There is a Buddhist-born credo that supposes, “You are where your breath is.” While this teaching is geared toward keeping our ego from time-traveling into the past or future, this sensitivity and awareness of our surroundings is explored in Ann Toebbe’s engaging visual artwork. Yet the award-winning artist actually stretches the malleability of past moments, however mindful, through rendering 2D works that, at times, morph memories into a kind of composite remembrance. Primarily using graphite, colored pencils and assorted types of paper, Toebbe reconstructs the past, creating these kinds of recalled, distant memories that, in turn, can test our actual memories.
“At some point, I realized I had accumulated a lot of stories of memories from friends and family and also anecdotes about acquaintances or people I didn’t even know,” Toebbe tells Folio Weekly, from her home in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. “People like to talk about their past. I started asking people, my husband, aunts and neighbors, to describe the spaces of these memories so I could make a painting.”
Toebbe explains that people would do their best to describe these places in a text or even sketches. After a process involving many questions from Toebbe and a back-and-forth communication, she might have enough information to begin creating a new piece. “The result is a sort of movie version of the book type image. The painting doesn’t look quite — if at all — like the original memory and has been formatted to fit into a rectangle, but has been carefully crafted to include every detail that was imparted.”
Toebbe’s upcoming exhibit at Monya Rowe Gallery, Room Air Conditioner, features six smaller-sized works created with graphite and colored pencil on paper. Toebbe allows that most pieces have a specific story and personal connection. “Playdate is a drawing of my neighbor and mom friend’s condo where I spent one evening a week when we had small children,” says Toebbe, of a particular piece that crackles with colors, energy and movement. “Kelly had very decadent taste and wealthy parents so she had large country-style and antique furniture she’d inherited, complimented by printed wallpaper and a candelabra-like chandelier.”
The show’s title piece is also culled from Toebbe’s direct history. “The drawing depicts my childhood family room — we called it the TV room. It was the only room in my parents’ small house in Cincinnati that was air-conditioned in the summer. My sister, brother and I would sleep on the hideaway couch bed.”
While the environments in her work are universal, her regular use of an aerial-positioned perspective is certainly not. With their flattened walls and squashed sense of space, Toebbe’s works morph interiors into a strange math, subtracting and contracting normal angles and adding vibrant, finite and intense patterns and colorizations. The apparent goal of more than a few contemporary 2D artists seems to be in constructing work that reaches outward to the viewer; assemblage-like elements that can literally rise off the surface are not uncommon. Toebbe offers a different invitation altogether.
“In earlier works, this squashed and flattened way of depiction was intuitive. Now it’s deliberate or maybe more of a habit, a way of seeing and organizing that has become ingrained in my artist brain,” explains Toebbe. “The contracting you describe comes from reorganizing spaces to fit the rectangular dimensions of the panel or paper.” Toebbe elaborates, explaining that she uses the frame of the support as a kind of limitation to “solve a compositional puzzle,” an apt description, since her drawings can at times resemble board games. “If they [the pieces] are off-putting, I think it’s the coolness in the way I measure and construct the floor plans, architecture and furniture. The pictures are not loose and expressive; they are stiff and mathematical. I’m more of a note-taker than a storyteller.”
Toebbe’s own story as a visual artist has carried her through some impressive accomplishments. Her academic degrees include a 1997 BFA from the Cleveland Institute of Art and a 2004 MFA from Yale University’s School of Art; that same year she received a DAAD scholarship from the Universität der Künste in Berlin, Germany. From Manhattan and Miami to Milan and London, Toebbe’s work has been displayed in more than 30 international group and solo exhibits. She has been featured in several notable media outlets, including Modern Painters, Huffington Post, The Boston Globe and The New York Times, and is a recipient of numerous awards, including a 2005 Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant.
This is the second time that Monya Rowe Gallery has featured the works of Toebbe. Rowe displayed Toebbe’s art in five previous shows when the Rowe gallery was originally in Manhattan.
“I remember being very impressed by the actual construction of the collage elements the first time I saw Ann’s work, and how smart it is in regard to her choices of where and how to represent architectural elements and interesting perspectives,” says gallery owner Monya Rowe. “The combination of formalism, humor and intimacy is a unique balancing act. It’s also quite odd and obsessive.”
Toebbe’s images, with their four walls, furniture and everyday objects, offer an inherent commonality, if not even mundane, atmosphere. “I’ve become sort of domestic anthropologist,” says Toebbe, of her years spent creating these collagist blueprints of the past. While this familiarity could immediately disarm the viewer, the inclusive nature and resonance of her art isn’t a kind of plotted strategy or emotional sleight of hand, but rather a pure gesture of the heart.
“I don’t really think about the viewer when I put together a painting or drawing. I think interiors are inherently more personal and intimate — I’m always drawn to them in museums,” says Toebbe. “I like being a voyeur to the ordinary.”