Friday, October 24, 2008

Feeling It

Today’s column is the first in a four-part series about group exhibitions. These reviews will illuminate the qualities that make (or break) a group show and the curatorial decisions that successfully frame multiple perspectives under a singular vision.

Sarah Barsness “Underdog”

Eila Kovanen and Michael Wong were students at the San Francisco Art Institute when they met five years ago. “We were both trying to understand how to make work about our emotional experiences,” said Wong in an instant message, “and we were thinking about how to do that as individuals and collaboratively.” But colleges and galleries were embracing what Kovanen calls “intellectually clever work”. Wong and Kovanen wondered where, and if, their feeling-based work might fit within the cerebral and theoretical discourse.

After graduation, Wong was invited to show his work at a vintage store that doubled as a gallery, cleverly named Mixed Use; he encouraged the owners to include Kovanen’s work, too. There was resonance between Kovanen and Wong’s work, but their ideas had nothing in common with the third artist that the gallery added, and it was with ironic accuracy that the gallery titled the show, “Mixed Up”.

In 2005, Kovanen and Wong, in collaboration with Victor Barbieri, Verónica Sahagún, and Robin Ward, decided to curate a show of their own, “You Know How I Feel”. Several years in the making, “You Know How I Feel” is now on view in the Muñuz Waxman Gallery at the Center for Contemporary Arts. “You Know How I Feel” includes the works of the five core artists and a co-curated group of international guest artists. Despite years of collaboration and an impressively curated installation, this show is on view for only two weeks.

Installation view of
You Know How I Feel at CCA

The curatorial premise, when represented by successful work, is a powerful reminder of how emotionally disconnected we are, what we are missing, and the ways we call to each other. All of the artists are sincere, but some touch the perfect nerve in a palpable way.

Editing would only make this good group show better. Some of the artists use uninteresting and obvious metaphors. Some pieces are derivative of works by well-known artists. Victor Barbieri’s slow motion silent videos of a family grouping or a young woman crying are near imitations of Bill Viola’s “The Passions”.

A few works almost hit the mark. Lara Beth Mitchell’s life-size drawing, “Portrait of My Mother”, depends on the model’s literal nakedness and surgically removed breast for its emotional power, but it is the meticulous drawing of the hands and head, and the placement of the mother’s head at the viewer’s eye-level, that really pokes at the heart.

The artists who use sources outside the self in order to represent personal, inner, emotions have created the most successful pieces in the show. Michael Wong’s tender and watery charcoal drawings of people in banal, everyday settings appear at first to be portraits of close family or friends. They are, in fact, stills from television shows (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) and movies (“The Crying Game”). The stills are scenes that are personally and emotionally evocative for Wong--scenes in which Wong feels empathy for a fictional character’s feelings. All of Wong’s compassion is translated into the literal touch of his mark. The viewer can feel how much he cares. It is so sincere and unpretentious it is almost embarrassing.

Robin Ward
"Cyborg Manifesto"

In her mixed media drawings on paper, Robin Ward relies on images of animals to explore human emotions, particularly need, desire, belonging, and loss. Often the animals are disembodied, floating, in a non-descript atmosphere. In “Cyborg Manifesto”, a polo player leans over a horse that has an artificial, rear leg. Nearby a chicken walks on insect legs. A baby with a cyborg arm stands near another baby with wheels for legs. All of these creatures seem sad and breakable despite the mechanical reinforcement. For all that is going on in Ward’s skillful drawings, there is a disconcerting “hole”, an emptiness, a lack of acknowledgment that generates unease.

Eila Kovanen creates soft photographs of materials that are used to reinforce or protect (bubble wrap, window screen). The materials have been punctured, hurt. These images are achy, delicate, sympathy-inducing. Kovanen’s decision to shoot the images slightly out of focus, almost as if they are in the periphery of the eye, increases the feeling of vulnerability. Kovanen also photographed the greasy top of a plastic bottle, speckled with dust and pubic hair, and titled it “Sexoil”. It is dirty in every sense. It is also delicate and truthful.

Eila Kovanen

Sarah Barsness’ “Underdog” is defenseless, humorous and horrifying all at the same time. A stuffed pink dog, flayed over an equally flayed mink coat, has been sewn to a pink, circular blanket, the sort of blanket a child carries around for comfort. This is an unkind womb, or a torture device, or a contemporary re-visioning of Titian’s “Flaying of Marsyas”. It is an illustration of our most pathetic, self-indulgent emotions—those moments when we feel like victims, like underdogs.

There are many other works in this show, many surprises that this article does not reveal. It is worth a trip to CCA this weekend to see “You Know How I Feel” before it closes on October 26.

And while you are there, stop in to see “A Humble Project” in the Spector-Ripps Project Space. If Thomas Haddad’s story of surviving the world trade tower collapse, and the way in which he tip-toed around his own broken heart by drawing other disasters and mythological figures doesn’t get to you, then the collaborative response of the Humble Collective (Matt the Knife Tsoodle, Micha Wesley, Rose B. Simpson, and Cannupa Hanska Lugar), an “elephant in the room” made entirely of white balloons, will. It is perfect.

“You Know How I Feel” (Muñuz/Waxman Gallery through October 26)
“A Humble Project” (Spector Ripps Project Space through November 1)
Center for Contemporary Arts
1050 Old Pecos Trail, Santa Fe

This review was originally published in the October 24, 2008 issue of the Journal Santa Fe, in the column Object Lessons.

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