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Arts

In Search of Bodies Lost: Surveying The Internal Landscapes of Vian Sora

“People love narratives. They love winning stories. They think it’s a love story, this Iraqi girl, this American man. But it’s not that easy or glamorous or romantic.” – Vian Sora

Vian Sora, “End Of Hostilities”, 2019, Mixed media finished with oil on board, 120 x 1200 in., Collection of KMAC Museum

Prologue: End of Hostilities

The first thing the eye sees is the tiny rivulets of blue, the happy hue of a robin’s egg or a bright morning sky, undulating dots and dashes that wind around the other pools of color: swathes of violet and lilac here, lakes of deepest green over there. Forms and shapes possess an organic fluidity, as if millions of tiny water molecules were swirling in frenzied motion within the mass of a large wave slowly rolling across the canvas. 

There is a grittiness, too: dark bodies of black and grey, fragments of skulls and fractured bone hidden in the corner, half-buried under layers of pigment. Oxidized shades of crimson manifest like blood in all its violent expressions: splattered, bleeding and pooling. Even in the painting’s lighter areas, hundreds of hairline fissures materialize like the capillaries of human tissue or the cracked surface of desiccated land.

The work is undeniably chaotic, struggling to contain the exploded forms of color and texture and memory in a surge of energy and heat. And yet it also holds a persistent beauty, lines of elegance and grace that cut through the debris and roughness in lucid and reassuring curves. What is left is both a hope and a hollowness: streets clear of foreign tanks, skies absent of fighter jets, the silent stillness of a bombed-out city, this vast and sudden absence, this aching emptiness.   

End of Hostilities was first shown in Sora’s solo show “Unbounded Domains” at Moremen Gallery in the spring of 2019 and then acquired by KMAC Museum through the support of a donor. It also served as the departure point for a new body of work Sora was creating for the museum’s premier Triennial (on view August 24 – December 1, 2019) when I visited her studio that July and August.

Sora’s work serves not only as a record of horrific acts of violence and the lives they destroy, but also as a way of making sense of war, of beginning to fill the void it leaves in its wake. In the aftermath of terror and destruction, she sorts through the smoldering rubble, searching for some small fragment of beauty that will tell her: All is not lost. 

Vian Sora,”Peasant”, 2009, Mixed media on canvas, 45 x 37 in., Private collection

Part I: A New Language

When Sora came to the United States a decade ago, she brought with her a painting style and technique she first developed as a young artist in her native Iraq. She would begin by sculpting wet material onto her canvases, often in the intricate patterns of ancient Islamic ornament, and then build up multiple layers of paint in colors that offered the hazy illusion of sunlight seen through sandstorms. Only then would she add figures: translucent apparitions of veiled women, the primitive outlines of horses and birds. In the process of layering, Sora chose what to paint over and what to reveal, allowing her to hide forms in the canvas. “Most of my life in Iraq was very secretive,” she says. “I think most females are like that. And that technique was my little thing, my secret.” 

Sora had many paintings in this early style in her 2016 solo show at 1619 Flux, where KMAC curator Joey Yates first took notice of her work. “I recognized her skill and her aesthetic in that work,” Yates recalls, “but what I was really drawn to was a couple of newer abstract pieces that seemed unique to me. They had a very distinct visual language I hadn’t seen other people engage.”

The paintings Yates saw were the first in a new approach Sora had been exploring in which she banished the figurative forms, abandoned the bas-relief foundation and traded the palette of khaki and desert and dust for a piercing intensity of blues and yellows and greens. Black made its appearance, too: sometimes as plumes of smoke drifting in front of the technicolor chaos, sometimes shooting across the canvas like gunpowder, other times lurking in the background as a subtle shadow presence. Abstract forms were unknowable as friend or foe: a broad palm leaf could reveal itself as a human lung upon second glance, the dripping tendrils of vines could morph into disembodied veins. Sora had stumbled upon a psychological trompe l’oeil, creating an uneasy tension between exultation and terror through this deft exploitation of form and color.

Two years before the show, Sora had undergone a major operation. She was given general anesthesia, organs were removed from her body, and when she recovered she began painting in a completely new way. “I woke up with a wholly different visual language,” she says. “I used different colors, I changed my technique. And that helped me make sense of my existence, using these colors that were foreign to me in a manner that doesn’t exist in real life, to create a world that somehow is in my head.”

