In the shadow of COVID – 19, ARTneo/CAN Triennial exhibition prizewinner Christine Mauersberger confronts uncertainty with beauty and resolve

Poisonous Beauty, the installation that won Christine her CAN Triennial exhibit.

In July of 2018, Christine Mauersberger installed Poisonous Beauty in the main stairwell of 78th Street Studios.

The work was inspired by the 2017 algae bloom in Lake Erie—the worst since 2014. The algal blooms were the inevitable result of government inaction—the failure to regulate fertilizer effluent from surrounding farms into the Maumee River. In 2014, the toxic level of algae growing in the lake had forced Toledo-area governments to warn Northwest Ohio residents not to drink tap water for three days.

Mauersberger made Poisonous Beauty by hanging plastic sheets stained with blue, green, and yellow ink, installing them in the main stairway at 78th Street Studios. The ink blots looked spontaneous, as if they had not been applied with human hands, but had grown onto the plastic.

The greens of Poisonous Beauty are clearly the greens of plants. But unlike trees or shrubs, the blots are formless, flowing, as if suspended in a liquid. What Mauersberger made was not a landscape, but a waterscape. As land-dwelling apes, most of our bodily transactions are with middle-sized dry goods. Water, and liquids more generally, are unhospitable and mysterious. Therefore, the relative unfamiliarity of fluids allows great freedom in interpreting Poisonous Beauty. It can be understood as representing algae on any number of scales: seen from the air over many square miles, on the surface of a pond the viewer is standing in front of, or cell by cell under a microscope.

Poisonous Beauty did not have to be ugly to make social critique. Like the photos it is based on, there was an inhuman beauty to Mauersberger’s installation. But Mauersberger never romanticized the poisoned vegetable matter. The very existence of Poisonous Beauty is an indictment. It was not a vision of a possible, future ecological catastrophe. It was a reflection of a concrete reality, real dangers, and human costs paid.

The layered meaning of the work won Mauersberger ARTneo’s CAN Triennial exhibition prize. The artist and the museum negotiated around each other’s schedules for a little more than a year to identify dates for the show. In February 2020, Mauersberger met again with ARTneo curator Christopher Richards. They discussed the work she had been preparing. It was different from what Mauersberger had displayed anywhere else before: a series of abstract prints, layering geometric figures and organic forms. The artist and curator agreed to a show title, Universal Motions. An opening date was set for May.

The new coronavirus was a distant concern at the time, but within weeks it would dominate the news: Ohio Governor Mike DeWine would mandate social distancing, issue stay-at-home orders, and order the closure of nonessential businesses. That put gallery schedules on hold until further notice.

During the lockdown, Mauersberger’s working space was limited to her small home studio. Weeks went by. Late in April, DeWine announced he would slowly begin reopening nonessential sectors of the economy in May. Nonetheless, it remained doubtful that public gatherings would be allowed to resume normally in the coming months, so ARTneo postponed Mauersberger’s exhibit.

Two years after Poisonous Beauty, Mauersberger once again found herself making art in the midst of a natural disaster worsened by government inaction. In March and April, she hunkered down with the rest of Ohio, wondering what life after COVID – 19 would look like.

“It’s daunting to think about how we’re going to reemerge,” Mauersberger said.

Despite the setbacks and uncertainties, Mauersberger has continued working toward the exhibit.

“We will do this one way or another,” she said.

The show is ambitious in at least two respects. Firstly, it will be Mauersberger’s first exhibit in a medium relatively new to her, prints on silkscreen or synthetic Yupo paper. Secondly, it will be her first time displaying work made in intensive collaboration with another artist, her nephew Evan Graham.

“We feel good about this,” Mauersberger said of her collaboration. Despite never having made art in such a close partnership before, she finds herself amazed by how neatly her and Graham’s creative sensibilities align. “I don’t know where my hand starts and his begins.”

Graham, a 2014 graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art, has also ventured outside his comfort zone for Universal Motions. “I hadn’t had any other apprenticeships before working with Christine,” he said. He had only ever exhibited on his own. And as a solo artist, he works mostly in large-scale sculpture.

After graduation, Graham had kept making and displaying art when he could, while supporting himself with bartending. In 2019, Mauersberger asked him to assist her with an installation commissioned by the Moxy hotel in Columbus. As a nod to the city’s fashion industry, Graham and Mauersberger constructed Wrapped, a huge mobile made with strips of denim, leather, zippers, and tulle netting.

That year, Mauersberger also began experimenting with printmaking at Zygote Press. Her past work had consisted chiefly of embroidered textiles, paintings, and installation pieces. After positive feedback from an art dealer, Mauersberger continued her experiments in printing. Impressed with Graham’s work on Wrapped, she paired the new art form with a new mode of creativity: collaboration. Graham was happy to return.

“We both have a similar view when it comes to making art. We want to make things that are beautiful,” Graham said.

Mauersberger acknowledges family pride shapes her feelings about her collaboration. Both she and her nephew reminisce about Graham’s first playful explorations of art during his visits to her home. As a child, he would mold with Sculpey clay, and tinker with Illustrator and Photoshop on Mauersberger’s computer. But the two do genuinely complement the other’s creative process. This is demonstrated in both the studio and in finished products.

Mauersberger says she and Graham converge on similar ideas, and anticipate each other’s suggestions. Only rarely does one doubt the other’s proposals. Even when they do disagree, one is able to understand what the other is trying to do.

“Sometimes I’ll have to say, ‘M-hm, go ahead and try it,’” Mauersberger said, affecting a wary voice. But even when she is initially skeptical of Graham’s suggestions, they find a way to make the piece work. “It gives me chills when I think about it sometimes.”

Christine Mauersberger and Evan Graham, Black Waves

Unlike Poisonous Beauty, the pieces for Universal Motion do not address specific world events. As the future exhibit’s title suggests, the patterns in Mauersberger’s and Graham’s images evoke dynamics which operate on all scales of nature—oscillation, expansion, contraction, drifting, coalescing. The prints do not depict stars, cellular structures, ripples, or mountain ranges. Instead, they depict the forms of motion that underly the behavior of stars, cells, ripples, or mountains.

During the coronavirus outbreak, the generalness of Universal Motions offered its artists a form of escape. Mauersberger herself described the images as “uplifting and interesting”. While not denying the turmoil surrounding them, Graham and Mauersberger turned their attention to the grand structures of nature, and invite us to look, too.

“There’s nothing wrong with making art that makes you feel good,” Mauersberger said.