Dresses embedded in landscape. Dresses floating in mid-sky. A woman in a red velvet dress standing knee deep in a silty prairie pond.
These are images I’ve absorbed from viewing the photographs of Jean Albus in a variety of places over the last two years, and my wonder and admiration carry over into her sculptures (she calls them constructions) that dominate the main room in the two-room Ryniker-Morrison Galley in Tech Hall on the campus of Rocky Mountain College in Billings. The show, installations and black and white photographs opened Oct. 4 and will end Nov. 2.
If Albus embeds dresses (and other items of women’s apparel) in landscape, however, she also embeds landscape in dresses – literally! Dirt, grasses, insect legs and wings, feathers, small bones and more can be found in or around her dresses, which tend to be (in this show at least) old or old fashioned, fancied up with lace and long sleeves but showing their age.
Bride of porcupine
Albus calls this show “Song of the Porcupine’s Bride,” and the central construction in the main room is a portion of a Russian olive tree, its trunk and a “Y” of branches extending toward the ceiling. In the crotch of the “Y” is a magpie’s nest. From the ceiling dangle (though they seem also to be dangling from the branches) four gray-tan dresses, for females of different ages. This construction, says a title on the wall, is “The Porcupine’s Bride.”
On the floor, at the base of this tree, are two more constructions. They seem to be part of the tree-nest-dress creation, but they also have their own titles. In “Beauty” – on the north side – a piece of old linoleum provides the base for a pile of predominantly pink, yellow and green ribbons, bows, feathers, bits of flags and artificial flowers. In “Truth” – to the south – a pile of dirt, sticks, needles and grass is the ground upon which sprawls the flattened, desiccated corpse of a porcupine.
Other dresses also dangle from on high. One is pale blue, long and lacy, high shouldered, with arms extending all the way down to the floor where hoops encircle parts of a pile of pastel blue, purple and lavender ribbons, bows, flowers. It’s called, enigmatically, “Fanatic.”
Two ballet-style dresses with sashes around the waist dangle side by side. One dress is full of lichens, feathers, sticks, leaves, grasses, a tiny snakeskin, shreds of lace, and a tiny dead bat; it is called “Resentment.” Its companion has doll-size men’s heads with sour or angry expressions on their faces, on the ends of sticks emerging from a yellow green chiffon skirt; its title is “All the Two-Faced, Jealous, Mean People in the World.”
Bride of nature
What all this says about woman in nature, and nature in woman, I leave to you to ponder as you walk through this show - and I recommend that you do!
In her artist’s statement, Albus reveals something of what she means to convey, calling this show “a visual story of my transformation from child of a Catholic God to artist and bride of Nature.”
As you enter you are greeted by a sort of altar: a table of objects, a photo of a girl in a confirmation dress, crucifixes, catechisms, a lit up plastic Mary and Jesus figurines and, as backdrop, a photographed and blown up “Prayer for Confession” asking “Have I missed Mass on Sundays and Holy Days? … Have I laughed or talked in Church? … Disobeyed my parents or teachers? … Looked at bad pictures? … Told lies?”
In a smaller inner room at the Ryniker-Morrison are three more constructions and 16 black-and-white photos lining the walls. Entering this room, I turned left and circled it clockwise. The photos seemed to progress from feelings of foreboding toward reserved hope.
I wasn’t familiar with black and white Albus photos. Last February and March the Northcutt-Steele Gallery at Montana State University Billings showed two or three dozen large photos in full, vivid color. Were any of them foreboding?
Certainly an abandoned dress becoming part of a muddy streambed can be foreboding. What happened to the person, possibly a child, who once wore that dress?
What a woman wants
But there is joy in an airy, voluminous turquoise-colored skirt floating over yellow-brown ground while clouds begin to roil up behind it in a deep blue sky – a piece called “Spring Tempest.” And there is something else – self-assertion, maybe triumph – in an elegant red sleeveless ball gown standing in the sky over a wintery plain and titled “What a Woman Wants.”
At Rocky Mountain College, my journey around the room began with “Virginia’s Dream”: a pensive, perhaps worried face is superimposed upon – or within – a grass and rock wall background that it seems to be part of. Is it trapped there and calling to be released?
“Some Things I Always Knew” shows a young girl in a dress leaning back, hands upon her chest, against a small fir tree as she gazes at a dead fox on the ground, half buried in pine needles.
“Truth” shows a crumpled dress in rocks and dirt; “Beauty” another crumpled dress in a slightly grassier landscape.
‘Cloud to Ground’
But we come to “Cloud to Ground,” which shows a grassy flowery slope in summer with a white, frilly, lacy dress settled cloudlike upon the ground.
“Forgiveness of Dry Land” features a jagged, tall figure of some sort – it could be a natural feature, but it feels more like an Albus construction – in the foreground. The background on the left of this figure is rocky and barren, but the background on the right shows distinct signs of bushy trees, perhaps a plowed field, vegetation.
And in “Spring Erupting” the same dress as in “Cloud to Ground” is shown in a closer view, and the light in this photo radiates hope.
Albus lives near Bridger, in a landscape watered by streams but rain-shadowed by the Beartooth Mountains so that it receives little moisture from the sky. How she juxtaposes human artifacts, and human beings, with elements of this dry, sagebrush landscape can be inventive, startling, troubling, humorous, transcendent.
Out of the frame
In the RMC show, “troubling” might score more points than “humorous” but what we are privileged to see is a homegrown artist, largely self-taught, at work and rapidly becoming a major figure in this region and beyond.
In 2011 she told Bob Durden, who curated her show called “Rapture on the Plains” at the Paris Gibson Center in Great Falls, “I hope to move out of the frame into other media to explore the same ideas that my photographic work explores.”
In this show, with her constructions, she has moved outside the frame. “But photographic art,” she told Durden, “will remain my primary means of expression.”
Jean Albus will give a gallery tour of “Song of the Porcupine’s Bride” at noon Wednesday, Oct. 24. The public is invited. Bring a sack lunch if you like.