PRINT April 2022



Participants in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts Fellows’ fall retreat Art Wilds outside the main house at Mildred’s Lane, Beach Lake, PA, 2009. Photo: Hope Ginsburg.

IN THE SPRING OF 2020, much of America succumbed to the lures of a rural life, one far from the madding crowds, one better suited to sheltering in place. Maybe you know someone who finally delivered on that promise to move to the Hudson Valley for good. While the then-widespread speculation about the decline of urban life seems to have been overblown, we are now in the midst of a so-called Great Resignation, in which the distraction and self-degradation of “hustle culture” may be yielding to slower forms of labor and community. Far from unprecedented, the present shift echoes the countercultures of earlier moments in American creative life—moments channeled and recast over the past quarter century at Mildred’s Lane, a parcel of land in Pennsylvania a stone’s throw from the Delaware River and up a steep, washed-out driveway at times only navigable by J. Morgan Puett. An artist who during the ’80s and early ’90s ran a celebrated art installation–cum-storefront for her eponymous clothing line at various locations in Lower Manhattan, Puett is the only full-time resident of the Lane. After twenty-five years, her vital force imbues every piece of planed timber and riveted steel.

Mildred’s Lane—its namesake a perambulating house cleaner who long lived in a ramshackle eighteenth-century homestead on the property—typifies the great utopian communities of yore, at once a site of pilgrimage for outsiders and a source of bewilderment for nearby townsfolk. To spend a weekend here is to be transported not just geographically but dispositionally, to a place where nothing goes unconsidered and a sense of possibility prevails. Throughout the years, the collaborators of Mildred’s Lane have asked, “What if we dug a massive, living pond in front of the main house? What if a house were a sculpture? What if we built a board-by-board re-creation of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden?” Each time, they decided to find out. A related space across the Delaware in nearby Narrowsburg, New York, the Mildred Complex(ity), connects such ongoing installations with complementary forms of performance and shorter-term projects.

Views of Mildred's Lane, Beach Lake, PA. The Grafter’s Shack, 2018. Photo: Robyn Lea.

Before its present, semipublic iteration, Mildred’s Lane was more like a ruin, situated on some hundred acres of forest and stream. Puett and her then partner Mark Dion bought the land in 1998 with Renée Green and Nils Norman. Green and Norman have not been much involved in the property since, but all four share a commitment to making art that examines the connections between ecological and social systems. Dion’s site-specific approach, materialized around the “folly” and the Wunderkammer, is plainly inflected by the several years he spent living in a minute horse shed at Mildred’s Lane as the main building, a former chicken coop, was reimagined from the ground up. This structure, itself a manifold study in sculptural materiality, is anchored by a sprawling library and an open kitchen, where stocking the fridge is an act of expressive play and meals abide by the themes of the day. Over the years, guests have been treated to deftly presented assemblages of foraged mushrooms and moss and dishes inspired by Brueghel. The sculptor David Brooks once built a pit oven from river rocks in a nearby quarry and served a feast on stone plates attended by makeshift utensils. Such ludic pursuits tend to recursively build on one another over time, imbuing old tasks with new meaning. Even today, there’s an elegant parsimony to that horse shed, everything in its place, sufficient. It became a proof of concept for several of the property’s other living modules, thematically rooted in annual sessions or elements drawn from the lives of those gathered, from apiculture to alchemy.

Mildred’s Lane is not a product to be consumed or an “experience” to be Instagrammed. It is a link in a larger countercultural chain that, like the variegated ecosystems of the property, may be critically endangered.

It could be said that Mildred’s Lane, with its seminars on Latour and Deleuze, its tiny houses and taxidermy, anticipated a now-ubiquitous Brooklynite Mannerism—which is true. But the things that are meaningful about this place stubbornly resist commodification. As multimedia artist Pablo Helguera reminded me, while the art world globalized a sales-driven model in the 1990s, Puett “displaced the white cube with a social space.” That is, it went quickly from being a couple’s country studio to an emergent system, something hospitable to new inputs but governed by its own homeostasis. In Helguera’s estimation, Mildred’s Lane elaborates time-honored traditions of both artist-run spaces and American transcendentalism but eschews the latter’s tenet of self-reliance, instead fostering an authentic exchange among artists, ungoverned by the “stale” protocols of grad school, the gallery, or the biennial. For Dion, it is an outgrowth of his time at the Whitney Independent Study Program (ISP), which weds the criticality of the seminar with the intimacy of the chapter house—a place for cultivating that which can be taught only glancingly, outside the lecture hall and in the interstices of shared intention.

Views of Mildred's Lane, Beach Lake, PA. Project Space Session Fellows’ Mildred/Lillie Archaeology installation, 2018. Photo: Mildred’s Lane.

