UConn Artist Turns New England Icon into Work of Art

<p>Professor Olu Oguibe's construction of a 40-foot stone wall, highlighting the craftsmanship and social/cultural relevance of the stone wall to New England. Photo courtesy of Real Art Ways.</p>

Professor Olu Oguibe's 40-foot stone wall highlights the craftsmanship and social/cultural relevance of the stone wall to New England. Photo courtesy of Real Art Ways

Conceptual artist Olu Oguibe, a professor of art and art history at UConn, has translated both the metaphorical and literal properties of the iconic New England stone wall into a contemporary art form. Oguibe’s 40-foot-long stone wall installation, is the centerpiece of a solo exhibition, Wall, at Real Art Ways in Hartford that runs through March 20, 2011.

The stone wall has long been a part of the New England countryside. Whether stone walls are appreciated as staples of landscape design or artifacts left behind by the laborers that stacked them, they are infused into New England culture. In a new art exhibition, this historical marker is taking the spotlight.

“For me, the stone wall in the gallery space is first and foremost a formal statement,” says Oguibe, who is also an award-winning poet. “It is a simple, three-dimensional line in space, a mark, if you will. It is also the ultimate minimalist gesture in the sense that the medium is not the stone but the wall itself, and my approach is to present the stone wall in its barest elemental essence, as a complete gesture, almost like a found object, without artifice.”

Oguibe may be the first artist to move the ubiquitous stone wall into a gallery space. He worked with local masons and New England field stones to create a space where history and the natural elements of the land become art.

“By moving the New England stone wall into the gallery or museum space, and making the stone wall part of the vocabulary of conceptual art, I hope to generate a new, inclusive discourse that draws no line between aesthetic or formal concerns, and environmental, cultural, and social discourses,” Oguibe says in his artist’s statement accompanying the piece. “In my stone walls, minimalism, conceptualism, and environmental art all find their common ground.”

As an international artist whose work often deals with place, Oguibe believes it’s time that New England artists rebuild the bridge between art and the museum public. Thus, he returned to the peculiar natural elements and forms that define the region and its environment. In doing so, he hopes to renew the public’s interest in the beauty and unique qualities of the region.

<p>Professor Olu Oguibe's construction of a 40-foot stone wall, highlighting the craftsmanship and social/cultural relevance of the stone wall to New England. Photo courtesy of Real Art Ways.</p>

Oguibe has translated both the metaphorical and literal properties of the iconic New England stone wall into a contemporary art form. Photo courtesy of Real Art Ways

The artist describes his vision this way: “I am interested in the New England stone wall as a conceptual marker, as metaphor; a metaphor for the conquest of the wild and the triumph of sedentary civilization; a metaphor for our democracy, which was founded on labor, migration, individual determination, and communal vision; a metaphor for in-between spaces; a metaphor for a sense of place; a metaphor for New England itself.”

Professor Robert Thorson, a UConn geologist, geophysicist, and prominent stone wall expert, thinks Oguibe’s installation is a “wonderful idea, especially with respect to his argument about simplicity and elemental form.”

Thorson is coordinator of the Stone Wall Initiative, which promotes appreciation and education regarding New England stone walls. The initiative is based at UConn in the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History in Storrs, which is part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Thorson has written four books, three of them about stone walls, and is dedicated to promoting their conservation. He recently spoke at Real Art Ways about the significance and beauty of stone walls, in recognition of Oguibe’s work.

In his book, Stone by Stone: The Magnificent History in New England’s Stone Walls, Thorson describes the walls as “the signatures of rural New England.” He says “to know New England well, one must know its stone walls.

“The stone wall is the link between nature and human nature in the woods of New England,” he says. “It’s also the signature landform of the region.”

A stone wall is, in many ways, like a piece of folk art, Thorson adds. “Making a stone wall is much like playing chess, but with muscle added to mind. For a certain space in the wall, and from a population of stones, one must select a type of stone and make a move. This will influence the next decision of which type of stone and where it goes.”

Oguibe’s work has been featured in solo and group exhibitions around the world, including Venice, Italy; Havana, Cuba; Busan, Korea; and Johannesburg, South Africa. His art also has been showcased at the Whitney Museum, MoMa PS1, the Smithsonian, the United Nations Headquarters, and many other locations. He has also served as curator or co-curator for many international exhibitions, including shows at the Tate Modern in London and the Venice Biennial.

An “artist talk” featuring Oguibe will take place on Feb. 10 at 5 p.m. at Real Art Ways.