At MacDowell: Tanya Marcuse will discuss setting scenes

  • Tanya Marcuse works on setting a scene. —COURTESY PHOTO

For the Ledger-Transcript
Published: 5/30/2023 11:26:55 AM
Modified: 5/30/2023 11:26:29 AM

Tanya Marcuse, who makes large photographs of incredibly detailed and fantastical scenes, will talk about the lengths she goes to to construct setups for her art during the next installment of MacDowell Downtown Friday, June 2, at the Monadnock Center for History and Culture, 19 Grove St. in Peterborough.

Marcuse, at MacDowell for her second residency, will take a break from her MacDowell studio to speak about her newest project, “Book of Miracles.” She’ll show images and explain her elaborate process. Doors open at 7 p.m., with Marcuse presenting at 7:30.

“The title, ‘Book of Miracles,’ references the 16t- century manuscript by the same name that inspired my project. The Augsburg ‘Book of Miracles’ is a compendium of biblical, astronomical and apocalyptic miracles,” says Marcuse.

Borrowing the title made sense to the artist because her project is “very much born of catastrophe. I’ve been working intensely and feverishly for three years on this. It’s about beauty and terror.”

Marcuse is an artist-in-residence at Bard College, and her photographs are in many collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the George Eastman Museum, and she’s a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. She began “Book of Miracles” during the lockdown at the beginning of the pandemic.

She describes her approach as being in conversation with the original manuscript.

“The project aims to visualize phenomena that defy the laws of nature, using fire, paint, and the staging of fantastical scenes,” she says. “Photography often walks a thin line between fact and fiction, or dwells in a realm where the two cannot be distinguished; my work takes part in this pendulum swing between belief and doubt.”

To do this, Marcuse may scout a location where she knows the next full moon will rise against the horizon and hike to it a few hours before dark carrying her camera gear as well as a large bag of materials such as mushrooms, mosses, wildflowers and deer antlers. She’ll then spend hours setting the stage to shoot the rising moon in the distance with her carefully staged tableau in the foreground. The results are mesmerizing, colorful and remarkably detailed.

The work requires intense focus as well as the physical strength to carry gear around forests and swamps. Both are aspects of the photographer’s process that are aided by her study of tang soo do, a Korean martial art.

“It is a method for me to cultivate extreme focus that helps in my work,” says Marcuse. “It also helps me physically, when I’m hiking a couple miles with all my equipment, and maybe working long hours into the night.”

“Book of Miracles” consists of three parts done at different scales and employing distinct methods. The first part, “Kingdom,”  consists of 5- by 10-foot works composed on a wooden frame using found flora and fauna, augmented by paint, glitter and sometimes by fire.  The photographs in the second part, “Portent,” are 32 inches by 40 inches and consist of fantastical scenes staged in swamps, rivers and orchards. The third part, “Emblem” are 7- by 9-inch symbolic works.

“I’m working on this third part here at MacDowell,” says Marcuse.

The large works can take weeks, even months, to compose, weaving together materials Marcuse has collected from the natural world. She’ll sometimes use gold paint, pigments or even richly hued spices to add counterpoint to other materials. When it’s finished, Marcuse photographs the tableaux. The artist hopes that the slowness and labor in her work gives viewers an immersive experience that invites slow looking and conveys her sense of wonder, as well as painful concern, for the natural world. 

We hope you’ll join us for a fascinating look into Tanya Marcuse’s process of creating vivid, thought-provoking photographs both immense and small. Please let your friends know, and join us Friday, June 2, at 7:30 p.m. at the Monadnock Center for History and Culture for another unique presentation of MacDowell Downtown.

Jonathan Gourlay is senior manager for external communications at MacDowell.


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