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A Reflection: Return to the Museum

On April 6, 2021, I set foot in a museum for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Seeing art in person was one of the last things we did before the world shut down in March 2020. My husband, baby, and I went to Washington, D.C. for the exhibition Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery over spring break.

Given the timing and significance of that most-recent museum visit, I knew that returning to an art gallery would be an emotional experience. I waited until I was fully vaccinated and two-week ‘proofed’, and until I could give the works the attention they deserved. I expected the experience to be different, but I could not have anticipated the intensity of my physical and emotional reaction.

As an art historian, curator, and critic, going to museums is not only an enjoyable pastime and a professional obligation but, more than that, looking at artworks in museums and galleries is what I do, fundamentally. I feel comfortable and at home in galleries. The first public place I took my newborn child was an art museum, strapped to my chest at six weeks old, because I wanted to both review an exhibition and be with my baby. I have, on more than one occasion, spent most of my waking hours camped out in a gallery while installing a show. Being in a gallery and seeing art in person has been an essential activity for most of my life.

Museums are holy spaces to me. As someone who struggles with an anxiety disorder, standing in front of art calms me, makes me be present. Romantic landscapes, minimalist sculpture, and abstract expressionist painting all provide me with a sense of my own embodiment that takes me out of the spirals of my own brain. Being in a gallery is the perfect blend of public and private. The hush of the space allows me a place to be alone, but be around other people, all from a distance and quiet.

Emily Elizabeth Goodman at UK Art Museum. Credit: Emily Elizabeth Goodman

But that same anxiety disorder combined with having an essential-worker partner and a small child to care for meant I had to sacrifice visiting museums, at least until I was vaccinated. From March 2020 until March 2021, I retreated into the small world of my house, logging onto Zoom for endless meetings and only venturing out into public for a weekly grocery shop.

This past year was not, by any means, a year without art.  I teach my students that art does not only exist in museums and galleries. Art can be found literally everywhere, from the graphic design of soup cans in your pantry to movie posters and internet memes. I have actually taken pleasure in finding art where I can in our home. We have “real works” like the Lori Larusso diptych I finally got around to hanging in my living room, and the collage by Mike Calway-Fagen that hangs in the background of my office on Zoom. Our house is also filled with little works, like my Guerilla Girls mug, my Van Gogh Irises face mask, and the never-ending stream of crayon, marker and fingerpaint pictures my toddler creates.

I have taken a lot of joy in looking at art in my child’s books, not just the illustrations of works like Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love or Raphael Lopez’s images in The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson, but the ones that showcase famous works of art, too. My child has recently gotten into the book Lola Dutch by Kenneth Wright and Sarah Jane Wright. In this book, the eponymous Lola discovers the great artists on a trip to the library and makes her own versions of Picasso’s Blue Guitarist, Monet’s Japanese Footbridge, Klimt’s The Kiss, Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, Matisse’s paper cut collages, and Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. Similarly, a close friend gifted us Parker Looks Up: An Extraordinary Moment, written by Parker Curry and her mother, Jessica Curry, about the young Parker’s transformative experience standing before Amy Sherald’s portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama, one of the last works my child and I saw together in person before the pandemic.

And, of course, I have found art in digital spaces as well. From the outset of the pandemic, I have been attending virtual exhibitions, harnessing their capacity to bring art from far corners of the globe into my online classrooms as a part of my teaching. I have spent countless hours poring over the digital collections of museums and watching archival footage of performance and video work as I write my forthcoming book. I have continued to consume art on social media, since I follow many different artists and institutions, and I have taken joy at finding the little incorporations of visual art in even my guilty pleasure TV shows, like when I binged all of Gossip Girl and took great joy every time the Elmgreen and Dragset Prada Marfa sign appeared on screen. For 13 months, these experiences with art sustained me, all the while knowing that eventually I would venture back in person.

Like all things pandemic, the decision to return to the museum was quite personal. I know that museums have been open since Summer 2020 and that they are generally very safe when proper protocols are followed. They are generally larger rooms with good ventilation/climate control and where the natural crowd patterns involve distancing. But I needed the extra layer of my own vaccine-induced immunity before I could undertake a non-essential venture into a public site. When the vaccination rate in Lexington surpassed 1 in 4 people and the COVID positivity rate dipped below 3%, I decided it was time. I made a reservation and donned my mask to go to see some art.

Entering the University of Kentucky Art Museum during a pandemic felt the same as entering almost every other space in the pandemic. I had to stop by the desk, give my name, and get my temperature checked. In spite of the check-in protocols, masking, and hand sanitizing, entering an art gallery felt splendidly normal, a feeling I had apparently been aching for.

