Don’t rush to see Chele Isaac’s new show at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.
Take your time.
“Chele Isaac: the understory,” a multi-channel video installation that runs in a 20-minute loop, deserves your quiet and full attention. “the understory” is as much a performance as an exhibition: Enter the bizarre, ring-shaped structure in the museum’s State Street Gallery and stand inside it as seven simultaneous projections surround you. The images in motion, most of them from nature and all created and deftly arranged by Madison artist Isaac, are accompanied by a soundtrack from her longtime friend and collaborator Jack Kellogg.
“the understory” sometimes feels like a kaleidoscope, its circular forms ever-transforming. The result can be transportive.
MMOCA calls this an “immersive environment,” created through Isaac’s combination of “multi-channel video projection, sound and sculpture.” They’re tools that Isaac uses often, although “the understory” is a new venture in many ways.
“It was a very intuitive process,” said Isaac, who will give an artist’s talk on her work at 6:30 p.m. Friday in the MMOCA lecture hall.
“I had to come back to really wanting the piece to tell me what it wants to be. And that’s very much how I’ve shifted my own idea of looking at nature: It’s (now), ‘What does nature want from me?,’ not ‘How do I see it?’”
Humanity tends to “forget” it’s in the midst of nature, she said.
“This is nature, right? Because we’re observing it, or preserving it, or utilizing its resources. And we do all these things to nature. And nature keeps going,” she said.
“There are changes that we’re causing — all science points to that. It saddens me, but at the same time there’s this kind of sense of weird, strange calm. And I hope this film has a sort of strange calm to it.”
Isaac — who lives in a former Downtown Madison church with her husband of 20 years, venture capitalist John Neis, and two border collies — always had dwelled in cities until she and Neis built a house in the country about five years ago.
“And that has really impacted me,” she said of spending time on their land near Blue Mounds State Park. “How I see just about everything. It’s a big open space on a ridge. I just started seeing smaller and smaller things. Just things I wouldn’t notice without that kind of quiet and solitude.”
“the understory” was created by Isaac from hundreds of hours of incidental video footage. Some came from wintry days near her country house, examining the texture of fine snow blowing in a frigid wind. Others came from chance moments — like the treetops she filmed while taking a chainsaw safety course in the woods. Or the rabbit that let her approach and film it as it crouched in the grass.
“I just started looking at this video (footage) I had made over years, and hadn’t done anything with,” said Isaac, whose cameras range from an iPhone to a Canon 5D Mark II and a GoPro on a drone.
“I was really perplexed by it, because it all seemed to be between things — what in the film industry is called the B-roll, the little bits that stick the actual story together.
“Then I became interested that these are interstitial bits,” she said. For example, “I have hours of video of cobwebs on grass.”
From the beginning Isaac knew her work for MMOCA would consist of some type of video projected inside a massive cyclorama — a cylindrical structure 12 feet high and 29 feet in diameter that will fill most of the museum’s State Street gallery through Nov. 12.
Isaac got the 360-degree screen from staff at Milwaukee’s Discovery World museum, who’d used it in a prior exhibit and then offered it free online to anyone who would take it.
Isaac and some friends picked it up in Milwaukee in a rental truck, then reassembled it in the nearly empty sanctuary of her renovated-church home. The sanctuary space is so large, with ceilings so high, that the Madison aerial dance troupe Cycropia sometimes practices there. The vast room has been used for political fundraisers, music performances, an MFA art exhibition and even wedding parties.
“We feel like we need to share that space,” said Isaac, who with her husband has converted the rest of the three-story building to living space, an art studio and a rooftop deck.
Isaac (whose first name is pronounced “shell”) grew up in western Pennsylvania and the Quad Cities. She earned an undergraduate degree in painting at the University of Illinois, and after meeting Neis and moving to Wisconsin, an MFA from UW-Madison, where she’s also been an adjunct professor teaching digital arts. Her work has been featured three times in MMOCA’s prestigious Triennial exhibition of work by Wisconsin artists.
While studying painting, “I think I always had this underlying frustration, because it didn’t move fast enough,” she said. “the understory” “really feels like a return to painting for me. At some point I realized, ‘Oh, this is what I wanted from a painting. Like the way images change in a dream.’”
Visitors to “the understory” should plan to spend a full 20 minutes inside to experience the full loop. It can feel awkward to stand in the center of the cyclorama as other museum visitors peek in for a look; a few swivel stools placed in the center might have invited passersby to linger and spend more time absorbing the work.
But Isaac made the conscious decision to make viewers stand at the cyclorama’s center and turn around if they want to see the film’s full impact.
“I like the idea of literally having to shift your perspective to watch this — to be active with it,” she said.
While working on “the understory,” Isaac picked up a copy of “Leaves of Grass,” the seminal 19th-century collection of poems by Walt Whitman. Though she’d cracked open the volume before, she’d never delved into it as she did after the presidential election in November.
“After Trump got elected, I was looking for some kind of hope,” she said. “And in that book, there’s a whole introduction about America. It’s really positive. It would be a really good thing for anyone to read right now, no matter what side you’re on, or what ideological beliefs you have.”
Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself,” in particular, inspired her — and some of the images in “the understory.”
“What I loved about this poem is that it just keeps coming at you and it keeps re-forming itself. It changes, but it doesn’t change inherently,” she said. “I thought this is what this film should do.”