Sora has continued to work within this new aesthetic in the years following its introduction at the 1619 Flux exhibit, and she still has much to explore. “Even within this abstract language, she moves quickly,” Yates observes. “She’s not going back to the canvas with the same ideas. With the newer work, she’s making more vertical pieces and changing up the framing. She’s picking different colors. She’s thinking about different subjects. She’s able to maintain that identifiable abstract language as the same time she’s becoming really adept and nimble at working within it.”

Sora’s paintings begin with a barrage of fast-drying pigments

In Sora’s studio, the canvas starts down on the floor, subject to a blitzkrieg of fast-drying acrylics and pigments and inks, applied using whatever is within arm’s reach: brushes, sponges, paper, nylons, spray bottles. There is an earthly physicality to this work as Sora moves around the canvas, using arms and hands to manipulate the color, sometimes prostrating herself on the floor, face to canvas, using her breath to move the pigment in an extravagantly life-giving gesture.

“The beginning is very chaotic, the end is very controlling,” she says. “And the control is that tension between me and this thing called painting that is telling me, in some indirect language, that I need to go and work a little bit here to build those shapes. This is me finding the relationships and the bodies and the narrative that leads you through.” 

Even as Sora moves into the controlled part of the process, using a narrow brush of oil paint to carve out figures and forms, memory and meaning, one senses that she is still more midwife to the work than its master, not acting on the painting as much as she is allowing it to come into being. As she paints, her attempts to describe what’s happening between her and the canvas acquire a mystical, almost Tantric, vocabulary: she is doing what the painting is asking for, she says, following the lines to see where they take her, investigating forms that have the unsettling persistence of reoccurring dreams, led by some intuition she doesn’t always fully understand.

“I always start with an intention and an idea,” she says. “But the encounters that happen through the life of creating the work, you would not be honest to yourself and your path if you stick to the initial idea. You have to let everything that happens to you happen to the painting. It’s a long process. Some paintings take almost a year to finish because they have that much to give.”

Yates readily observes these encounters in her work: “All the issues she may deal with – war and trauma and PTSD and violence and death – she finds order within that chaos. And that chaos changes, right? Sometimes it’s connected to her family, sometimes it’s connected to larger issues of trauma and migration, but those things always feed into her personal experience, and she’s translating them into that expressive abstract language.”

“The bodies are still there,” he says. “She’s burying them in the landscapes.

Part II: Scenes From A New Country 

“I love the duality of grotesque and beautiful. That’s what interests me,” Sora says. “The two things that have affected me most, visually, are amazing scenes of natural beauty – these landscapes that I’m obsessed with – and scenes from car bombs in Baghdad.”

Vian Sora, “Citizen”, 2019, Oil on canvas, 48 x 48 in., Shown in “Unbounded Domains” at Moremen Gallery in April 2019

Ten years ago, when Sora began the process of gaining U.S. citizenship, she was restricted from leaving the country, cut off from the places that excited her – cities like Istanbul, Sao Paolo and Berlin that were teeming with the exotic vibrancy she found so invigorating. So she went to the desert – to Moab and Sedona with their colorful layers of rock, their mesas and bridges and buttes, those ancient vistas sculpted by air and water and the weight of time.

“The Canyonlands are very intense,” Sora says. “That visual landscape, that kind of terrifying beauty, completely messed me up. It’s like a scene from an archaic war zone, like the scene of an explosion. The way the light creates illusions on all these layers of rock. It feels like you could fall and break into hundreds of pieces. That sense of emptiness makes me want to go fill it with something.”

At the time, Sora and her husband were living in an elegant apartment overlooking a century-old park in Louisville, Kentucky. But because they were renters, she was afraid to attempt anything that might mar this borrowed home. She felt constricted: “I don’t like what I painted there because for me to work in a space it can’t be white and clean and perfect. I have to destroy the place to feel free enough that I can paint.”

A drafting table in Sora’s studio

Three years later, Sora was granted a citizenship that made her both subject to U.S. laws and free to leave its borders. She and her husband bought a house on a quiet suburban street, where Sora now has a light-filled studio with windows that look out onto a verdant garden with a small koi pond that her cat, Lilu, watches intently. Inside, linoleum tiles catch paint in splatters, drips and spills; a wooden drafting table gazes upward to the windows; a battered, armless office chair slumps abandoned in the middle of the room. Drawings and sketches scatter the floor, torn fragments from older sketchbooks pile up comfortably on the sofa as Sora apologizes for a mess that doesn’t actually exist.

