HPAC’s path to weirdness paved with pine needles

Things are getting a little weirder at the Hyde Park Art Center (HPAC).

By Elizabeth Goetz

Things are getting a little weirder at the Hyde Park Art Center (HPAC). A valuable resource for its willingness to present local, unusual, and often bizarre contemporary art, HPAC normally helps propel its exhibits toward success by giving context to the works at hand.

Sometimes context comes from having a large number of works in a given exhibit, like the current group show, Not Just Another Pretty Face. Other times it comes from the descriptive notes HPAC is so fond of providing, like in Omar Vera’s current exhibit, Cold Eels and Distant Thoughts. Utterly lacking in context, however, is Stan Shellabarger’s newly opened installation in HPAC’s Foyer Project Space, which is covered in Wisconsin red pine needles for the event.

Or rather, the space being adorned with pine needles is the event. Pine needles cascade down seams in the white panels composing the back wall of the otherwise unremarkable foyer. They line the wall’s perimeter and border the two sedate white light-switch plates with particular density. The floor of the foyer is neon lime green, much more lively than the unilluminated wall of dead pine needles. A closer, longer look reveals that some needles have in fact fallen or broken off and now litter the right angle between the wall and that neon green floor.

Another interior upstairs is subjected to Shellabarger’s treatment, though this variation has been blessed with electric lighting. But because there are no signs pointing the way, viewers are likely only to encounter the upstairs portion of the installation by chance. Unfortunately, there are no pine needles scattered like breadcrumbs over the stairwell between these two islands of Shellabarger’s work.

The lack of guidance encouraging viewers to venture upstairs is liable to harm their perception of the installation: As if in celebration of the improved lighting, the pine needles appear in more intriguing arrangements there. We see them cover the east-facing wall in a large spiral reminiscent of crop circles, and we see them spread across multiple surfaces, including the inner rectangle of an indoor doorway and an empty window. It’s sort of like a perverted fairy tale—you’re stuck, and you can’t go anywhere because the doors and windows that normally provide escape routes have been blanketed in bristling, dead needles. Nature has turned cruel.

Perhaps viewers should be forewarned that they will be kept in the dark about Shellabarger’s motives. His exhibit lacks those handy little plaques listing the artist’s name and the media he used. The lay viewer is given no textual description or title of the artwork, which is further made inaccessible by the fact that the overhead lights in the entryway to HPAC, while aimed at the needle-­laden wall, were entirely switched off. To the average viewer, Shellabarger’s influences and inspiration are fairly impenetrable.

It seems that we glean insight about space only to the extent that the HPAC foyer seems less welcoming than usual, with these prickly needles protruding from its staunch walls in this unusually unlit entryway. The unwelcoming feeling is also given off by HPAC’s failure to introduce the installation to its patrons, making it feel cold and inaccessible. On the exhibit’s opening day, there was nary a sign nor plaque describing or designating the exhibit, and the only employee on hand at the Art Center had no information about it besides Shellabarger’s name.

A press release describes Shellabarger’s medium as “Wisconsin red pine needles,” but the lay viewer has no means of ascertaining whether the pine needles are real. Because this is art, we are used to being confronted primarily with imitations of the real. If we accept this premise, this installation becomes the real masquerading as the artificial, or at least as the mysterious.

And if, or because, the needles are real, we’re led to wonder what will happen when they decay. Has Shellabarger somehow shellacked the pine needles to preserve them through the exhibit’s projected end date in April? Or is the wall no artificial life support, and will these already brown needles turn brittle and fall out as they age? But maybe you don’t have to stick around to find out. Enter HPAC through Istria Café at the southern entrance; the crooning tones of Pandora will feel far more accessible than the bland mysteries of Shellabarger.