Upon entry, I was drawn immediately to the series of untitled hanging pieces by Jessie Dunahoo, consisting of collaged and quilted scraps of discarded plastic and cloth. In pre-pandemic times, I would have approached this piece and focused on the visual elements, the little details like the Kroger and Bounty logos emblazoned on the plastic quilts, or the vacillation between sheerness and opacity consistent in each piece. I would have ruminated on what Dunahoo was saying about the disposability of items in our culture, the environmental impacts of plastic, and the questions of mundaneness that a display such as these quilts calls to mind.

Jessie Dunahoo, Untitled (detail), circa 2010-15, plastic bags, fabric samples, paint, and thread. Courtesy of the Estate of Jessie Dunahoo and Institute 193. Photo courtesy of UK Art Museum.

Of course I had these thoughts. I have internalized art historical methods to the point that my brain generates this kind of analysis automatically.

But having been starved of an in-person viewing experience for over a year, I was struck by the phenomenology, the sensorial nature of being up close to a work of art, to something that someone else made with their own two hands. I found myself wholly aware of my own size in relation to Dunahoo’s works suspended above me. I could experience the line of my eyes moving in a way that was both foreign and familiar, scanning each piece from top to bottom, noting the shadows they cast as they hovered a foot or so above the ground, and taking in how each piece related spatially to the others. This was a stark contrast to how my eyes have functioned for the last 13 months, staring straight ahead, apprehending only what is at eye level in order to stay engaged in a video call or other aspects of my remote work. In standing next to these works, I began to take in the whole space.

I then moved to Elana Herzog’s Shifting Ground and was even more overwhelmed by the evidence of someone else’s touch. In Herzog’s floor piece, she juxtaposes different scraps of carpet, layering them to create shapes and textures wholly unlike the rugs from which they derived. Walking around the edges of these pieces, I was tempted to brush them with my toe, and even to bend down and run my fingers over them, although I know the latter move was not a safe one in the pandemic (and as a curator, I know better than to touch the art in someone else’s show). Both Herzog’s floor pieces and Dunahoo’s hanging collages brought back the thing that I love about seeing art in person – the thing that cannot be replicated through digitization, no matter how hard you try – the truly physically material nature of an art object.

Installation view, Sew What: Jessie Dunahoo, Elana Herzog, Ben Venom, University of Kentucky Art Museum. Photo courtesy of UK Art Museum.

As I walked through the gallery space, the tactility of the works overwhelmed me, especially since the exhibition Sew What is all about textile. I found myself tearing up at Ben Venom’s heavy metal quilts, overcome by the handmade, singularity of each one, a sensation that overrode any displacement that the kitschy nature of this particular imagery would have otherwise elicited. I felt drawn into the materials, particularly the printed t-shirts in Don’t Wake Me Lucifer, which drew me back into the patchouli scent of Hot Topic in my childhood mall, where I would have bought similar shirts as a teenager, all the while reminding me of my eternally metal friends, who would shudder at the thought of purchasing a shirt like these in a store like that.

Ben Venom, Don’t Wake Me Lucifer!, 2010, quilted heavy metal T-shirts, cotton, batting, and thread. Courtesy of Scott Ingram, Atlanta. Photo courtesy of UK Art Museum.

I moved into the next gallery space, which also felt immensely tactile. The exhibition Come Together: Assemblage and Collage from the Collection was full of objects whose handmade quality was apparent, primarily because they consisted of found items, repurposed and repositioned. There were small works of assemblage sculpture, like the one by Louise Nevelson’s Untitled, and more elaborate paper works, like Christo’s Manhattan Wrapped, which combined lithographic images with collage.

And then, there was the 6’ by 6’ square assemblage, Night Rain, by Judith Page, which swallowed me whole. Comprised of individual twigs creating a pattern of vertical lines mimicking the downward trajectory of raindrops, this work was everything I had been missing about seeing art in person. It was massive, especially in comparison with computer-screen or smartphone-scaled images my eyes had grown accustomed to. It was physically material, comprised of tiny pieces of wood that can only fully be apprehended up close. And in that monument of tactility, I found myself looking closely in a way that I couldn’t when examining works from my desk chair, a way I always do when faced with a large-scale work of art: physically getting closer and further away from each section, all the while attending to the parts of the work at my periphery, and being aware that in looking closely, I am only seeing part.

Judith Page, Night Rain, 1981, twigs, acrylic, celluclay, Elmer’s wood glue, and black paint on plywood. Collection of the UK Art Museum. Photo courtesy of UK Art Museum.

