A DESIRE TO CREATE
Shadowbox series reflects artist’s love of natural history, philosophy
Published in The New Bedford Standard-Times on September 21, 2007
Mixed-media artist Lasse Antonsen’s creative process is driven by the excitement of discovery. “I like that I don’t know exactly where I’m going, just reacting to a desire to create,” he says. Mr. Antonsen, 60, chooses subjects and directions that result from his extensive readings in natural history and philosophy. But unlike a scientist or philosopher, he does not seek to discover a certain solution or prove a particular theory. As an artist, he winds down a pathway where there are no definitive answers, only continuous possibilities.
Mr. Antonsen’s latest series reflects his interest in not only revealing history but in refashioning it, by pushing actual events or artifacts into the realm of imagination. The 20 works in “Shadow Herbarium, Prague 1596,” displayed in black shadowbox frames, show pages from a 16th-century botanical illustration book combined with plant specimens the artist has fashioned from found objects. Here reality meets fantasy. With this pairing, the artist challenges the perception that history is past and mute, and encourages us to regard it as dynamic and challenging.
Mr. Antonsen grew up in Denmark. He entered the Experimental Art School in Copenhagen at age 16, continued his studies of visual art and poetry at Holbaek Kunsthoejskole in Copenhagen, and later took art history courses at Copenhagen University. After several years of travel and then living in Spain, Mr. Antonsen came to the United States and enrolled at Harvard University’s Extension Program. One of his professors at Harvard, an expert on Anatolian art, invited him to join an archeological dig. Mr. Antonsen, deeply interested in ancient cultures, was tempted to accept, but he decided that his true love was contemporary art. So he focused his studies in this direction, eventually earning a master’s degree from Tufts University for his thesis on Picasso’s imagery during the 1930s.
Mr. Antonsen worked as a researcher for the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and taught at the School of the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. He then took a position as curator for the Danforth Museum of Art in Framingham. Here he mounted a number of ambitious programs including works by Italian sculptor Giacometti and German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys, in addition to an innovative installation series featuring such artists as sculptor Mary Miss. After several years at the Danforth, Mr. Antonsen realized that he missed teaching, something he didn’t have the opportunity to do as a curator. He found the best of both worlds in 1987 when he accepted a position at Southeastern Massachusetts University, which later became the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Here he served as gallery director as well as leader of a graduate seminar series and instructor of art history courses. The job suited him so well that he still holds it today.
At UMD’s gallery on the Dartmouth campus, and later its expanded space at the renovated Star Store campus in New Bedford, Mr. Antonsen has presented an impressive range of exhibitors, ranging from Russian installation artist Ilya Kabakov to feminist artist Nancy Spero. One of his favorite shows, held in 2002, featured prints by Frank Stella, illustrating the tale of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.”
About 10 years ago, Mr. Antonsen realized that the drive to create his own art was becoming more and more intense. He recalls it as an “emotional and physical” desire that kept “brewing” inside him. He began simply, with black and white paint. He poured the paint freely onto a stretched canvas and stirred into it with his fingers, feeling the need to literally immerse himself in the medium. He still keeps that piece hanging on the wall of his studio, to remind himself of that exhilarating step as a visual artist.
Also at this time, Mr. Antonsen created his first assemblages contained in shadowboxes. At a local antique dealer’s, he found a number of small 19th-century photograph portraits of immigrants to New Bedford, which he embellished with feathery fisherman’s flies. This juxtaposition suggests a similarity between the life stories of those newcomers to America, implied in their determined expressions, and the hope and faith of a fisherman, as represented by the fishing lures. Mr. Antonsen later expanded on the idea of shadowboxes as containers by placing his assemblages in tall curio cabinets. A number of his works have consisted of groupings of hand-made sculptures or found objects arranged on the shelves of the black cabinets. This format challenges the notion of history as being untouchable, something preserved behind glass, and emphasizes the artist’s desire to connect the past to the present.
In 2006 Mr. Antonsen was artist-in-residence at Stone Quarry Hill Art Park in Cazenovia in upstate New York. Here he created a conceptual series that drew on his love for what he calls the “rebellious, original, and ultimately free” writings of Henry David Thoreau. The series included a work consisting of three found chairs in slightly different styles, placed facing one another as if in conversation. This piece brings to life a selection from Thoreau’s “Walden”: “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”
Mr. Antonsen’s artistic process begins with an interest in exploring a particular subject that stirs his intellect and imagination. He often has a vision in mind of the shape or texture he wants to produce; then it’s a matter of playing with certain materials in order to make them match this mental picture. But he is always guided by the materials themselves, remaining open to unexpected effects and combinations.
Mr. Antonsen says he seeks a “crossover place between being a curator and being an artist.” In the art he creates and the exhibits he curates, he hopes for a balanced experience for the viewer, one that is both intellectually stimulating and aesthetically pleasing. He wants his audience to contemplate and consider, while savoring the works’ “pleasure, beauty, enjoyment, playfulness.” Ultimately, this artist’s enjoyment comes from watching each piece unfold. With a smile, he admits, “I do this because it’s fun.”
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