Over the course of several decades, Mildred’s Lane functioned socially on a few levels. Outwardly, it has responded to and sent taproots into the surrounding landscape by way of community engagements such as Social Saturdays and the Complex(ity) platform. Inwardly, it has thrived as a bastion where working artists can learn together and mentor students who attend summer sessions in small cohorts or live on-site in the off-season according to a work-study model. Of course, art education in the past century has been shot through with unsavory power dynamics. The lionization of avant-garde thinkers in the late-Marxist and poststructuralist traditions of the 1960s and beyond has long overlooked a vein of misogyny dressed up as “criticality” in the academy. Combine that with the bucolic locale and one could easily imagine such a project going awry. This is perhaps why everyone in the fold of Mildred’s Lane is quick to insist the program is precisely not that, because it is inextricable from Puett’s credo—part social compact, part Fluxus invitation—known as “workstyles.”

In the official user’s guide to Mildred’s Lane, Puett explains that “workstyles” (noun and verb) specifies a “critical system aesthetics based on the history of women’s work . . . it is an environmentally sustainable practice, a rigorous engagement with every aspect of life. It is any practitioner’s making-thinking-doing process and outcomes.” In effect, this means that Mildred’s Lane will never offer a typical residency situation, where artists are housed and fed and left to fly solo. To be here is to recognize one’s interrelation with others and place, not to be sealed away from noise but to be swept up by a specific frequency of it. Even the prosaic is suffused with creative intention, setting one in implicit dialogue with a lineage of care, of mending, of interdependence. (This is why Puett insists that she is not the project’s founder per se; she prefers the title “Ambassador of Entanglement.”) Such themes have long been integral to rarefied and everyday approaches to making, but they have also long been marginalized by the suffocating machismo of the marketplace.

Views of Mildred's Lane, Beach Lake, PA. Kitchen Laboratory, 2018. Photo: Robyn Lea.

In other words, one agrees to give more than one takes, to iterate rather than intervene. Boldface names collaborate with lesser-known ones, the weeks spent in the forest leveling, by design, the hierarchies of back home. Sometimes this amounts to small acts, e.g., reading aloud a page of writing around the fire or the countertop. During my visit, I was reminded of a Buddhist monastery, where rank dissipates in the shared labor of the day, or, yes, of my own year at the ISP, scrubbing toilets between rounds of Brecht. Unlike at those places, there is no ideology as such at Mildred’s Lane—people come as they are and are expected to partake, workstyles both the organizing principle and the jumping-off point.

As a result, chance encounters with the land have shaped the practice of many midcareer artists whose output is at odds with the gallery model. One is Brooks, who has for years made sculpture adumbrating human encounters with “nature” that typify the Anthropocene. He doesn’t often create things to sell, but his ongoing exchange with scientists and museums—cataloguing “undiscovered” fish on expeditions to the Amazon or taking rock-core samples from Governors Island—is apt in an era of climate change. For Brooks, it’s the durational quality of work at Mildred’s Lane that matters, the way projects are allowed to unfold over months or years, an articulation of a larger sense of humility toward nonhuman life that he and others there see as imperative to any notion of “inclusivity.” Artist Gina Siepel has made projects directly responsive to the pond (itself a ten-year process), a downed ash tree, and the Complex(ity), where she built a bicycle-propelled lathe apparatus. By blurring art, craft and expectations about who lays claim to the often masculine-coded histories of woodworking, the performance opened impromptu conversations with passersby around, in Siepel’s terms, “self-reliance, labor, and gender identity.” According to Siepel and Puett, such hybrid forms exemplify the ways in which the current generation is layering its own meaning onto Mildred’s Lane’s ongoing investigation of feminist, queer, and (increasingly) Indigenous perspectives.

Throughout its twenty-five years, Mildred’s Lane has been largely elided by the art press. By operating perpendicularly to the New York mainstream, it has seeded several generations of high-profile artists without attaining the stability prioritized by coeval institutions. The very provisionality that makes the project vital also leaves it vulnerable—to financial insolvency, to truculent local leaders, to a younger generation that too often confuses being “safe” with being sequestered from the shared ordeals or challenges to the ego that are essential to learning something new. In short, Mildred’s Lane is not a product to be consumed or an “experience” to be Instagrammed. It is a link in a larger countercultural chain that, like the variegated ecosystems of the property, may be critically endangered.

Views of Mildred's Lane, Beach Lake, PA. Foraging workshop with Athena Kokoronis from Claire Pentecost and Brian Holmes’s “Drift Session,” 2011. Photo: Mildred’s Lane.

Persist it must. The shifting currents of politics and academia mean that Mildred’s Lane will need to coevolve beyond the gray area of perpetual social sculpture into something suited to the taxonomy of the time—a foundation or institute, with all the regulation and retrofitting that entails. But, as Helguera reminded me, while this place reminds everyone of some earlier passage in the avant-garde, it is by design singular—not a museum of bygone collectives but an ever-emerging locus where people at different stages of the game can sustain one another. Every artist I talked to shared a sense of reverence for it, a sense that there is no other such redoubt, that Mildred’s Lane is a keystone species of our art world, among the last of its kind. Perhaps more important, what I saw there was a kind of antidote not just to the city but to the predictability, the hype, the literal unsustainability of our corner of human industry. After two wearying years on the planet and, for me, fifteen in the contemporary art world, which frequently had me wondering what the point was, I left Beach Lake with a feeling of urgency but also with a sense of something unfamiliar—belief.

Ian Bourland writes about contemporary culture and is an art historian at Georgetown University.