The Massachusetts-based artist Josephine Halvorson has long plumbed psychological depth in her paintings through surface texture, with an acute sensitivity to light, scale, and the passing of time. Her latest and largest project, Measures, 2016, comprises three outdoor sculptures—the artist’s first work in this form—and is on view at Storm King Art Center in New Windsor, New York, as part of its annual “Outlooks” series, through November 27, 2016.
I LIKE USING MY BODY TO MEASURE THINGS. Sometimes I close one eye at a time and watch the world shift left or right, proportionate to the distance between my pupils. As a kid waiting for the school bus I remember the morning that my sneakered foot fit perfectly inside a single brick on the front stoop. After school, I hung out at my parents’ metal shop where I could always find a tape measure or ruler, square or scribe. When I visit, I can still see the faded pencil marks on a wooden doorframe, recording my age and growing height.
As a large woman I’m aware of the space I take up. As a painter I know the perimeters of the canvas within a hair of my brush. As a driver I can park with an inch to spare. Sitting at my kitchen table, someone recently told me I’m good at “spatial reasoning.” I looked around the house I built and realized that many aspects of my life seem to fit this term: organization of stuff, composition of paintings, keeping time, and mapping my location.
I’m writing this on an island in the Rhône where there are frequent vertical rulers that measure the height of the river when it floods. In French, they’re called échelles, a word that also means scale. In fact, it was just after the Revolution that the French commissioned the original meter stick—the one by which all others are calibrated. Mètre, after all, is a word for tape measure. I was living here two years ago, making paintings en plein air of the échelles, when I received the invitation from Storm King to propose a project for its five hundred acres in the Hudson Valley.
From that island, I drove to Rome for a yearlong fellowship at the French Academy, with my materials packed into a petit camion. I clocked many frequent-flier miles on trips back to the US, where I would make my way to Storm King to wander the grounds. Maybe it was my sharpened sense of geography, the conversion of kilometers to miles and back again, the one-to-one scale paintings I was making in Rome of windows and doors, the milestones along the Appian Way, and the importance of Sylvia Plimack Mangold’s paintings of rulers that led me to make Measures.
The three large painted sculptures respond to distinct sites at Storm King. In some ways they’re like the échelles in that they align the relationship between people and the land. These artworks are painted by hand, which encourages a close looking, a desire to touch, and a subjective approach to measurement. The shortest measure, standing at twelve feet tall, is marked with Roman numerals and situated vertically in a field like a sundial, suggesting the passage of time. Painted in micaceous, metallic blacks against a pale, shimmery rainbow, this work reads as a black and white sculpture at a distance. On social media, people have posted photos of friends squished up against it, making legible their height.
The longest sculpture is thirty-six feet, measured out in twelve yards. Installed horizontally on the crest of a field, it’s painted on both sides in rich yellows, blacks, and reds, colors of a standard tape measure. Seen at a far distance, it feels like a tool you can hold in your hand. As you approach, it spans the ridge of Schunnemunk Mountain. And within an arm span, it can measure one’s body. In a photo on Instagram, a man stretches out on top of it measuring his length, and in another, a pregnant woman stands at one end in profile, as if the increments before her measure the weeks of gestation.
The last work is a trompe-l’oeil of a tree that I’d dragged into my studio in Western Massachusetts last winter. As I painted the wood, burls, and bark at a 1:1 scale, the sum of its parts transformed the sculpture into a tree itself. On its north face I painted a double-headed arrow and also wrote the sculpture’s height, twenty-four feet, in red, a common form of notation in construction or destruction. This serves as a gauge of the height of neighboring trees and artworks, including Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk, which stands a few hundred feet south.
We need an appreciation of scale, as experienced and defined through the human body. Every day the news brings us the numbers of those killed in senseless acts and the yet to be calculated damage to the environment, statistics that are often out of scale with my own comprehension of life itself. I want to make work that connects us to each other, and to the natural world. Through the concept of measurement, the sensation of touch, and the subjectivity of perception, I hope this project brings greater understanding of our own bodies in the world.