In tennis parlance, a “let” is a ball that grazes the net during a player’s first or second serve. It’s also a mulligan, (if your thing is golf) or a fresh chance to start over. A let will often skip off the net, slow down, or change direction while remaining in-bounds. Art is like this, sometimes. For Anna Queen, play is about seeing and doing, accident and intention, control and letting go. For certain sports that she actively engages in, like tennis and soccer, play requires both physical and mental agility; winning means balancing both, a state that successful tennis players often describe as being “in the zone.” But “let” calls by the umpire, these unpredictable, unintentional bounces—imbalance—control outcomes in the slipping moment, more often than not. Balance and imbalance in art are seemingly everything and nothing at all, at least for some artists who stretch, to use another sports analogy, way out over their skies.
Speaking of her interest in balance and imbalance, Queen notes:
The ideas for my work come up when I’m taken out of the everyday routine . . . what’s to be expected. I’d refer to this as imbalance, something that arises and knocks me off my axis a bit, whether it’s coming across a snake on a hike or learning the meaning of a word that I hadn’t known before. These moments spark the concept for a piece, and it becomes a translation of this moment into physical or visual form in hopes of recreating that to some extent for the viewer . . . The part that makes the concept successful are the formal tools that I utilize in putting together a sculpture, choosing materials, and installation techniques. This is where balance is key. I consider material, color, and scale when creating a work and even more so for a larger installation of works. There need to be relationships between the works . . . and it comes together through balancing the entirety of the space.
Since the child’s rocking horse of Duchamp’s Dada taught art how to play, artists have been breaking all the rules of subject matter, style, technique, and materials. Balance and imbalance in art have never been the same since.
A paint roller extension pole with an attached tennis ball is less an update of Duchamp’s snow shovel, entitled In Advance of the Broken Arm (1915), than it is an homage to off-the-shelf tools that can be used for games as well as art—depending on the viewer’s open-minded tolerance for offbeat humor. In this instance the pole is used by local tennis pros to teach the fundamentals of topspin on the tennis court. That it’s coolly non-functional—a tool for painting made useless by the attached tennis ball and given a new job as a tennis trainer—caught Queen’s attention for its utilitarian simplicity and sculptural possibilities.
The handcrafted pedestals (hand-rubbed, plaster-coated wood) are on wheels. (She has worked as an art gallery installer and curator, doubtless finding the endless moving of large, heavy pedestals to be a pain in the ass). Queen alludes to curatorial needs and skills, both physical and intellectual. Her pedestals hold and isolate mostly small sculptures. They are idiosyncratically tall and thin or low gravity-canceling cube forms. They display their own physical presence as stand-alone, minimalist objects. Everything matters, including placement, color, finish, and practical functional identity.
Queen draws with everything that is not a pencil or pen or tool meant to leave marks. A green extension cord masquerades as a garter snake, its head is a smartphone video of an actual snake slithering through a grassy path. Once past questions as to whether certain works are simply “ready-mades” from the local Lowe’s or sporting goods store, or if they are hand-built from scratch, utter simplicity and unadorned directness are given primacy. Weight, gravity, balance, proportion begin to slip into view like familiar friends the artist has also invited to play.
Installation view of Let (front to back) Interloc, Thomaston, Maine, April, 2023
Her recent installation at Interloc gallery in Thomaston, Let is an encompassing artwork in its own right. Viewers move from enigmatic sculpture to sculpture, each with its embedded secrets and symbols. Various objects are mounted on pristine white walls or placed reverently on pedestals, the small gallery space a kind of temple to ways of seeing familiar objects through deeply personal interests and passions. Her private, chryselephantine Athena Parthenos is in a darkened room. Instead of a gold- and ivory-cloaked, shield-bearing Greek goddess, Her dog Ernest’s head is seen on a widescreen video monitor surveying a field of yellow tennis balls in an otherwise empty room. There are also used tennis balls scattered enticingly on the gallery floor like offerings to our canine overlords and affectionate friends. Ernest’s classical, handsome profile and long, probing nose looks on, oblivious to the camera and us. Only after several minutes have passed does Ernest slowly investigate and move the tennis balls on the floor of his room. Good dog!
