Essays on Art—The Heightened Sense of Belonging: Madeline Stratton We Were Here

By Hamiltonian Artists on March 16, 2022
Installation view of We Were Here, Hamiltonian Artists, February 12–March 19, 2022. Photo: Vivian Marie Doering.

By Danielle O’Steen, Ph.D.

There is an odd familiarity in the objects that Washington-based artist Madeline Stratton uses in her sculptures and reliefs. Items like a door knocker, a hinge, a bracket, or a screen door all appear as components in the abstract artworks that populate her exhibition at Hamiltonian Artists titled We Were Here. Stratton has given these old objects a new life, covering them with Day Glo colors and shiny, bedazzled surfaces. While her previous work focused on replicating domestic spaces and memories, We Were Here has a looser attachment to history, playfully evoking past moments or places through overlooked, everyday objects. 

Reliquaries, 2020–2022, mixed media on wood, dimensions variable. Photo: Vivian Marie Doering.

We Were Here is a cohesive installation filled with Stratton’s cast of characters. The colorful energy of Stratton’s artworks evokes the sculptural paintings of Elizabeth Murray, or Jessica Stockholder’s absurdist installations of familiar objects. The front wall of Stratton’s show, for instance, is filled with the artist’s Reliquaries on a series of fringed, hanging shelves. In the title, she references the reliquary, or a venerated container for sacred items, by elevating scrap materials from her studio, which fill each ledge. She reclaims and refashions these bits and pieces with electric colors and dynamic patterning. The objects, culled over a period of two years, are souvenirs or artifacts from Stratton’s workspace, gathered together like a village of sculptural creatures.

Xylophone Swags, 2021, acrylic, Flashe, house paint, glitter, tape, plastic, and yarn on wood, 50 × 1 1/4 × 1 1/4 inches each. Photo: Vivian Marie Doering.

Pulling from her background as a painter, Stratton frames many of the sculptures with painted fields of color on the walls or pedestals. One example, Xylophone Swags, is surrounded by a geometric field of peach-colored paint. The artwork consists of banister rails that appear to float up and out into space. Stratton has given these banisters an edge, flipping them over and covering them with purple and pink colors and attaching streamers to the bottom, like the cheerful accessories of a child’s bike. With these embellishments, the banisters become projectiles, as I imagine the streamers mimicking the fire tails of rockets, moving the banisters off the wall. Stratton’s playful arrangments inspire this kind of imaginative wondering. Practically speaking, banisters serve a purpose—they allow people to move from one floor to another. However, in Stratton’s world, they are revitalized and transformed.

Thumper, 2022, acrylic, Flashe, house paint, glitter, rhinestones, and brass door knocker on wood, 14 × 35 inches. Photo: Vivian Marie Doering.

The banisters, as well as the antique door knocker in Thumper, loosely reference the 100-year-old Memphis, Tennesse home in which Stratton grew up. In Thumper, the door knocker has been painted hot pink with sparkles and is framed by a cloud-like platform painted black with blue, geometric shapes and bright spots running along the border. Stratton is not interested in telling a specific story—the references to her childhood home are not essential to one’s experience of the artworks—yet she is interested in calling up memories through familiar architectural elements found in most American homes.

Useless on a Submarine, 2021–2022, thread, fabric, rhinestones, acrylic, and house paint on wood, 74 3/4 × 42 × 2 inches. Photo: Vivian Marie Doering.

In the center of We Were Here, Stratton erects a screen door to bisect the gallery, calling the artwork Useless on a Submarine, referencing the classic joke about a screen door’s pointlessness under the sea. Stratton has embroidered a line perspective drawing into the mesh, creating depth on the surface of the object that hangs from the ceiling to barely rest on the ground. The door becomes a lens through which to see the characters that populate the gallery and emerge from the gallery walls. In Sconces on Sconces, for instance, a large piece of shaped wood, painted electric pink, hinges off the wall and rests its base on a disco-style ottoman. Throughout the show, objects move away from the wall deliberately, as if given new life. Imaginary Boys and Girls is made with a repurposed shutter that has been refreshed with fabric, acrylic, vinyl, and house paint that covers the perimeter with lime green and turquoise spots.

Imaginary Boys and Girls, 2020, fabric, acrylic, vinyl, and house paint on wood, 30 1/4 × 17 1/4 × 6 inches. Photo: Vivian Marie Doering.

In We Were Here, Stratton reimagines architectural forms, while focusing on bringing out the finer details—a carefully painted hinge, a bedazzled edge, or a glittered surface. A shimmering seat cover or a pop of fluorescent pink fringe hanging down from a chair offers a reminder of what we overlook in the shape and form of everyday things. Stratton presents objects that are now free from service, floating through space, bespeckled and brightened, and given new life as bearers of memory rather than utility.

Madeline A. Stratton We Were Here is on view Tuesday–Saturday from 11–6pm at Hamiltonian Artists located at 1353 U Street NW, Suite 101, Washington DC, 20009.

Danielle O’Steen, Ph.D. is an art historian and former curator at the Kreeger Museum of Art.

About Essays on Art
East City Art and Hamiltonian Artists have partnered to present Essays on Art, an online publication series dedicated to promoting critical writing on visual art in the area. Each commissioned essay will be penned by a different author and focus on the work of Hamiltonian Fellows. Essays on Art serves as a public record to document the dynamic arts scene and to support writers with paid assignments. Read more here