciences.
Hollyhocks, poppy, iron, ash, graphite, chalk, mica, insulin, and blood on cotton rag paper. 2015
OPP: What goes into your pigments?
TG: I incorporate wildcrafted pigments I make from foraged plants with medicinal properties, along with the two kinds of synthetic insulin and antifungal medicine I take, various forms of sugar and mold. I also add earth elements such as mica, graphite, charcoal, ash, chalk and ochre. The process of making each piece really evolves over several days and weeks, including the time I am out on the land gathering raw materials, and then in the studio laboriously processing the elemental components by hand into workable materials.
The pieces I create with these wildcrafted pigments are talismans intended to evoke healing. The forms include mandalas, spirals and the infinity symbol, as well as organs, fascia, cells, and even the shape of the cavity in my left lung created by the Coccidioides (a microscopic fungal spore that lives in the arid soils of the Southwest and causes what is commonly called Valley Fever) which took up residence there over 8 years ago during the end of my 15-year-long career as an archaeologist.
from Morphological Analysis of 24 Nodules of Brook's Creek Obsidian, A Naturally Occurring Black Glass of Volcanic Origin
OPP: Morphological Analysis of 24 Nodules of Brook's Creek Obsidian, A Naturally Occurring Black Glass of Volcanic Origin and LCD, point to archeological methods. Why is drawing more appropriate than photography for the content of these projects?
TG: The LCD works are actually mixed media pieces comprised largely of pigments I made from dissolved metals such as copper which are used in the production of liquid crystal display screens. The form is based on an iPhone 7 and the content is both a demystification and wonderment at the technology so many people use to capture mundane imagery with smart phones.
I chose to draw found nodules of obsidian, natural black volcanic glass, to render the details of each rock in a way that photography just cannot capture. The practice of drawing stone tools is something I honed in the 15 years I worked as an archaeologist and I felt compelled to return to. The drawings are a meditation on the focused observation of details; a practice I feel in many ways has been eroded by the oversaturation of images we are subject to through social media and digital technology, particularly the use of cell phone cameras. The black glass is a reference to the ubiquitous screens on which such imagery is captured and viewed.
6" x 4" Graphite on paper. 2015
OPP: What are you up to these days, in your practice and your life?
TG: Since relocating from California to New Mexico and taking on the full time position as Residency Program Manager at the Santa Fe Art Institute, much of my focus has been on my role as an arts administrator and curator (i.e. supporting other artists). But outside of that work, I have been spending a lot of time wildcrafting pigments from native and invasive plant species found throughout the Middle Rio Grande Valley and establishing my home pigment, herb, and vegetable gardens.
I am working towards a holistic, self-sustainable practice that integrates my reverence for plants, including 22 years of eating a plant-based diet, with herbalism, and crafting all of my own all natural art materials from what grows in my yard. Right now I am fumbling through hand making my own paper from the many mulberry trees and other invasive species such as Russian Elm and Tamarisk (Salt Cedar) that are prolific in this part of New Mexico.