This sensation was altogether different from zooming in on individual details. Technology let me see, in clearer detail, elements of artworks that would require a proximity that no museum guard would ever be okay with. However, the photographic detail is revealed at the expense of the whole work; to make such a detail, the rest of the image must be cropped. But close looking in person means that you are present with both the detail and the complete work simultaneously. The tension therein is electrifying.

As I continued on, I was grateful that I began my foray back into the museum with works of textile and assemblage, objects that are unquestionably unique, even when they are made from items that are not. These two media have always felt the most approachable to me, since the objects within them are ones we are physically familiar with. Viewers know the feeling of a trash bag, a carpet, a t-shirt, or a piece of wood. We know what different textures of paper feel like, and we can appreciate the physical gesture of cutting fabric or newsprint in order to create a collage or a quilt. As such, looking at assemblage often involves a sensorial memory, an understanding of what an object feels like, just looking at it. Tactile recollection helps imbue the new work with meaning.

Installation view, Come Together: Collage and Assemblage from the Collection, University of Kentucky Art Museum. Photo Courtesy of UK Art Museum.

Yet, while I have always looked at quilts, collages, and assemblages as items with which viewers are familiar, what was unique about this viewing experience was that for the first time I was overwhelmed by the notion that these objects were the product of someone else’s touch, that the feeling of familiarity I had with their materials was shared by the person who made them, and that we were now connected through this artwork. Granted, I have had this feeling in archives before, gripped by the sense of historical purpose and connection upon the realization that, for instance, Julia Child and I have touched the same physical papers. But in the case of these artworks, I myself did not touch; I merely looked. I got close and I looked, but in that closeness of looking, I felt connected.

I have, of course, always understood that art has the power to connect people. I am one of those who cry in the presence of a Mark Rothko painting, especially when I consider how he intended his works to be an extension of an essential need to communicate with others. But my feeling of connection during this visit was different. Instead of being consumed with the question “what is this artist trying to say,” I was instead seized by a need for “how can I connect to this person.”

This change is surely a result of the pandemic. In the last year, my social interactions shrank from interacting with scores of people on a daily basis to perhaps seeing one other family a few times a month. While I have been connected with colleagues, students, friends, and family over Zoom/Facetime/Google Meet since last March, these interactions, like the digitized artworks, never felt the same as being face to face.

Having spent so much time alone in the reclusive safety of my home – which, admittedly, for an introvert, had its perks – I had forgotten, on a visceral level, that even I am, by nature, a social creature as all humans are. We live collaboratively and we need to connect with one another. One of the biggest challenges of the pandemic has been that at the time when we need the care and support of other people the most, it has often been too risky, and even life-threatening, to be together. And so, for survival, we have adapted, culling down our social circles to small pods or family units and replacing the shared experience with the phone call or the video chat. But even having adapted, the need to connect, to really share an experience with another individual is still there.

In many ways, I know that my response to returning to the museum was unique to me. I have the privilege of feeling like all gallery spaces are there for me to access, that they are designed for an audience that includes me. I have a knowledge base that allows me to access artworks that others may find off-putting. But the feeling of standing before something touched, felt, and crafted by another person, the connection through items that have memories in my life and that clearly captivated another person, all of that can be felt by anyone. And I must say, that feeling, even if it was tinged with the grief for all the things I have missed in the last year or so, was truly a sensation worth having.

Seeing art in person again rekindled something that had been suppressed in the name of survival for the last year, and the spark engulfed me in a way I could not have anticipated. It likely will be a while until I pack up my whole family and fly us to a distant city with the goal of seeing an exhibition, but to go back to the museum and feel the presence of art again was a welcome reminder that what I had once taken for granted is far more important than ever before.

Sew What: Jessie Dunahoo, Elana Herzog, Ben Venom, and Come Together: Collage and Assemblage from the Collection, are on exhibit at the University of Kentucky Art Museum, through July 10, 2021.

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A Review: Definition is Not Necessarily Destiny in Joan Tanner’s “FLAW”

Joan Tanner at the opening of FLAW.  Photo Credit: Christine Huskisson

“There are no nouns in the universe,” wrote English critic and poet T. E. Hulme, insisting that in all of existence – everything we know and can possibly imagine – there is nothing fixed, nothing stationary. Any impression of stillness is merely an illusion; instead, all things are in a constant state of flux. Nothing can be pinned down long enough to be defined. FLAW, artist Joan Tanner’s site-specific installation on view at Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center (CAC), aligns with Hulme’s aphorism. Containing no proverbial nouns, the galaxy Tanner presents brims with currents of chance, opportunity, and the palpable energy of the uncertain. 

