Frontier, Danielle Schlunegger-Warner’s current installation project had just opened the preceding Friday at Basement Gallery Oakland when Oakland Art Enthusiast stopped by to talk with the artist. An ambitious undertaking made possible by a successful Kickstarter crowdfunding, which she regularly tells us of her immense gratitude to her donors throughout the visit, Schlunegger-Warner’s installation is an approximately 12-foot-wide by 8-foot-high cyclorama-esque diorama depicting 19th century ships racing toward land. Sculpted entirely out of natural beeswax, the 80 ships, large expanses of water, and accumulations of land gradually erode as the heat lamps melt the scene throughout the exhibition’s two-week run: a powerful role of providing light that makes it possible to view the work while concurrently gradually destroying it. “I’m really interested in museums, and the authority that museums carry, especially a historical authority, and I like playing with that,” she says. “My work has taken a real turn with this project. In my work I will take real events, real people and real historical events, and fit them into this story I’ve created to take an immersive step into a world. But now, with Frontier, I’m transitioning to — still based in history and research — talk more about the reality of history that isn’t talked about or is hushed; how humans are taking over things, how we have changed the landscape and nature during the age of colonialism and imperialism, and how those ideas pervade.”
“Frontier” by Danielle Schlunegger-Warner at Basement Gallery Oakland
It certainly found a perfect exhibit space at Basement Gallery Oakland. Open on Saturdays and by appointment, Basement Gallery Oakland was founded by artist Anja Ulfeldt, and two artists Erik T. Groff and Erica B. Groff who have since moved to the East Coast. On the ground floor of an office building that houses the company Lonely Planet among others, the gallery space is bathed in indirect light by a warehouse style, multi-paned window. “I’m an emerging artist myself and I think the real goal here is to provide space and support to fellow artists when it is needed most- for the realization of untested and open ended ideas,” says Anja Ulfeldt. “I believe that improvisational artist-run spaces like this that focus on emerging artists and never before shown work are essential to our local arts ecosystem and that’s why we need to keep having shows.” Basement Gallery Oakland is among the first creative spaces making an indelible mark on Jack London Square’s burgeoning arts scene, along with City Limits Gallery and multiple buildings filled with creative studios nearby.
As one of the few spaces in the region with a concentration on supporting installation, sound, and three-dimensional art practices, Basement Gallery Oakland is a treasure for artists like Schlunegger-Warner. “The hardest part as an installation artist is finding a space that will show my work, it’s not easy to hang. You might need a month to install it. For this installation it’s been over a year in the making…” she explains. “But it’s always the most rewarding art, and installation art is more accessible in ways that other types of art isn’t, because it’s about your experience. It commands your attention, it draws people in to be in the present and be curious, and to experience wonder.”
Danielle Schlunegger-Warner at Basement Gallery Oakland
Arts enthusiasts on both sides of the Bay are likely already familiar with her intricate and immersive installations. Her artistic practice is strongly founded upon and inspired by the early explorations of North America, specifically in her home state of California, and 18th to 19th century philosophy, scientific advancements, and invention, citing crucial times in history when “Progress” implicated a destruction of natural order. “We are attached to all those times in history. We carry all that history with us whether or not we are conscious of it,” she says, “and we carry those thought processes with us from our ancestors, what we were taught.” Fashioning environments and concocting narratives of what she calls “historic probability,” Schlunegger-Warner provides her audiences a space of not perhaps nostalgia, but what she calls an “awareness of history” without direct reference to era or epoch, while inviting conversation about the relationship between humans and the natural world. “I’ve been more attached to the beauty of the landscape. And with Frontier, there is this image of a merchant ship entering into this cove… this scene depicts where exploration and exploitation become the same thing.” With a subversive use natural history dioramas and other modes of presentation, which Schlunegger-Warner points out were created by those who actually disrupt the order of nature, she casts them and the ideals they represent into a space of ambivalence and doubt. “I’ve taken the human out to make the viewer or the audience the human. You are going in as the human in my pieces.”
Schlunegger-Warner’s other projects include Wild and Free at Interface Gallery, O’er the Gilded Shore at FM Oakland, and Stories of An Outsider in Nature installed in three different gallery exhibitions from 2012 to 2013. While an Affiliate Artist at Headlands Center for the Arts in 2014, Schlunegger-Warner transformed her studio — she jokes only by process of creating the larger installation work — into a museum of sorts, exhibiting The Marcus Kelli Collection, which included photographs, fabricated specimens, dioramas, and artifacts that were collected by amateur explorer Marcus Kelli, a fictitious archetype possessing qualities gleaned from similar historic figures. “These specimens I created for the Marcus Kelli Collection, I would take them out into nature and photograph them — static faux-taxidermy animals, reinserting them into the landscape as these things that were once here, but gone now. As Kelli’s specimen, they are reminders of what was once there, but not any longer. They were quiet tales of human destruction.”
Detail of “Frontier” by Danielle Schlunegger-Warner at Basement Gallery Oakland
For this exhibition Schlunegger-Warner expounds upon these past installations and projects. “I’d been reading about Louis Daguerre a lot, and I learned before he was a photographer, before he learned how to fix an image, he was a landscape painter. He would do panoramic paintings of these beautiful landscapes that would make you feel like you were in this other space. After I started doing this project, I found he would actually do these dioramas within buildings, using light play to capture nature as perfectly as he could; and I liked the ways he was trying to do that. In some instances the French Government would use these images to promote going to war.” Oakland was also a font of inspiration for the artist: “Oakland as a port city, and the history of ship building here is very inspirational to me. The California coast as a whole, too, is an interesting historical point for me.”
In Frontier Schlunegger-Warner decided to allow the beeswax to undergo natural processes of disintegration through melting. She uses that process to symbolically present ideas and concepts relating to her interests in the relationships between human and animal, and debasing systems of authoritative presentation and historical re-presentation. “One of the ideas behind [the beeswax] is to reveal the way history moves in one way only, and you’ll never experience it again. And watching this powerful moment of ships coming in to harbor, watching it crumble and decay and fall, is a thing that happened for a moment in history and it’s over, but it’s also cyclical and it happens again and again. Another layer to it is is climate change and its impact, and I want to start talking about that more in my work. On the whole, while we make a lot of beautiful things, we are a destructive species and many changes need to be made. There is also a chance for a refresher or a restart. We can learn from it and start again. And while a mindset of exploration with exploitation might have worked at this moment in history, we might need to refresh our mindset.”
Danielle Schlunegger-Warner’s installation, Frontier will be on view at Basement Gallery Oakland through May 30, 2016 at 1027 3rd street, Oakland. Open Saturdays 1-5pm.