Shana Robbins works in a small studio to the back of her Telephone Factory loft. The kitchen, the living room, and all the other rooms are neatly organized and clean, but her studio is, well, a mess. A huge window splashes light around the room and onto broken tree branches covered in shards of mirror; a mannequin dressed in a hand-stitched body suit of discolored doilies; piles of feathers; stacks of National Geographic; and plenty of things you might reasonably call junk. In the corner, a massive cut of amethyst anchors the center of what looks like a crystal altar. When Robbins, dressed in a black woven poncho dress, explains it normally doesn't look like this, it's hard to believe her.
In part, that's because Robbins makes messes so well. Each pile and stack is somehow fascinating. Even the shards of mirror covering the tree branches seem to have been carefully broken.
It's also hard to believe her because she's been working for the past year on the biggest exhibition of her career. Supernatural Conductor is the first exhibit to be shown at the Contemporary since its main gallery expansion. After looking at her work, it's obvious Robbins will need the space.
The show's centerpiece, the "Supernatural Conductor" itself, is a hand-stitched web of salvaged doilies that stretches nearly 20 feet across. That web, Robbins says, will be shaped into a "transformational shelter, where once you go inside you're changed. At the least, it transforms me into my characters."
Robbins' characters include "Tree Ghost," for which she dons a spectral-looking suit that sprouts branches like antlers from her head and covers her face and shoulders with a patchwork of doilies vaguely resembling a burka. "This is Me. Be Careful." wears a dress seemingly made from many dresses torn apart and reassembled, sewn together with pieces of bark, insects and beads. These characters appear in Robbins' paintings and drawings as well, though they don't necessarily start as one or the other.
"I tend to work in layers — I start from an internal place. Like with a spark of inspiration, I have to let it unwind. I can't just make a plan and go do a piece," she says. In talking about her process, Robbins is likewise prone to tangents. She explains where objects come from and how they accumulated into a work: A white doily woven into the center of a giant dream catcher, she says, is a gift from her grandmother. The conversation touches on art works she admires, such as Nick Cave's soundsuits and Leigh Bowery's costumes, and moves onto mythologies and spiritual practice.
While stitching the seemingly endless web of doilies for the "Supernatural Conductor," Robbins says she often thought of how "the spider woman is the galactic creator of Native American spiritual practice. She basically weaves the world from the galactic center. She connects everything and keeps it in balance."
"I was thinking a lot about how the world seems to be unraveling," she says. "But I think of my work as hopeful. I've been gluing mirrors to this dead tree for months. I'm trying to kind of revive this thing. When I'm sewing, I'm trying to revive, too. While things are unraveling, I'm trying to sew things back together at the same time and hopefully it's not unraveling quicker — do you know what I mean?"