Born in Indianapolis in 1935, Tanner has lived in southern California since the mid-1960s, and has been exhibiting her paintings, drawings, photographs, sculptures, and installations for more than five decades. She works out of two in-home studios – one for drawing and painting, the other for sculpture and fabrication. Within her bifurcated workspaces, Tanner has long explored dualities, contradictions, and the deficiencies that plague our existence. Some of her earliest paintings were diptychs constructed with hinges riveting the two halves, keeping them moored to one another, preventing any cleaving or escape. The daughter of an eye surgeon, Tanner became fixated at a young age with the flaws and imperfections that mar not just the physical body but those in the intangible and the abstract. “Tanner,” writes Curator Julien Robson, “plays with the…precarious in such a manner that form unfolds as a reflection on temporality – of development and decay – in ways that seem purposefully unresolved.” Whether in material or conceptual terms, this festering tension between inevitability, or destiny, and its opposite – infinite possibility – is an alluring hallmark of her work.

“Yellow Mesh”, Flex Track, pigment, metal rods, plywood, plastic fencing. Photo Credit: John Brooks

Whereas many institutional galleries tend toward a kind of spatial neutrality, the CAC’s rooms do not. This is especially true of the U.S. Bank Gallery which houses FLAW. To fixate on the space is not to disparage it, but rather to recognize and attempt to absorb its complexities. From the perspective of the viewer or considering its architecture, Zaha Hadids cosmopolitan building – now nearly twenty years old – shines. From the perspective of an exhibiting artist or curator, the building, with its unexpected dimensions, somewhat aggressively imposes itself, as if it is of the mind that it exists independently from the circumstantial reality of its purpose. Hadid’s design, however, wasn’t born from any disregard for artists, but because she regarded them so highly, being one herself. (It is also a way she can say hello, I’m here in perpetuity). Located on the museum’s second floor, the U.S. Bank Gallery is long, fairly narrow, and populated on one side by three substantial rhomboid concrete supports. Upon – or even before – descending several wide, shallow steps, FLAW  begins to come into view. From the outset, it is evident that what you are looking at is an astute response to space rather than simply a selection of individual works that happen to find themselves landed here. If the idiosyncrasies of exhibiting in these spaces can be viewed as a challenge presented to artists by the late architect, it is one that Tanner accepts, embraces, and eclipses.

“Suspended Mesh Construct” (detail), plastic bird netting, plastic, zip ties, plastic barrier fencing, hose. Photo Credit: John Brooks

Immediately to the left, suspended over the stairs and held together by a loose armature of hoops and tubes, is a grouping of mesh constructs. Comprised of bird netting, plastic barrier fencing, cords, wood, polypropylene sheeting, zip ties, bent plywood, and what appears to be garden hose, they are – to varying degrees – somewhat ungainly and unsettling. Are they wounds or repairs turned inside out, or the bunched hems of bespoke garments? Here and there, as if they have somehow become attached or sutured, bulbous addendums are affixed to the margins. Resembling small tumors, detritus, or barnacles, they help foster the sensation that we are looking at the underbellies of these objects, or that they have been flipped inside out and these surfaces are their chaotic viscera. If these constructs correlate to our bodies, our frailties are unflinchingly visible. 

Shadows from hanging mesh pieces. Photo Credit: John Brooks

“Blue Mesh with Arms”, plastic bird netting, plywood, rope, wooden dowels, spray paint. Photo Credit: John Brooks

Yet because they are suspended, gravity divulges an innate grace; the intricate shadows they cast are captivating. Tanner, ever engrossed in the paradoxes of dualities, asks us to look, consider, then look again: is what we think we see what we actually see? Hanging on a perpendicular wall, one work particularly beguiles: Blue Mesh with Arms, in spray-painted Aegean blue bird netting. The form is familiar, pleasing, and difficult not to anthropomorphize, yet it is not the thing it echoes. Resisting the temptation to find analogs and figurative representation allows for a richer and more curious experience; these objects and forms don’t need categorization in order to justify their existence. Repeatedly unfolding throughout Tanners installation is the pronouncement that definition is not necessarily destiny.

Foreordination seems at first a given for Blue Box Trap. Perched on wooden footers, this painted and carved styrofoam form is girdled and held in place with two slats of wood that form a horizontal X across its top, like the controller for a marionette. There is, however, no puppeteer in sight. Tanner says that she often thinks of an offstage character, something or someone hidden in the wings – à la Waiting for Godot – emanating a presence. Whether we call it God or time or fate doesn’t matter; in fact, to name it is to see it diminished and is pointless because the thing is ultimately unknowable. This unnamed specter – not necessarily a menace, but not necessarily an ally – haunts all of Tanner’s work, just as it haunts the lot of us. If the last year has taught us anything, surely it is the realization that despite all of our accumulated knowledge, advancements, and cultural triumphs, our bodies’ innate fallibilities leave us – and the futurity of human civilization – dangerously susceptible to the random, dispassionate machinations of other forces in the natural world. Nevertheless, we must and do endure, independent, to some degree, from those forces’ dictates. Absent a custodian, perhaps the carved portions of Blue Box Trap embody a fierce clawing at new forms of agency.

