This essay was written in conjunction with Athena LaTocha: Curated by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, on view at CUE November 7 - December 19, 2015.
“This is where I come from. This is where my family’s from. This is part of my history. But living in New York, and living in general, you are surrounded by so many other things. I am aware of [growing up in Alaska] and conscious of it from a more social justice perspective. When you’re looking at the greater situation that humanity itself is in [I ask]: What are we doing as a human race? What are we doing to the planet? What are we doing to each other? How do we find our way through?”
Athena LaTocha speaks about growing up in Alaska and her relationships with the land, the people and her family. While many artists may downplay their beginnings, it became clear this was an important primer for the language LaTocha would come to use in her creative process.
As new Alaskans, LaTocha’s father bought a plot of land, cleared it and built their family house on it. They spent much of their time exploring the wilderness around them. While this is the artist’s home, her familial roots stem from the Standing Rock Sioux and Ojibwe tribes, as well as from her Polish-Austrian family in rural Michigan. Growing up, she was a young woman who was Alaskan, but not Native Alaskan, and white, but not fully white. She witnessed mistreatment of the Native Alaskan population including what she would come to know as the “history of shaming.” She was acutely aware of and sensitive to these types of incidences and would later realize how they reflected “the psychology of colonization and the post-colonial destructive legacy issues.” LaTocha’s relationship with her “home” led to a lot of internal conflict, or psychological “churning” as she describes it. Returning to nature in her time of need helped ease those moments, or at least gave her hope of an answer.
When LaTocha left Alaska, it became apparent that the internal “churning” and awareness of inequity she observed as a youth was only a microcosm of the larger human condition. She began asking herself questions: “How do we find our way through that? How do we work through the various experiences we have?” When she found herself needing to return to nature, she discovered a pathway through her artwork. “I go back to nature a lot. I go back to the feelings of being in those spaces,” explains LaTocha. Feelings that encompass restlessness, tumult and the struggle to find more.
LaTocha did not shy away from the visceral feelings brought on by these larger quandaries of societal and cultural issues. Researching the work of painter Francis Bacon during her undergraduate studies confirmed her instinct of rethinking her approach to artmaking. Bacon’s work echoed the “psychological churning, the layering and obfuscation” that she felt. A 1963 Guggenheim exhibition catalogue describes how Bacon’s “painting, including conspicuous signs of improvisation, become images of the movements of his figures or of their suffering.” While the formal attributes of Bacon’s work differ from LaTocha's, both depict an internalized struggle dealing with and questioning the human condition. Bacon reinterpreted painting in order to meet his needs. Fourteen years ago, LaTocha began getting frustrated with the process of painting and working on an easel and decided to challenge the experiences she felt she was supposed to have with her work. In order to gauge her progression more thoroughly she began painting exclusively on the floor, or aerially, a process that has grown to be critical to her practice and methodology.
In the following years, LaTocha began to explore new ways of approaching her artistic process. She transitioned from oil painting to drawing, which led to working with ink. She began using rice paper with the ink but it was not giving her the surface she needed to flush out ideas or sustain the physicality her work was calling for. As her process started to involve more of the actual pushing and moving of the media, the delicate nature of the rice paper could not handle a more sustained force. In the September 2010 issue of Art in America, she read about Roland Flexner, a French artist who was using sumi ink on paper at the time. While LaTocha speaks to the material connection of her work to Flexner’s, it is easy to see the ethereal, yet dark and determined qualities, that both artists’ work possesses. Flexner’s interview speaks directly about his bubble ink drawings; “It is an event, in the full sense of the word…the fleeting moment is in the eye of the viewer.” His thoughts could effortlessly describe LaTocha’s work as well. Soon after, LaTocha began experimenting with sumi ink on photographic paper, a process that became the foundation of her current body of work.
For her exhibition at Cue Art Foundation, LaTocha continues to explore the process she developed with sumi ink and photographic paper, pushing new color and hues into the piece using walnut ink. The introduction of the walnut ink adds an atmosphere of lightness and warmth to the work, without shifting the tension LaTocha creates between the familiar and abstract. The references to landscape in this large drawing are not new, but a reexamination used in previous pieces. Possible horizon lines, valleys and trees emerge and fade. LaTocha has been revisiting landscape iconography for roughly eleven years and finds value in the serial, or repetitive, nature of her process because it allows her to access the image from multiple perspectives.
