“Rowing Between the Lines: Nancy Diessner’s Liminal Spaces” by Lauren Szumita. Exhibition Catalog Essay 2019 (copied below)

“A State of Mind; Printmakers Tackle the Issues,” by Linda Chestney. Artscope magazine, Nov. / Dec. 2016

Different Kind: Nancy Diessner,” by J. Fatima Martins. Artscope magazine, Nov. / Dec. 2012

Art for the Love of Dogs,” by Chris Bergerson, Metrowest Daily News, April 4, 2011

Shelter in Place by Nancy Diessner,Dog Art Today, April 5, 2011

“Photos Figure into Body of Work,” by Mary Sherman, Boston Sunday Herald, June 17, 2001

Poetic Connection, An Interview with Nancy Diessner, by Ben Dennison, So Good, September 23, 2009

Rowing Between the Lines: Nancy Diessner’s Liminal Spaces

By Lauren Szumita

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”
- Norman Maclean

For Nancy Diessner, mornings spent rowing on the Charles River energize her artistic practice, allowing for an exploration of the spaces between the body, mind, and surrounding environment. Rowing is a transcendent experience in its physicality. It requires continuous physical exertion and complete bodily synchrony. Eventually, fatigue sets in and the brain pleads for respite, but the very nature of sport requires the athlete to ignore any reasonable thoughts of stopping. The brain is thus absolved of its duty of rational thinking and surrenders to a subliminal exploration of the very state of being. Drawing upon her newfound appreciation of sculling, Diessner explores the physical and spiritual transcendence of self in her works in All I want is to be the river though I return again and again to the clouds.

Diessner’s sculptural collages enable a powerful examination of individual existence as it remains poised between reality and the unknown. Her works rely on a combination of media to fully describe her exploration of these tenuous states. Strips of mahogany, spare remnants from her own restored boat, are contoured into narrow angles that emulate the silhouette of a rowing shell. Diessner collages photography-based prints into this structural framework, which activate the space they occupy. The content of the images combines human and natural forms that harken back to the river. The exposed innards of a wooden shell are documentary remains of her boat-restoration project, while grassy tendrils snake their way across the printed page. Moss, trees, and bodies of water are peppered throughout the collages, while images of the human body punctuate the natural and architectural elements. These subjects are her fellow rowers, often in poses derived from rowing’s technical motions.

Diessner’s process involves a heavy manipulation of her photographs, beginning with digital alterations to the original image. She continues to adjust the images after the production of the plate, an extension of her etching background. The results of this handling are images that express distortion, complexity, and obfuscation. One of her works contains a photographic detail that is generated from strands of DNA, stripped of its recognizable double-helix form. “It’s important that it’s DNA,” Diessner explains. “These [works] are about life forces.” The nearly abstract images, simultaneously recognizable and unfamiliar, give tangibility to her experience without creating a clear narrative.

Art and sport are frequently considered in mutually exclusive settings. Spanning more than four centuries of art, a 1913 compilation of sporting iconography acknowledges these differences: “As a rule the keen sportsman concerns himself little with art, and the artist generally lacks experience as well as the opportunity to depict correctly the incidents of sport…”[1] While the psychological and physiological causes of this incongruity might prove to be a fertile research opportunity, it seems that art finds its muse in interpersonal or social topics: identity, love, or war. Yet, as the text continues, “…happily every century produced a few exceptions to this rule, and equally happily, great sportsmen occasionally patronised art, while good artists devoted themselves to sport.” Effortlessly combining her rowing experience and artistic practice, Diessner explores the physical experience of rowing as a metaphor for life.

At the core of her work, Diessner is attempting to reach and replicate a very specific space: a transitional area between sky and water, between the internal activities of the body and external phenomena of nature, between what can be known, and what can’t. And while the river runs through it, it remains an untraversed place for Diessner’s works to inhabit and explore.

[1] Baillie-Grohman, William A. Sport in Art: An Iconography of Sport. (London: Ballantyne and Co Ltd, 1913): viii.

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