“It’s kind of embarrassing, but I cannot work in an organized environment,” she tells me. “I once tried to force my space to look like one of those perfect Vogue magazine studios. I got color-coded drawers and organized everything, separated the acrylics, the pigments, the oils, the oil sticks, the whole thing. And then without even realizing what I was doing, within a day everything was mixed, everything was destroyed. But I think it’s part of the process. The chaotic start and then the control.” 

Sora is in her studio sixteen hours a day if her schedule allows, often working well into the night, sometimes waking from a dream and descending to the studio to feed it to the canvas. In many ways, she is doing the work of every artist, translating personal experience into a unique visual expression, putting memory into form and turning feeling into color. But Sora works in an emotional alchemy as well, taking what is secret and dark and buried, all that is grotesque and awful and horrific, and transmuting it into something light-filled, as beautifully ordered and knowable and free as the natural universe.

“I’m trying to make sense of these visuals that are coming out indirectly,” she tells me. “Most of this recent work, I feel, is an internal landscape. An internal landscape of a woman who lived through wars and physical discomfort, who was in accidents and witnessed family members die. And these grotesque, awful situations, I can turn them into something meaningful and powerful.”

Vian Sora, “Echo And Narcissus”, 2018, Mixed media on canvas, 84 x 60 in., Collection of Speed Art Museum

Sora wants her paintings to start a conversation about the effect of displacement and migration, about the effect of war on the human soul. And while this may cast her as a political artist in some minds, the great accomplishment of Sora’s work is, in fact, that it transcends the political. In choosing to find the beautiful in the grotesque, the order in the chaos, the tiny buds of green amid the rubble of destruction, Sora is affirming a world of pleasure and delight and spirit and wonder – those very things that remind us of what it is to be human. 

We are, in Sora’s words, “all of us, starving for connection with something. With each other.” And in her search to recapture what she’s lost – the smells of her grandmother’s garden, the warmth of her childhood summers, the textures of her homeland – Sora is able to find that universal human desire for love and belonging and connection, carving out a space that’s free from the political and full of those personal, intimate encounters that make a life rich with meaning.

“There is a certain smell and a temperature associated with my childhood and I’m always trying to replicate that,” she says. “It left such a gap in my soul not to have that anymore when I left Iraq. Maybe that’s why I use all these warm colors. For me, the scariest thing is not to have memories.”

Part III: Ancient History

Vian grew up in Baghdad, in a house where artists were always coming and going. She spent a lot of time in her grandmother’s garden, playing amongst rose bushes and pomegranate trees. In the summers, her family went to museums and archaeological sites along the Mediterranean. She loved art and math because they were the only things that made sense to her. She made drawings every day.

Then there was a war. The students had to go back to school even though there was no gas or electricity and smoke everywhere. One day, Vian was walking to school and a member of the Iraqi Intelligence Service ran a red light and hit her with his car. She flew six meters into the air and landed on her leg. It shattered. She had seven surgeries and walked on crutches for three years. Every day, she painted and drew.

She began showing her art in local galleries. Then she studied computer science and took a job with Mercedes-Benz. She was very good at it and all her colleagues loved her. Vian hated it and quit within a year so she could be an artist. Her boss with the very thick German accent said, Come with me. It was late and everyone else had gone home. She followed him back to his office where he opened a closet door and gestured inside. My wife, Maria, she was so miserable here in Baghdad. She thought she would take painting classes. All these expensive supplies. You should have them. Go be an artist.

Vian had her first solo show in Baghdad when she was 24. Her friends from Mercedes-Benz came and bought all her paintings. Foreign workers came to the galleries each day after they finished looking for weapons of mass destruction. Then her uncle was killed. Her father disappeared. The Iraqi government told the family he had been killed. Then he showed up one day. He had been tortured and imprisoned. The whole time this was going on, Vian painted and drew every day.

She took a job at the AP. She started as an assistant, but quickly learned all the jobs because her co-workers kept getting killed. Mostly she reported on car bombs. She and her crew would go to the bomb scene and interview people at the sidewalk cafe that now had bodies and body parts and organs everywhere. Vian would go back to the office and edit the footage and file the report saying how many people had died. She did this for three years. At night she would go to her studio and paint.

