Erika Wanenmacher shows us where the wild things are

Marin Sardy
No two people are exactly alike—especially when constructed from assorted arroyo glass.
Let me begin with the words of one contemporary philosopher: “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

As insightful as Donald Rumsfeld’s statement is, however, I bring it up to point out what he’s missing because it describes precisely the realm in which Erika Wanenmacher builds her masterful sculptures. She works with and among the unknown knowns. That is to say, things we don’t yet know we know.

Otherwise known as the Ditch Witch, Wanenmacher has spent the past couple of years building sculptures from objects she finds on her daily walks along Acequia Madre. For where have you been (come to your senses), she used found bits of bottle glass to construct four wall-mounted human figures that recall the four elements: the green “Mandrake/Mullen Person,” named after an aphrodisiac herb; the palest pink tinged “Air Person”; the red/brown/orange “Sunburst Person”; and the blue “Ditch Goddess.” In all of these, she seems to have found the forms by following the contours of the glass. Eyes made of old marbles and mouths formed from bottle lip fragments keep the figures familiar, even humorous, while the odd twists and tweaks of their bodies challenge the viewer to be open to unpredictability, even when it’s baffling.

Whether through juxtaposition, form or detailing, Wanenmacher keeps her content ambiguous and exploratory. Working in an ever-expanding range of media, from silk to solder to sound installation, she combines meticulous craftsmanship with an uncompromising individuality. You never know what she’ll come up with next but, when you see it, you know she’s the only person who could have done it.

At the center of the floor, for instance, stands a pair of legs made of white fabric around a lightweight wood frame. Perfectly shaped, the legs rise up to a pair of hands resting at their sides, and grow into the softly fused petals of a flower. “Datura Person” is a sort of reverse mermaid, a being grounded in the earth but growing into another world, joined there by two large white moths that hang from the ceiling in folkish simplicity and with large, glinting cellophane eyes. (The moths turn out to be the least interesting part of the show, actually, although they’re attention-grabbers. They’re too straightforward to keep tugging at you the way the rest of the pieces do.)

Wanenmacher is committed to the unexpected truths that tend to escape our notice in daily life. Instead of tweaking the unwieldy world to better fit into our civilized cognitive boxes, Wanenmacher seems to hone in on the places where the world doesn’t match our conceptions of it, and to exaggerate them in the gentlest, kindest possible way. Her work, for all its beauty, resists synthesis into our known knowns and even our known unknowns. In doing so, it also resists the synthetic quality of a comprehended world. The result is an exploration of a magical wilderness as epic as Herman Melville’s oceans but as approachable as a nursery rhyme.

The show’s two works on paper focus this idea most sharply, with delicately painted snakes that float in the sky far above digital-print views of clouds and suburbia. These works’ titles, combined to form the title of the whole show, suggest that all we need to do to discover more unknown knowns is pay attention to what our senses tell us. So there seems something childlike about the work, a quality that paradoxically makes it all the more sophisticated. All of childhood is a wilderness—a wilderness of the senses—but unlike the plastic wilderness of the Magic Kingdom, Wanenmacher’s is not an existential desert. It’s a garden.

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