Installation view: Drooping Calipers, Caliper Pileup, Scalloped Caliper, Flex Rings, Flex Track, corrugated vinyl, pigment, plywood, rope, bonderized metal, metal rods, plastic, styrofoam. Photo Credit: John Brooks

Directly ahead is Floorwalkers, a large construction of plain and painted plywood pieces intermingled, slotted, and screwed together. Pulled and manipulated from her drawings, the amorphous shapes are part of Tanner’s general vernacular. Possessing an undeniable makeshiftedness, the prosaic materials are elevated by cascading curves, scalloped edges, and a sophisticated palette of ochres, umbers, charcoals, turquoises, and cobalts. Tinted by roaming tendrils of pigment, rising cylinders of vinyl loom like minarets. Some elements support, others clasp, cling, and meander; all endeavor toward some enigmatic resolution that remains just out of reach. 

“Bloated Columns” (detail), corrugated vinyl and fiberglass, plywood, concrete, metal, pigment. Photo Credit: John Brooks

In rhythmic, undulating waves of corrugated fiberglass and vinyl panels, Tanner has cocooned two of Hadids aforementioned concrete supports, in the process of supplanting and obscuring their functional austerity with impressions of buoyant optimism. Interspersed at various intervals are tear-shaped objects and cut-to-form jigsaw pieces that follow the volumes’ contours; concrete formations of the same type provide footing, and there is a marvelous tension between the various elements. Luxurious and jewel-like, these translucent Bloated Columns transform impediments into assets. They feel of the future. Proclaiming their own radical architecture – these are building materials, after all – the pylons call to mind Mies van der Rohe’s unrealized 1921 Friedrichstraße Skyscraper Project in Berlin, which also looked hopefully toward a world to come.

“Flex Rings” (detail with Joan Tanner), Flex Track, corrugated vinyl, pigment, plywood, rope, bonderized metal, metal rods, plastic. Photo Credit: John Brooks

Shaped like giant calipers, a loose grouping of large constructions, including a towering pair of drooping sentinels, idly guard the approach to the gallery’s rear. These works feel not just individual but like individuals, as if each could measure a different giant thing. They attend to Flex Rings, the exhibition’s apogee, a playful, boisterous aggregation of materials and forms that commands inquiry. Teeming with raised articulated metal track, ropes, shaped plywood elements that have been soaked in bathwater to allow for bending, additional corrugated vinyl columns, and fringed skirts of bonderized sheet metal, Tanner has deftly utilized the entirety of the twenty-four foot vaulted space to create a work that feels exploratory, expansive, even cosmic. Each successive glimpse reveals new delights. Nothing feels accidental or lucked into, but there is a sense of haphazardness, as if informed decisions have been made on the fly. All of it feels temporary, or at least precariously fixed, as if it could change tomorrow or in three seconds as realities change. This is but one possibility amongst a field of infinite possibilities. Not just rife with peril, existence, Tanner reminds us, is also joyful and absurd.

Playing with the expectation that all of these elements are dependent upon only its stability, she has left Hadid’s final concrete support – which Tanner refers to as “the spine” – exposed. The true “spine” of this assemblage is the Flex Track – repetitive metal shapes linked together and generally used in construction to create curved walls, staircases, soffits, and complicated round radiuses – that winds around like exposed vertebrae from an ancient, unearthed beast. One of Tanner’s guiding conceptual principles is that pattern and repetition do not necessarily equal sameness. As is the case with the netting and mesh – which are produced with reduplicated squares – each piece of the Flex Track is an identical and seemingly infinite copy of that which came before it, yet each piece does not necessarily do exactly the same thing. A shift in direction asks for, and receives – inasmuch as is possible – flexibility. We cannot know what a thing can do, or is capable of, until circumstances provide opportunity. Because the cycle of disintegration and rebirth abounds in the universe, all things are what they are, what they were, and what they might become; a petrochemical product, Tanner’s plastic netting was once, perhaps, brontosaurus flesh. 

