Dana Hargrove fabricates a heightened reality in her socio-environmental art

Human nature

Cairn (2013) artwork by Dana Hargrove
Cairn (2013) artwork by Dana Hargrove
THE FLORIDA PRIZE IN CONTEMPORARY ART, through Aug. 20, Orlando Museum of Art , 2416 N. Mills Ave., 407-896-4231, omart.org, $15

Imagine a stately wall mounted inside the Orlando Museum of Art. As you approach what seems like a deliberate barrier to the 2017 Florida Prize in Contemporary Art exhibit, constructed from boxes stacked on top of one another, you look closer and notice the patterns that mark the contours of the boxes. Along the wall – a 10-by-24-foot bulwark – the boxes appear to bulge forward and sideways in an asymmetric Tetris-like arrangement. Then you realize that the patterns are painted on layered flat surfaces made of cardboard from real boxes, giving the illusion of three-dimensionality. Some of the boxes display logos and other industrial markings that reveal the hyperreal construct of the wall – a fantasy that has replaced a bygone reality.

This is the blueprint for a new installation by Dana Hargrove, a professor of studio art at Rollins College in Winter Park, known for her permanent public art display, "Facades," on the outside of the 420 East building in downtown Orlando. Hargrove's mixed-media art is concerned with our perception of land and space; it also does not shy away from addressing political issues at the front of our current public discourse.

"The idea of this wall made of cardboard comes from the politics of the day, especially border control," she says. Immigration and border control as social concerns are not exclusive to present-day America. "In Scottish history we have Hadrian's Wall in England, which was built by the Romans to keep all the 'savage Scots' out of England," Hargrove says. "So we're always dealing with these borders."

Originally from Scotland, Hargrove grew up in Dundee looking up to her uncle, who went to college for art and painting. She moved to the United States while in her early 20s to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree at Southern Illinois University. In her early days as a young graduate she tried not to worry too much about the challenges that artists usually face. "I could just duck and dive and be an artist on the side. But I also wanted to follow my dreams," she says.

The following year, Hargrove worked and lived in the back of a friend's gallery in Kansas City, Missouri, making art and applying for jobs while waitressing on the side. Shortly thereafter, she landed her job at Rollins College, where she has followed her calling and made a career in the visual arts and education, along with participating in many artist residencies over the years.

Hargrove is one of two local artists to be chosen to show in this year's Florida Prize in Contemporary Art. The accolade, which is underscored by an exhibit at the Orlando Museum of Art of a sizable body of work by each participant, acknowledges today's torchbearers in the visual arts, ranging from emerging to mid-career artists. "It means a lot to feel connected to Florida because I'm a transient – even though I've been here 13 years – and to feel like you belong to a community in which you're recognized as a Florida artist," she says. "It's really nice to see that Florida is recognizing its contemporary artists."

Among Hargrove's works on exhibit this summer at the museum, curated by Hansen Mulford, is "Cairn" (2013), never shown in Orlando before. The relief consists of acrylic on cut medium-density fiberboard. The distinct shape of the cairn – a mound of stones that designates a landmark, found in many natural sites in Scotland – is a recurrent image in her artwork.

"I'm intrigued by this marker on the landscape," says the artist. "You're in a natural landscape with heather, hills and sheep – no sense of man – but then you climb a mountain and on top you see all these rocks and you know that others have been there and experienced this amazing landscape. Although you're alone, you feel this sense of community because everyone who has climbed the mountain put a rock on the pile. So it's almost like you did it together. I love this connection with other people through time."

Hargrove's homage to the cairns deliberately takes the direction of "a shallow kind of replica," she says, shaped with the same perspective trick as the new wall installation in the exhibit. This way, she invokes the yearning for nature while not hiding its artificiality in our industrial, consumerist postmodern world.

"Arcadia," a series of acrylics, shows Hargrove's fascination with the color theory of the Bauhaus school. Inspired by the interactive color arrangements of Swiss Bauhaus painter Johannes Itten's simple blocky shapes, Hargrove devised a prototype for her series, using basswood and gouache (a type of watercolor). Also titled "Facades," two selections from the series are on display.

"I wanted these to be bright and artificial, showing a manmade world that has become plastic," says Hargrove, returning to her fascination with hyperreality. "As human beings, we're always in search of the authentic experience, especially when we travel. Someone coming to Florida, for example – do they come here for the authentic experience or for the fake? And if you're more comfortable with fiction, then what does that mean? You can take yourself out from the manmade world, but even then you're not away from the constructs that frame the landscape, whether that's poetry, philosophy or politics. The concept of the hyperreal slips into all my work; it is fundamentally why I use abstraction and jar it next to reality – the hyperreal against the authentic."

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