Then one day she and her colleagues were returning from a bomb site and they were bombed. Half the people in her crew died. The AP flew her to London and gave her a job and treated her like a hero. It was springtime and the city was sunny and beautiful. Vian wanted to kill herself. She met an American man who collected her art. She said, Look, I am really not the person you want to be with in a relationship with right now. But she was very smart and very beautiful so he ignored her. They lived in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates and then they moved to the United States. Vian had shows in Ankara and Istanbul and Kuwait City and Dubai.

She painted every day.

Epilogue: Last Sound

Vian Sora, “Last Sound”, 2018, Mixed media on canvas, 60 x 85 in

Late July, high summer. Uncomfortably humid, the sun intensely bright. The birds are silent, the trees are motionless in the breezeless air. Animals hide in shaded corners. Inside the artist’s studio, it is cool and quiet. The cat sits on the floor and watches the koi fish; the writer sits on the sofa and watches a painting that’s in the process of becoming Last Sound. The artist stands before a canvas taller and larger than herself, looking for meaning. Her dark hair is swept into a gracefully messy bun, her smooth olive skin smudged with pigment. She holds a broken piece of porcelain – it was the closest palette within reach – with a vivid blue oil paint and murmurs to herself, or perhaps to the canvas, as she contemplates the forms taking shape. 

It’s a conversation she’s been having, in some way, every day since she was a child and first put line to paper, that primal impulse to find meaning and give it expression. In a world where wars can be started by men in underground chambers, where a judge can decide the fate of an asylum-seeker, where entire lives can be blown apart in an instant by a 19-year-old boy with a suicide wish, art – the act of creating – offers its refuge of order and elegance, its unknowable grace. “How important is beauty to you?” the writer asks, and the artist holds her gaze on the canvas as she responds:

“It’s everything.”

UnderMain would like to thank The Great Meadows Foundation for support of our 2019 programming, which will include twelve in-depth studio visits of Kentucky artists. See our other publications related to this project: 

Emily Elizabeth Goodman visits Melissa Vandenberg
Hunter Kissel visits Harry Sanchez, Jr. 
Jim Fields visits Skylar Smith
Keith Banner visits Michael Goodlett

Miriam Keinle visits Lori Larusso
Sso-Rha Kang Visits Carlos Gamez De Francisco

The Great Meadows Foundation is a grant giving foundation whose mission is to critically strengthen and support visual art in Kentucky by empowering our community’s artists and other visual arts professionals to research, connect, and participate more actively in the broader contemporary art world.

Arts

Studio Visit with Carlos Gamez De Francisco: Reconsidering Form

A tree-lined driveway led to a private house tucked away in the rural suburbs of Kentucky. Lavish, otherworldly, and remote, artist Carlos Gamez De Francisco’s (b. 1987) home-based studio is evocative of Medici-era patronage. Housed in a friend’s secondary home, Gamez De Francisco uses the private space to focus exclusively on his art practice.

Tree-lined driveway to Carlos Gamez De Francisco’s home-based studio

Outdoor lounging area of Gamez De Francisco’s home-based studio

Reminiscent of 17th century Dutch portraiture, a series of young women adorned in pearls, head dresses, and ruffled collars are posed in a manner that is both austere and elegant. The works are visually and tonally seductive as vibrant hues of red, purple, gold, and white stand stark against a black backdrop. There is a frankness in the women’s demeanor as they stare directly into the camera, implicating the viewer with their gaze. The subjects are not to be reduced as being simply beautiful. Upon closer examination what initially appears as lavish garments are objects, such as: trash bags, kitchen towels, and bedspreads, to name a few. The objects are specific to each model, carefully scoured and chosen from their homes to be recontextualized and reformed into clothing.

work from the series “The Power of the Powerless” and “Specimen Lost in a Tropical Island.

Formally trained as a painter, Gamez De Francisco intentionally references painterly motifs to construct his photographic images. The history of portraiture is fraught with classism as those depicted were often in a position of status and power. Gamez De Francisco utilizes the format of portraitures’ to simultaneously empower the depicted models and dismantle portraitures’ exclusionary history. Regarding portraiture he states, “I think portraiture is the thing that is depicted the most in the history of art, I like to make portraits for that reason. What I wanted was to depict them in a position of power. I want to do the same with people of color and of different backgrounds, in the same position of power.”