Although we don’t fancy envisioning ourselves as collections of atoms hurtling through the universe’s great expanse, this is, scientifically speaking, very much the truth. That we live, breathe, think and create is kind of a miracle. Tanner’s work is not based in theology – in fact, it transcends dogma and is nonpartisan in the sense that it hovers beyond any ism – but it can be seen as an imploration for us to recognize, reckon with, and accept our inherent flaws. Rejecting any illusions of certainty, Tanner invites us to consider the boundless possibilities for both space and ourselves. Yes, we must operate within certain frameworks – the laws of physics, for example – but we also largely make the world in which we live. How is ours organized? And why is it so? How can we change the things we want to change in order to better it? As always, the answers lie in incessant presentness and discerning action. Demonstrating resourcefulness that promises to be advantageous in the future but is also useful – even necessary – now, in our pandemic-ridden reality, Tanner stretches and bends her materials, engaging them on her own terms, even though they hold fast to their own ideas. Some things remain shifty and unknowable; that is okay – we probe anyway. 

Art is born from a distillation of experiences; the best artists keep one eye fixed on the past, one eye fixed on the present, and their third eye fixed on the future. FLAW makes evident Tanner’s enlightened grasp of the human condition’s complexities; here, in this liminal room, she compels us to be nimble and generative in order to be prepared for whatever the future brings. We don’t yet know what it is that comes this way, but our instincts, laden with the imprint of humanity’s vexing and menacing history, sense that something lurks over the horizon, its hour come round at last. 

FLAW is on view at the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati through August 8, 2021.

 

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Dragon Therapy

Climb the stairs to the tiny tower room at the top of the Loudoun House, home of the Lexington Art League, and step into Seth Fryman’s world. Dragons of all sizes and colors and patterns float through the air, lit by the sunlight streaming in through the large windows that line the walls of this miniature space. The exhibit, entitled Dragon Therapy (Art Therapy as Language), is a love letter to Lexington written in origami by a young man living with autism.

Seth Fryman, Dragon Therapy (Art Therapy as Language), Installation view, Loudoun House tower. Photo Credit: Art Shechet

Seventeen-year-old Seth Fryman found origami when he was very young. His father, Ben, a sculptor and special effects makeup artist, tells us, “It all started at an antique shop. He spotted a sixties-era origami book on the shelf – it was in really bad shape – and the woman just gave it to him. He was between four and five years old. He was obsessed with the book, and it took him about 12 months to master the basic folding patterns. He’s been fluent in 40-80 different patterns since he was about 6 years old.”

Ben elaborates, “When he was really young – as young as 2 – he was absorbed with patterns and puzzles. It became almost meditative for him. A lot of times autistic children will have a time in their day where they need to be alone and depressurize through stimulus and movement in their body, or through pattern or repetition that soothes or calms them. Through experimentation with different things, origami fit that better than anything else for Seth.”

Origami, though, isn’t just a form of relaxation for Seth. Verbally, Seth is most comfortable with quick interactions or texting. For that reason, as Ben tells it, his work has become a way for him to communicate with the rest of the world.

He says, “A lot of his communication comes through the joy people have. They ask ‘can you make a dinosaur, can you make an egg, can you make a horse?’ and he can produce them quickly. He likes the recognition he gets for being able to do that for people. Seth will take a pocket of his origami with him and show what he makes to strangers, and it’s his way to communicate.”

Seth’s first gallery exhibit, Dragon Therapy (Art Therapy as Language), came together by chance. In the early days of the pandemic, Lexington Art League staff were looking for ways to engage with the public virtually, creating coloring sheets and posting tutorials of simple art projects we could all do at home. An origami tutorial turned out to be very popular, and it sparked an idea.

Lori Houlihan, Executive Director, says, “A voice in my head told me to ask the community to do a 1000 Dragon Challenge, based on the traditional Japanese legend that anyone who folds 1,000 cranes will be blessed with happiness and luck. Dragons embody strength, and once it became obvious that we’d need more than a few weeks of coloring pages, and would need strength and resilience for a while, we really settled into it more aggressively.”

She continues, “Seth saw our tutorial and was already a prolific origami artist, so he was excited to jump right in. We met Seth when he brought a box of about 140 dragons to us. They were dragons of every size and made from all types of paper. The following week he came back with another full box. When I sat down and started stringing Seth’s dragons together for display, the idea came to me to see if he’d like to have his own exhibit of dragons in the tower.”

The exhibit consists of dragons displayed in a number of ways. Framed collections and mobiles make up a large portion of the work, while a few of Seth’s larger dragons are displayed independently. The most striking pieces are those that Seth refers to as “jellyfish.” Each jellyfish is a combination of multiple dragons made from similarly colored papers hanging from a dome-shaped object, and are reminiscent of the tentacles of a jellyfish.

