In attempting to outline the practice(s) of J. Morgan Puett, Mildred’s Lane and the Mildred Complex(ity) to my students this past week, it occurred to me that the hardest part is finding a place to begin. It’s complex. It’s a complex—of people, ideas, unscheduled schedules, non-hierarchical hierarchies, un-habitualized habits, and organic order. The parameters are porous. There are comportment manuals. Not manuals, guides. The order is fluid, in motion, changing underfoot as it is written, rewritten, and overwritten. It is as avant-garde as making and remaking a bed every morning, and as everyday as hosting internationally renowned artists, curators, writers, students, and intellectuals from all walks of life. There is a radical continuity between the place/concept/extended community of Mildred’s Lane and the Mildred’s Complex(ity), and its steward/director/”Ambassador of Entanglement” J. Morgan Puett (BFA 1981, MFA 1984). They are a one-and-the-same-emergent-entangled-entity (of sorts) that puts forward a proposition of how place influences person and person inhabits place. The knots are as dense and layered as Morgan’s installation on view at SAIC: HumanUfactorY(ng) Workstyles: The Motion Journals of Excerpts from the User’s Guide to Mildred’s Lane. A costume drama of the everyday.
Passing through the entrance into the long narrow room that Morgan and Mildred’s Lane are currently occupying in SAIC’s Sullivan Galleries, I am disoriented by a sudden rush of emotion. I have left Chicago and returned to “the Lane,” as it was more colloquially known among the Fellows of my session. Not that the gallery space is a replica or a re-enactment. The room is a conglomeration of enveloping fragments, elements of Morgan’s sensually rich world. The textured smell of mildewed linen, oxidizing steel, and dark-stained oak are overlaid with the tinny noise of recorded birds chirping in an endless loop as Lizzie plays her fiddle in a field of summer goldenrod. On a multitude of monitors and projectors at the north end of the gallery we see: evening is falling over a candlelit dinner scene as the distant sound of laughter drifts up the hillside; mist is rising in the valley behind the barn; Mark Dion is leading a walk in the woods as dry leaves crunch loudly underfoot (perhaps a tour of the north side of the property, the Alchemist Shack and the Hunter’s Blind); the body of a dead hawk is being turned inside out as a group of young artists looks on; an enormous bonfire burns against a pitch-black night sky; a kitchen of overflowing pots and pans is being arranged and rearranged by young women climbing up and down ladders; purple and blue dawn breaks over the blackened row of pine trees ringing a snow-blanketed field; and a series of baroque, yet Vermeer-esque portraits are being shot in the barn by a photographer with state-of-the-art technology. It is all happening—then and there, and here and now. The camera in every shot is present but unnoticed by those living, performing, and shaping life at “the Lane.” The lenses focus with equal distance on the micro and the macro, the poetic and the mundane. I am submerged again in the particulars as the cacophony of “being” at Mildred’s Lane swells on all sides.
For three weeks in 2012 I lived in J. Morgan Puett’s home/residence/pedagogical experiment as a Fellow of the Alchemist’s Shack II session. That late July and early August I became one of the 40 or so itinerant members of Morgan’s extended family—friends, acquaintances, students, staff, strangers, and ex-lovers alike—living and working at Mildred’s Lane and its satellite storefront space in the nearby town of Narrowsburg, New York, just across the Pennsylvania state line. Most guests who come only for the “Social Saturday” events at Mildred’s Lane take a car up the long, rocky dirt drive off Plank Road, through the pine woods to the main house and barn at the bottom of the hill. As Fellows, we walked. Morgan talked, using the perambulatory time as a theatrical director might use a green room to prepare newly arriving actors for their next scene—a scene unlike any other they may have ever enacted. To live at Mildred’s Lane is to enter a highly crafted world, and to maintain that world—to understand what Morgan terms the “ethics of comportment”—a period of orientation is required. It is a privilege and a burden—the frustration and joy of many distinct hands and voices making/creating/composing one unique “organism.”
Although Mildred’s Lane is a world of its own, it is by no means a world unto itself. Having turned over much of her life to investigating a practice of dwelling locally—with an understanding of all the politic this asserts—Morgan and Mildred’s Lane have remained enmeshed in the globalized nature of the present. She is active in the community’s anti-fracking campaign. She has initiated relationships by opening up the Mildred’s Complex(ity) on Main Street in town and bringing her network of artists and curators to work in the storefront space. Every weekend during the summer, New Yorkers—from the art world elite to the art handlers—are invited to attend “Social Saturday” events at Mildred’s Lane. It is not “off the grid,” but rather has brought the grid off the beaten path. Do not confuse the rustic with the nostalgic. Or maybe it’s the other way round? A “simple life” is never so simple. Morgan’s expressed desire is not to retreat, not to re-enact another time or place, but to model an alternative present and potential future. There is no unoccupied moment, and the verbs Morgan uses to describe her life’s project are many: tangling, tying, knotting, snaring, binding, exchanging, discoursing, socializing, assembling, reassembling, stretching, radicalizing, resisting, inventing, acting, reacting, and re-enacting. Public and private lives are enmeshed, becoming as gray as the tarnishing silver particles embedded in the bodice and hoop skirt Morgan has hung out in the middle of her installation for A Proximity of Consciousness: Art and Social Action at Sullivan Galleries.
Surfaces, objects, films, textures, words—all moods produced by the unpredictable weather of the Pennsylvania hillsides of the Mildred’s Lane property. Whenever the darkening storm clouds build in the Hudson Valley, lightning may strike the enormous blacked oak standing alone in the meadow below the main house. In my first week at “the Lane,” Morgan recounts the story. She describes lightning arcing again and again from sky to tree, excitement tensing through her body in the retelling. The oak bears the charred marks and blackened, twisted branches of these repetitive strikes over the years. The railing of the small treehouse that once occupied its branches is in ramshackle condition. Although maybe there never was a treehouse? Only plans for a treehouse? At Mildred’s Lane, what is, what was, and what is proposed to be can seamlessly run together. Although all the seams are exposed, so the simile may not be quite apt. Entanglements exist that make it hard to maintain critical perspective. Utopia is harder in practice than it is in theory. But there’s always a pond to be dug. Even if the ground is too wet this year, there’s always next year. The compost heap needs hooshing, and the whistle pigs are having a field day with the kitchen leftovers. The garden fence needs repairing, as it was mangled by that bear trying to get to the beehives. Morgan’s father came from four generations of beekeepers—queen breeders, no less. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have beehives near the Grafter’s Shack? Maybe there will be hives next year.
Perhaps even more than dwelling, I have come to think of Mildred’s Lane in relation to Tim Ingold’s ideas of “wayfinding.” In his book of essays titled The Perception of the Environment: Essays in livelihood, dwelling and skill (2000), the social anthropologist describes wayfinding as a relationship to time as much as to space: “Just as with musical performance, wayfinding has an essentially temporal character: the path, like the musical melody, unfolds over time rather than across space.” Morgan herself, once an SAIC student in sculpture, film, and video, has moved from fashion industry starlet to mother, life practitioner, ambassador, installation artist, and back again. The roles are never clearly delineated, despite all of the naming. The trajectory is continually redefined and the path can become obfuscated. But a way is being made in spite of—because of—it all.