New Work by TJ Mabrey
by Joe Kagle (artist, museum consultant and professor)
On seeing TJ Mabrey’s new work, I am reminded that there is a story that I have heard for years about a beggar and a wealthy merchant in a marketplace in India. It is the essence of how I see the struggle for meaning taking place between an artist and her audience:
A beggar was asking for alms all day long in a marketplace in India but no one gave her money for food. Finally, a wealthy merchant who was viewing this scene took pity upon the woman and gave her funds with this proviso, “Here is money for food. Use it wisely.” The beggar took the money, bought bread and fruit with half the funds and flowers with the other half. The merchant was furious and said, “Why did you do that? I gave you money to stay alive a little longer.” The beggar replied, “The bread and fruit will keep me alive a little longer; the flowers will make life worth living.
When Martha Graham was asked whom she competed with in her dance creations, she said: "I am only in competition with that person I know I can become." And in the 13th century, the mystic, Persian poet, Rumi said: “May the beauty we love be what we do.” In both cases, there is a struggle between what the artist wants out of his or her work and what most in the audience thinks should be the artist’s meaning behind the work of art.
To understand the work of TJ Mabrey, we (the viewers) must start with what makes an artist the creator that she becomes. Who does the artist know best? Herself! So when trying to discuss a friend’s recent work, TJ Mabrey, the artist is best place to begin.
When I first visited TJ in the 1990s, I was a museum curator looking for new ideas in sculpture for a one-person exhibition, she took me behind her house and showed me some marble works that she was working on. They were all organic in nature. That is an interesting phrase to use about this sculptor’s work, “organic in nature.” It is like saying, ‘my brother he’. They are ‘in nature’ and come out ‘of nature.’ Mabrey is an artist in her time, connects with images from the past and, with this new (old) work, and connects with a time that is just supplanting our ‘information age.’ She is already ahead of us in realizing that the next revolution is the ‘bioeconomy age.’
As Stan Davis and Christopher Meyer write in a 2000 article: “Hunting-and-gathering economies ruled for hundreds of thousands of years before they were overshadowed by agrarian economies, which ruled for about 10,000 years. Next came the industrial ones. The first began in Britain in the 1760s, and the first to finish started unwinding in the U.S. in the early 1950s. We're halfway through the information economy, and from start to finish, it will last 75 to 80 years, ending in the late 2020s. Then get ready for the next one: the bioeconomy.
Life cycles for people and plants, for businesses, industries, economies and entire civilizations have four distinct quarters: gestation, growth, maturity and decline. The Internet is the main event of the information economy's mature quarter, the last phase of it being marked by the widespread use of cheap chips and wireless technology that will let everything connect to everything else. Life cycles overlap. So the information economy will mature in the years ahead as the bioeconomy completes its gestation and finally takes off into its growth quarter during the 2020s.”
TJ’s work is of the past, embraces the present and reveals the future. It gives form to this new bioeconomy revolution which will ‘take off’ in the 2020’s. She captures the essence of our time (a need for images that give us peace), while giving it the universal appeal of timeless art. An acorn-like work does not evolve into a tree in TJ’s world of tomorrow but is locked into its role as a messenger for our time (with the primitive faces to record those who will build our future from our past). The shapes are ‘nature-oriented’, vegetable-forms, things that grow and add to our understanding of where we are and were with the ‘hunting-and-gathering’ plus the agrarian periods in human existence, how we still struggle now with the information age and possibly evolve where we just might jump into a bioeconomy revolution.
TJ’s love of shape, her understanding that art is universal and eternal, and her skill in forming these important images that seem simple, yet are the organic building blocks of tomorrow, make her work comfortable to see, touch and explore with one’s mind and common understanding. There is a frozen quality to the work; a feeling that if one takes the time to let the images sink into our being, it will transcend the rush, the speed and hectic existence that most of us live today. It is modern Quaker-like art that allows, as Matisse once asked his audience to experience in his work, the viewer to relax and enjoy. Therefore explore the forms, question the titles, such as ”IV Florae for Flora” (limestone works). Mostly, let your eyes roam, let your creative spirit settle itself in something universal, and then just enjoy, enjoy and enjoy.