Seth Fryman, Dragon Jellyfish (grey), 2021. Paper, string, mixed media. Photo Credit: Art Shechet

“Seth has had an interest in mobiles and installations for a while, and he loves anything that defies gravity, whether it be something that flies or something that swims. The mobiles are collections of pieces that he fabricates into a main installation or grouping to create the final piece,” explains Ben.

The exhibit also includes a large egg filled with dragons that Seth wants visitors to take home in exchange for leaving him a note.

Seth Fryman, The Giving Egg, 2021. Paper, mixed media. Photo Credit: Art Shechet

The magical, fluid nature of Seth’s combination of dragons and jellyfish – flying and swimming – is perfectly juxtaposed with a second origami exhibit by artist Daniel Moore, which is also on display.

The main body of The Origami of Daniel Moore is a collection of intricate geometrical pieces – including many stars – constructed from multiple complementary papers. Perfect for displaying on a shelf or for hanging, Daniel’s work is grounded in symmetry and geometry, and is both a contrast and a perfect pairing for Seth’s more fluid work.

Daniel Moore, The Origami of Daniel Moore, Installation view. Photo Credit: Art Shechet

Lori says, “Daniel also came to us because of the online tutorials. He stopped by with a box of his work to show us, and I knew it would be perfect to show alongside Seth’s collection.”

Daniel Moore, Various Kusadama, Large, 2021. Photo Credit: Art Shechet

Seth comes from a family of artists and musicians and creators, and Ben knows that has been a major influence on Seth’s life and artistic development. Experiencing art in his everyday life has been a great benefit to him, and allows for his family to visualize a future for him that incorporates art.

Says Ben, “We’re at the point where we are thinking about how to take his skills and put them toward ways for him to sustain himself in the future. We are establishing a website and Instagram page, and are continuing to come up with ideas of how he can create installations for future gallery showings and places that are interested in selling his work.”

Seth is also going to keep honing his origami skills and exploring other paper arts. In the meantime, he’s very excited for local residents to experience his work.

“He’s very excited about having his own exhibit,” says Ben, “and expresses that on a daily basis. Very rarely do you see Seth that he’s not smiling. That’s all that matters to me.”

Top Image: Dragon Therapy (Art Therapy as Language), Detail view. Photo Credit to Jo Mackby

Dragon Therapy (Art Therapy as Language) will remain installed at the Lexington Art League’s Loudoun House at 209 Castlewood Drive in Lexington for an undetermined period of time. The Origami of Daniel Moore is on exhibit thru April 24th.

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Review: Lock Her Up

Reading Tina Parker’s eerie, shudder-inducing poetry collection Lock Her Up is a bit like walking into a haunted house – not of the kitschy Halloween variety but a real-life chamber of horrors. Based on Parker’s extensive research into the lives of women involuntarily committed to Southwestern State Hospital in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia from 1887 to 1948, Lock Her Up is a brilliant sequence of poems based on patient records from the hospital. (It began life as Southwestern Lunatic Asylum and operates to this day as Southwestern Virginia Mental Health Institute in Marion, Va., not far from the Kentucky state line.) In the book’s timeframe, it’s a dark place of half-stifled cries, thousand-yard stares, grief so inconsolable that it’s taken for madness, and madness that’s both more and less than the inability to recover from trauma. The halls fairly thrum with the whispering voices of the dead, but these are as much remembered as imagined; if the inmates are mad, they came by it honestly. Fundamentalist Christianity, accusations of witchcraft, and sexual jealousy lurk as complicating factors. And the women’s treatment, such as it is, is so misguided – so mired in misogyny and 19th-century notions of “lunacy,” “hysteria” and their purported connection with female anatomy and the menstrual cycle – as to have more in common with torture than benign neglect.

Part bravura historical excavation, part feminist cri de coeur, part Southern Gothic detective story, Lock Her Up – just out from Lexington’s Accents Publishing is perhaps most unusual for its dramatic cohesion and narrative momentum. Parker, a native of Bristol, Virginia, and now a resident of Berea, is first and foremost a gifted poet, but of how many other books of poetry can you say that it reads like a suspense thriller? Along with rich poetic language and layers of literary texture, there are at least three serious crimes to be pieced together here, in and between the lines, and culprits to be deduced. And so it is that you devour this engrossing book in a single sitting, turning the pages to find out how it ends. It ends with devastation, for the characters and for you.

