Holding on to the dear: Jade Mara Novarino and Alix Jo Ryan

Novarino and Ryan's "Winnowing" exhibition at Well Well Projects delves into attention, care, and correspondence.

Jade Mara Novarino and Alix Jo Ryan, image courtesy Well Well Projects / Mario Gallucci

The winnowing process is ancient. Early Egyptians depicted this method of separating grain from chaff, as did the Ojibwe. Winnowing baskets can be found in museums, but are still used today in farming communities worldwide. The process of separating and discarding feels distinctly human and natural, and indeed, our instinct is to winnow. We buy books on minimalism and fantasize about modest living. Forbes recommends “winnowing” our lives in response to information overload. COVID-19 complexifies this idea. What does it mean to simplify, to break down, amid isolation and ambiguity and doubt?

In Jade Mara Novarino and Alix Jo Ryan’s exhibition Winnowing at Well Well Projects, the word exemplifies a new kind of abundance. In essence, winnowing for Novarino and Ryan is to get at the heart of the thing, to uncover its usefulness. Novarino and Ryan aren’t practicing Marie Kondo-esque reduction, but rather noticing and sharing experience. Their exhibition casts a subtle, much-needed glow on the simple power of friendship, letters, natural environments, and home. 

On the Table, Jade Mara Novarino and Alix Jo Ryan, image courtesy Well Well Projects / Mario Gallucci

One of Winnowing’s main focuses is Novarino and Ryan’s written correspondence—and there’s a lot of it. Stacks and stacks of letters tied with twine cover a long wooden table centered in the gallery space. The table installation also includes various seeds and beans, sunflowers, eggs arranged in cartons, cast garden ephemera, paper moths, clothing, and real parsnips. Blue paper birds holding delicate taper candles float overhead. Each small artifact feels purposefully arranged, and while circling the table, I reflect on how Novarino and Ryan’s variation on winnowing resembles curating—it’s a process of picking and choosing. The table installation feels like a form of tactile, three-dimensional collage; the artists have selected words, ideas, forms, shapes, and textures that layer and intermingle to collectively speak on the exhibition’s themes. 

On the Table, Jade Mara Novarino and Alix Jo Ryan, image courtesy Well Well Projects / Mario Gallucci

The objects Novarino and Ryan share in this installation emphasize their connection to their own homes and garden spaces, and their prolific practice of sharing ephemera with each other. Ryan’s cast garden objects are a sweet act of preservation that drives home the show’s devotion to the natural world. Novarino and Ryan’s choice to include withering parsnips and dead flora brings to mind Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which is near-reverential in its depictions of nature, but also emphasizes its temporality and casual cruelty. While this installation does not feel cruel, it does highlight the beauty inherent to seasonal processes of growth and decay.

April 2nd, Jade Mara Novarino and Alix Jo Ryan, image courtesy Well Well Projects / Mario Gallucci

Framed collage works line the gallery walls. Text from the artists’ exchanged letters is layered, flipped, cut, and skewed—I get the impression of a personal nature to Novarino and Ryan’s letters, something hidden from my vantage point as an outside observer. While the table installation feels like an indoor garden, a space of fecundity and death and celebration, Novarino and Ryan’s two-dimensional collage works are more interior gardens. They are quiet, heartfelt. Complete access is walled off. The compositions of these collages feel serendipitous, as if letters and other paper ephemera fluttered onto the floor and landed in perfect arrangement. Key phrases stand out in Novarino’s signature calligraphy: “Trying to figure out how to say plenty;” “a muddy pitchfork;” “the sherbert sky wedged under a heavy cloud.”

Trying to Figure Out How to Say Plenty, Jade Mara Novarino and Alix Jo Ryan, image courtesy Well Well Projects / Mario Gallucci

Although their exhibition’s title would suggest otherwise, Novarino and Ryan are not afraid of accumulation and excess. Winnowing actually emphasizes their interest in piling, stacking, arranging, and collaging; the artists stitch and layer images, words, and objects to create new meanings. They also highlight smaller details by working large. For instance, two walls of the gallery are covered in large-scale photographs of Novarino and Ryan’s grandmothers’ hands, printed on pieces of rice paper and stitched together in a quilt-like grid. 

Old Beds, Alix Jo Ryan, image courtesy Well Well Projects / Mario Gallucci

Tucked in the back of the gallery, Ryan’s Old Beds is a massive abstracted landscape painting that seems to synthesize the scenery as a clouded, dense metaphor for emotional realms. Her use of color feels a bit mystical, too, like a Les Nabis painting. By enlarging smaller details, like hands, and interpreting the landscape in curved forms and dreamlike color, Novarino and Ryan experiment with new ways of noticing.

But what does this noticing signify in a time of increased houselessness, climate crisis, death? There is a forced winnowing happening in our world—unprecedented loss, but also an opportunity to get at the root of things, to uncover new ways of being and seeing. I don’t think Winnowing provides all of the answers, nor was that the exhibition’s goal; it simply creates space for Novarino and Ryan to share their ways of being and seeing. Written correspondence can be sustainable in our time of isolation. Nature can be a sidewalk. Home can be an idea or a memory. Winnowing asks: what’s most important to your immediate growing, your living, your surroundings? How can you grow by looking more closely at what you have, and how can you share that with another person?

Reflecting on these questions, I’m reminded of a fictional story that the psychologist and Buddhist educator Tara Brach often tells of a violinist whose string breaks mid-performance. He goes on to complete his concerto using only three strings of his violin. At the conclusion of his performance, he stands and says to the audience: “Sometimes, it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.” 

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Winnowing was on view at Well Well Projects from February 7-28, 2021.

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