Athena LaTocha’s relentless urge to save

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Every time she drives along an interstate highway, Athena LaTocha experiences an overwhelming compulsion to stop when she sees pieces of shredded tires. About a decade ago, the artist from Alaska (Lakota and Ojibwe on his mother’s side, from the northern plains of the United States) began to use these rubber scraps as tools for improvisation – they proved a robust, if temperamental, means of moving demolition sediment over his colossal, ink drawings. (To this end, the artist also wields branches and root balls, as well as dirt-covered bricks whose sides crumble and erode halfway through use, like a paintbrush that self-destructs.)

There are already too many leftover tires in the artist’s Brooklyn studio, but the urge to salvage more is relentless. LaTocha looks for dark tracks that feature interesting weathered lines and partial text, or have destroyed belts exposed, their steel threads like capillaries. “There are some very nice pieces there,” says the artist. “And it’s a tool you have to fight with, which I love. It can be painful and unpredictable. When I was working with canvas, the steel belts would scratch and gouge the surface. On paper, the Patterned flap introduces different processing, and the printed names can be used to make marks.In this way, it is a compound tool.

Athena La Tocha, One thing not past, 2021, shellac ink on paper, lead and steel, 157 × 244 × 14 cm. Courtesy of the artist and JDJ

That LaTocha spends so much time collecting debris is no surprise. In her wall drawings – which evoke rugged cliffs and vast land terrains – she is continually drawn to man-made and natural residues, and the complex and changing relationship between humans and the Earth. The tactile surface of the works is reached slowly, at the cost of significant physical effort. LaTocha slides layers of silt and dirt onto wet, resin-coated paper, which she lays flat on the floor of her studio. Once the material on the surface has stabilized, the excess is scraped off and it begins again, obscuring and revealing with each instinctive gesture. On his stiffened paper, ink and dirt collide with fallen tree branches, picked up rocks, crumpled sheets of steel, and demolition debris salvaged from nearby construction sites. Shredded tires make perfect sense next to these materials: man-made but organic-looking. Their torn forms contain echoes of larger endeavours: human infrastructure, trade routes, attempts to move across the landscape, reshaping nature to serve our desires. LaTocha’s work addresses these ever-changing targets. She is interested in how we perceive and relate to the world around us – politically, psychologically, culturally – and our relative smallness compared to deep Earth time.

Athena LaTocha, Burning, Sulphuric, Violent, 2020, Shellac ink, World Trade Center construction sand on paper, 132 x 204 inches.  (AL2020.0001) Photo by Jason Mandella
Athena La Tocha, Burning, Sulfuric, Violent, 2020, shellac ink and World Trade Center construction sand on paper, 3.4 × 5.2 m. Courtesy of the artist and JDJ; photography: Jason Mandella

Currently, LaTocha is developing two site-specific exhibitions with New York-based gallery JDJ, which will open in May and June, respectively. One of them will take place in JDJ’s upstate New York outpost, The Ice House, a former industrial building in Garrison. The other is on JDJ’s Tribeca site at Broadway – the city’s oldest major north-south thoroughfare and a major trade route that predated colonial occupation. (Much of Broadway was part of what was known as the Wickquasgeck Trail and used by various Indigenous peoples to trade goods.) me, as we met to discuss the Tribeca show. “So many erasures have taken place in this area. It is worked and overbuilt. It’s a complicated read – you don’t have access to bedrock or even the original soil. The question for me was how do I understand my connection to the original landscape, when it has been so much built up and torn down?

In Tribeca, LaTocha began as she always does: looking and observing, recording sounds and capturing images, especially of changing infrastructure. It crossed the densities of Broadway, Canal Street and other mature sites with new developments, such as Dumbo (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass) in Brooklyn, currently filled with pile drivers. She watched construction workers demolish and redo swathes of streets with jackhammers — agents of New York’s relentless urban renewal program, which makes big promises even as it moves violently. She immersed herself in the historical accounts of “people living above people, people over people” and the social implications of commerce and trade within the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. “For me,” she says, “there is always something unsettling about learning these stories and the impact of colonization on Indigenous populations. This deep sense of mourning never goes away.

Athena LaTocha, MoMA PS1 installation view, 2021
Athena LaTocha, 2021, installation view, MoMA PS1. Courtesy of the artist and JDJ

Hoping to physically connect to a site’s deep history, LaTocha searches for the oldest soils she can get her hands on. But in Tribeca — where teetering towers and new construction and art deco relics crowd their bedrock foundation — access to such material is impossible. So the artist returned to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where active excavations are still ongoing and where she had previously used earth for a recent 17-meter installation at BRIC. For these new works – about ten will be presented in JDJ’s Manhattan space – she has combined cemetery land with shellac inks and “demolition media” (dust, steel shavings and building site glass).

These new designs are considerably smaller than the large-scale works LaTocha is known for – no larger, she says, than 3 x 6 cm. Either way, she presents them as a continuation of the massive, expressive pieces she staged at BRIC and MoMA PS1 in 2021, describing them as “miniature movements” characterized by similar materials and thinking. Their size, however, is distinct from that setting – from the gallery itself and from the cluttered, increasingly slick and spectral surroundings of Lower Manhattan, where every untended glimpse of nature can seem like a sublime little wonder. , and where it’s easy to be myopic, thinking that things have always looked like this. “The work that I do usually goes beyond the human scale,” says LaTocha. “You may feel like you’re constantly lost in it, overwhelmed, or consumed by it.”

Main Image: Athena LaTocha, thirteen days, 2017-19, ink and earth on paper, 112 × 305 × 5 cm. Courtesy of the artist and JDJ

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