Drawing a Field
Certain works that occupy space are also drawings or become events and performances. Drawing a Field is an example. The field has long since disappeared under snow, rain, and a car dealership expansion. The chalk outline was never meant to function as an actual playing field. Rather, the video of its execution is the artwork of her at work, small and alone, drawing a regulation soccer field, freely sketched over uneven terrain in Thomaston. It is a performance of what the boundaries of sport now look like for women. They own them; on the world stage women athletes put their “beautiful game” inside and occasionally outside the lines.
“Let” means to allow, to grant permission. Queen grants herself and us permission to see and experience relationships, connections that are personal to her but inform our own sense of play and connectivity. Sarah Montross, one of the jurors for this year’s Maine Biennial at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art where Queen has two works, writes:
This sense of connectivity—of small, individual parts joining to re-form into a whole—extends to people: artists convey intimate, private worlds, memories, and interpersonal relationships, both real and imagined, through touch, familial closeness, and tender humor.
The Let installation is situational, a field of action. Connections are among objects that are hard; others (like pet chew toys made from bundles of synthetic paracord) can be soft. A paw print embedded in a low plaster pedestal looks up to a chewed-upon rock, presumably out of Ernest’s reach. Some objects move mechanically or electronically, others are static and still. Words inform images and images speak to words. Her eclecticism and fondness for new materials, often small, out-of-place-looking bits and pieces of natural and woman-made forms, remind us of Richard Tuttle’s post-minimalism and anti-form casualness. Or, a glancing nod to Ray Johnson’s lightly touched “actions” and wordplay. Queen’s gambits, however, are her own and of her own independent generation where connectivity is how artists process and engage with the world.
Ernest and his relationship to tennis balls and her relationship to Ernest are poignant in their sometimes goofy athletic closeness and accidental clumsiness. But, there is a subsuming sense that these somewhat inexplicable, even irrational connections are metaphors, placeholders, for something more—more secret, more intimate, touching, playful, humorous—alluding to loss, joy, love, and somewhere in the joining of parts to whole, memories and private interpersonal relationships.
As we survey the Let exhibition from the gallery entrance toward the back wall, imbalance skips besides balance, tripping each other up—like Ernest with his tennis balls. Audiences can conjure with the loosely structured hints and clues that Queen “lets” us have within this carefully curated installation. It is, after all, in its acceptance and portrayal of both balance and imbalance, a portrait of the artist as a young woman.
Sculpture Meant to be Snowed On
It is the imperfect wobbliness of her soccer field drawing that is so endearing, so charming, and playful in its imperfect execution. Balance is okay and what we strive for, but imbalance is how we live our lives and play our games. Without imbalance, the will to take risks, the reckless courage to try new things, we wouldn’t have art, at least not art like this. Without imbalance we might never notice the beauty of a fresh (cement) casting of a soccer ball left outdoors to capture the soft imprint of lightly falling snow. Without imbalance (or lack of wolfish self-control) Ernest might never have chewed on cat food tins for Queen to memorialize into sandblasted metal sculptures. The varying evidence of teeth marks on the tins also seems to represent a kind of record of the event, of uncontrolled transformation, its now-ness—before, during, and after.
Balance, physical restraint, and control are a tethered leash or metal chain with dog tags reading “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing”; love is Ernest’s name etched on a heart-shaped, custom ID tag. “Ernest” is also “earnest,” etched on the reverse of this dog tag (mechanized to slowly turn from the ceiling) invoking Oscar Wilde and The Importance of Being Earnest. It’s the tender humor part that gets us every time, makes us want to laugh or cry for the simple joy of its authenticity, heart-on-sleeve sincerity, and intensity. Is that balance or imbalance? No clue, but this is an artist to watch, especially when she decides to draw something without a pencil. An accidental, disembodied smile, perhaps?
Image at top: Anna Queen, Ernest’s Favorite Rock, chewed rock, 2023.