In 2014, Aubrey Roemer was canvassing the streets of Montauk, soliciting interesting faces to capture in blue paint for her community project, “Leviathan.”
Fast-forward four years and the textile artist is no longer asking. She is taking what she can find, picking up her subjects from the streets and the beach.
This time, her portraits are of garbage, printed onto recycled fabric as rich blue cyanotypes — the building blocks of the mural, “Blue It!” opening Friday, November 16, at Guild Hall in East Hampton, as her first major institutional exhibition on the East End.
“It’s pretty gross,” Roemer said of her trash collection with an exhausted laugh last Thursday afternoon, in between her MFA classes at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. “But it’s interesting to think of them as relics of the human imprint, too.”
Hatched during her cycling commute from Green Point to Pratt, the idea for her large-scale mural was born from the sheer amount of trash on the city streets — “I’ve just been walking around like a bag lady picking up the trash,” she said — and, last month, Main Beach in East Hampton.
In collaboration with Guild Hall and The Surfrider Foundation, the artist organized a public beach cleanup, which drew out roughly 50 participants. From children and grandparents to the wealthy and the working class, they came together for the cause — to collect garbage and create cyanotypes of their own, as part of the mural at large.
“While they picked up trash, I was setting up the trays and materials for that many people to print,” Roemer said. “It’s a bit like setting up a lab, beachside, which took a bit of time. That was my focus.
“As soon as everyone came back, then it was instructing how to print cyanotypes in a giant group,” she continued. “But it was great because I got to see everyone from five years old to 50 years old, and the joy of making an image together, which was really cool. The ritual of that community experience is really pretty profound.”
Cyanotyping is a two-part chemical process on natural fiber, Roemer explained. Also known as photochemical blueprinting, it is one of the oldest photographic techniques used today, producing intensively blue pictures that appear as negatives — as areas where UV or bright sunlight does not hit the sensitized material will remain white.
Altogether, the blue images will amass themselves like the sea, she said, though upon closer inspection, will reveal the human-created waste that pollutes it.
“To make a larger blue image of an ocean made out of trash seemed very relevant based upon the community integration aspect, and also for a piece for an oceanside community,” Roemer said. “And, for me, it feels relevant to the larger conversation that we always are inundated with: the destruction of our oceans.”
Primarily comprised of 12-inch-by-20-inch cloth tiles, the mural will be an undulating, biomorphic form that crawls down the Guild Hall education corridor, climbing up to the ceiling, touching own to the floor, and coming back in on itself. “Think like a snake that swallowed a rabbit,” Roemer said with a laugh.
As a collective whole, the prints capture a wide cross-section of human life — “gloves, plastic bottles, trash bags, keys, plaster silverware, caution tape, shovels, toys, bottle caps, condoms, all kinds of weird shit that you find,” the artist said — and working with the material can be depressing, she admitted.
But through changing her focus, Roemer can elevate the trash from a level of detritus to beauty, she said, while eliciting a conversation about conservation, recycling, reuse and reduction. s
“What people extrapolate from your work is always a tricky, trap-filled thing, but I would hope that they would see something that looks like a beautiful abstract form from a distance and then come closer and be able to appreciate the individual murals,” she said, “and then contemplate their own consumption and also the waste products of our global economy.”
“Blue It!” by Aubrey Roemer will open with a reception on Friday, November 16, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Guild Hall, located on 158 Main Street in East Hampton. The installation will remain on view through February 25, 2019. For more information, call (631) 324-0806 or visit guildhall.org.