It is important to note LaTocha’s tools in creating artwork are not ordinary for painting and drawing, but include unusual objects that she gathers from her surroundings such as rocks, sticks and old car tires. She is interested in “finding other ways to work the material, in a way that isn’t so predictable.” The use of unexpected objects forces a physicality that is unanticipated, considering ink is the primary medium. The desire to combine such solid and rough tools with a fluid and elegant medium create many narrative possibilities. Is this a metaphor for LaTocha’s internal turmoil, or is this a reference to her Alaskan roots? Or, are her tools a literal touchstone to her remaining connections with the nature of her Alaskan origins? After visiting a Jack Whitten exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, things became clearer for LaTocha. In the exhibition she was drawn to how the artist was removing himself, removing his hand and considering the material. He focused on the manipulation of the material and how his movements determined the outcome. He was, as she put it, “creating an environment for the unexpected.”
The exhibition at Cue features a vast wall installation that is much larger than LaTocha’s usual work, roughly 11 feet high by 37 feet long. It is an ink wash drawing responding to the contours of the gallery and the intimacy of the space. With the enlarged proportions of the installation, the depth and space she creates in her work is heightened, offering more elegant, yet aggressive, movement. The continuous landscape stretches around the viewer as it extends and recedes through space, withholding a solid translation of itself preventing the viewer from seeing the forest for the trees, thus giving a glimpse into LaTocha’s understanding of the continual conversation between an artist and her surroundings, whether in the present or remembered:
“It’s kind of like walking blindly, or walking with limited vision. There’s a sense of hope or faith to find your way through it…working to trust that intuitive response and letting yourself get caught up in the material and the process itself.”
 All quotes attributed to the artist are from a conversation with the writer on September 4, 2015.
 Alloway, Lawrence and Messer, Thomas, Francis Bacon, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York, 1963, p. 13
 Flexner, Roland, “In the Studio: Roland Flexner with Faye Hirsch,” Art in America, September 2010, p. 83.
(Young Art Critic writer) Anna Tsouhlarakis (Navajo/Creek/Greek) was born in Lawrence, Kansas. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Dartmouth College in Native American Studies and Studio Art and received her Masters of Fine Arts degree from Yale University. She has participated in various art residencies including Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and Yaddo. She has been part of exhibitions at Rush Arts in New York, Dreamspace Gallery in London, the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. In 2011, she received the Eiteljorg Fellowship for Native American Fine Art and is a current recipient of the Native Arts & Cultures Foundation Artist Fellowship. Her work consists of various media including sculpture, installation, video and performance art. She is currently living in Washington, DC with her partner and 3 children.
(Young Art Critic mentor) Sara Reisman is the Artistic Director of the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, whose mission is focused on art and social justice in New York City. Recently curated exhibitions for the foundation include Mobility and Its Discontents, Between History and the Body, and When Artists Speak Truth, all three presented on The 8th Floor. From 2008 until 2014, Reisman was the director of New York City’s Percent for Art program where she managed more than 100 permanent public art commissions for city funded architectural projects, including artworks by Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Mary Mattingly, Tattfoo Tan, and Ohad Meromi, among others for civic sites like libraries, public schools, correctional facilities, streetscapes and parks. She was the 2011 critic-in-residence at Art Omi, and a 2013 Marica Vilcek Curatorial Fellow, awarded by the Foundation for a Civil Society.
This essay was written as part of the Young Art Critics Mentoring Program, a partnership between AICA-USA (US section of International Association of Art Critics) and CUE, which appoints established art critics to serve as mentors for emerging writers. In 2014, CUE joined forces with Art21, combining the Young Art Critic program with the Art21 Magazine Writer-in-Residence initiative. Each writer composes a long-form critical essay on one of CUE’s exhibiting artists for publication in CUE’s exhibition catalogue, which is also published by Art21 in its online magazine. Please visit aicausa.org for more information on AICA-USA, or cueartfoundation.org to learn how to participate in this program. Any quotes are from interviews with the author unless otherwise specified. No part of this essay may be reproduced without prior consent from the author. Lilly Wei is AICA’s Coordinator for the program this season. For additional arts-related writing, please visit on-verge.org.