Most of the poems are spoken by three central characters who, in a postscript, Parker emphasizes as fictitious “in the end,” although it’s fairly obvious that they’re composites of actual people who existed neither long ago nor far away. There is Mattie, a 19-year-old committed by her wealthy father for being “wild, incoherent, frolicsome, and restless.” There’s Rachel, 32, brought in for treatment by her husband and the father of her four young children, including a girl who died, most curiously, from “drinking whiskey and turpentine.” And there’s Emma, an impoverished 55-year-old widow and former seamstress institutionalized by her son, who reports that she “chaws tobacco” and “does nothing but sit with a looking glass in one hand & a brush in the other primping and powdering her face”; later, at the hospital, she spends a good part of her time calling for her shears and sewing needles. (Those and other sharp objects, to which she is “much addicted,” make a shocking reappearance later in the tale.)

There are surprises everywhere, including antique legalisms and medical jargon, as well as a few persona poems narrated not by the women but by the hospital staff in something like the manner of Greek choruses; in two other memorable cases, the speakers are a set of knives and the hospital itself. In the latter poem, “Southwestern Lunatic Asylum,” the building complains bitterly about its inhabitants as if they were giving it a headache: 

They walk too heavy
Their voices swell my rooms
Disturbed
Leprous
Sick
They should know to tiptoe
They should know to speak in whispers

Like a mystery novelist busy foreshadowing and laying down clues, Parker seeds the rapidly accruing story (organized in three distinct chapters titled Admission, Treatment, and Release) with a series of small, troubling details that function like poison pills in the narrative’s bloodstream. If you’re paying close attention, you notice, for example, that Mattie’s history involves a “bloodied sheet” and that she was “betrayed by one who ought to have protected me.” You’re disconcerted by the notation on a reconstructed admission form, entered without comment, that Rachel arrived at the hospital not only “filthy” and “covered with vermin” but with her “right jaw swollen.” And it’s startling to learn, late in the book, that not only was Emma widowed at the age of forty “and lost everything,” but that her husband was murdered.

The uncomprehendingly boorish, possibly criminal or at least complicit male relatives of the three women thoroughly indict themselves early on in a poem called “Pleas for Admission”:

Will you take my wife
           She complains a great deal, but most of her suffering is imaginary
Will you take my daughter
           She is a constant aberration
Will you take my mother
           She has done nothing for the past 10 or 15 years but sit and
           deplore her condition.

Elsewhere the hospital staff and some of its practices are portrayed in equally damning fashion. Their focus on female genitalia is invasive and unrelenting (“I Measure Time”):

I measure time by the click
Of the speculum that shiny
Pretty thing (the click click)
I count the                    click
As it opens me

In another poem, “One clamped down on his fingers / Another sputtered blood in his face / He swore he’d cure us all with a salt douche” (“Doctor Visits”). In “All the Ones I Do Not See,” the book’s single most horrifying poem, an unidentified speaker or series of speakers tabulates sights (swallowed dolls, leeches used as part of gynecological treatment) that would be perfectly at home in a play at Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol or a novel by the Marquis de Sade. And a poem called “Bath Rules” lists not only common-sense things like “In preparing a Bath the cold water is to be turned on first” but also:

Under              no pretext
                          is the Patient’s head
                          to be put under
water.

It’s harrowing stuff, intensely dramatic with occasional glints of black comedy, and an unqualified triumph for the author, whose two earlier poetry collections include Mother May I (Sibling Rivalry Press) and Another Offering (Finishing Line Press). I do have a quibble about the occasional unclarity of speakership in the persona poems, in which, especially in the book’s last third, it isn’t always clear from their content or context which of the main characters, if any, is narrating or being referred to by others. In most of these cases, the answers can be worked out, sometimes with considerable effort and conjecture; in others, the events described and attitudes expressed might apply to any or all three women, which is perhaps the point. Each woman represents a type, a narrative strand, a generation of sufferers like herself. But the reader’s sense of groundedness in the unspooling story of Lock Her Up, as the women glide like specters from their in-the-moment realities at the hospital to their memories and fantasies and back again, is one of the book’s chief assets. I wish Parker had taken more care to orient us a bit better here and there, perhaps simply by naming the speakers in each poem, as William Faulkner does in the successive chapters of As I Lay Dying (as opposed to his The Sound and the Fury, which remains an unnecessarily daunting read, I submit, because of its jamming together of multiple, unidentified voices).

Still. Lock Her Up – whose title has obvious contemporary resonance, although this is limited and may be largely coincidental – is a compact masterpiece, easily one of the finest works of Southern and Appalachian literature in any genre that I’ve ever read. Parker is to be saluted for this great achievement, as are the Kentucky Foundation for Women, which funded her research in Virginia, and the Workhouse Poetry Gauntlet, whether the project was nurtured. Get this book ($16 at www.accents-publishing.com). Prepare to be shaken.

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