The models depicted in the images are what Gamez De Francisco refers to as the “new generation of Cubans.” Born and raised in communist Cuba, Gamez De Francisco emphasized the hardships of growing up in a regime where basic everyday needs were scarce and access to the Internet or cell phones was unavailable. At 21 years old, he immigrated to the United States to pursue his career in the arts. In 2018, Gamez De Francisco traveled back to Cuba to document the new generation of Cubans with his series titled, “The Power of the Powerless” and “Specimen Lost in a Tropical Island”. Prior to his project, he put out a call in Cuba for people who would be interested in being photographed; 280 people responded. When asked how he chose from 280 people, Gamez De Francisco emphasized, “I want people of different genders, races, backgrounds, and incomes.”

work from the series “The Power of the Powerless” and “Specimen Lost in a Tropical Island

Opulent displays of material wealth paired with aristocratic poses that give an aura of nobility are reimagined through people of various economic classes, races, and backgrounds. Issues of diversity are at the forefront of the images. It is through portraiture that Gamez De Francisco gives the subjects a newfound sense of agency. There is a conceptual component to Gamez De Francisco’s photographic process as he goes through each individual model’s home to find various objects that can be transformed into a garment or accessory. The quality of objects can range from jewelry to utilitarian items like trash bags, which through the process of manipulation and recontextualization warps the original meaning of the objects and constructs a more powerful narrative through image-making. Regardless of the model’s background or quality of items represented in the picture, the motif of portraiture aesthetically eradicates unstable power discrepancies through the visual language associated with bourgeois portrait culture.

screen shot of Henrik Kersten’s photographs. Courtesy of Google Images

Unlike the Dutch photographer Henrik Kersten (b. 1956) who also uses repurposed materials like plastic bags and napkins to recreate a formal likeness to Dutch portraiture, Gamez De Francisco subverts the Eurocentric paradigm of portraiture found in the canon of art history. He does this by not only incorporating people of color but by interviewing each subject which allows the depicted to be an active participant in the construction of their image. Personal narrative is imbued into the subject’s personal items which incorporates a level of intimacy and ownership that is not initially apparent but activates the portraits in a way that destabilizes both the colonial and male gaze.

commissioned watercolor portraits and abstract painting in-progress

Interested in further expanding his studio practice, Gamez De Francisco likes to challenge himself by working in different styles and media. He is still working within the style of portraiture, however there is a stylistic transition that is centered on exploring the technical aspects of painting. His solo exhibition at Miller Gallery in Cincinnati this year titled, “Modern Nobility, The Art of Carlos Gamez De Francisco” involved painting in front of a live audience, adding a performative quality to the act of painting. Having formally trained as a painter, breaking free of its technical limitations and challenging the parameters of the medium itself are always a points of consideration.

Apart from the painting-based performance, Gamez De Francisco likes to work with watercolor paint because of its unforgiving and spontaneous characteristics. The paint is hard to handle due to its lack of texture, and the loose translucent quality of the pigment tends to spread rather than hold. It appears less calculated yet takes an instinctual precision to ensure the paint moves and applies as directed. Intention is less mediated, as control is viable only up to a certain point as the medium is unable to be tamed completely. Unlike his photographs which are meticulously staged and executed, his watercolor portraits have a gestural ephemerality. The quality is markedly soft in comparison to the polished finish of his Baroque-like photographs.

mural in-progress at the Origin Hotel in Lexington, Kentucky

Gamez De Francisco having a conversation in front of mural at the Origin Hotel in Lexington, Kentucky

The aesthetic composition of his watercolors with loose calligraphic forms and muddled pops of colors are being challenged on a much larger scale as Gamez De Francisco is currently working on a wall mural for the Origin Hotel in Lexington, Kentucky. The scope of this project is in direct contrast to the temporal constraints of the watercolor portraits seen in his studio, where works are executed in a much more unrehearsed manner with inevitably shorter time and labor constraints.

The most evident stylistic shift that was seen during the studio visit was Gamez De Francisco’s blatant effort to deviate from pictorial representation. A circular canvas with textured strokes of oil paint in various patches of light blue, white, red, and pink rests unfinished, a work in-progress. For Gamez De Francisco, Abstract Expressionism is new territory that results in a different type of aesthetic experience. With no recognizable meaning the viewer is forced to contemplate and simply experience the work. Like the viewer, the artist is also confronted with the freedom of non-representational ways of painting. The formlessness of abstraction comes with new sets of decision-making that pose challenges of its own.

Although this stylistic transition is conceptually new, Gamez De Francisco has had a penchant for abstract thinking from a young age. He recalls one of his earliest memories of drawing from when he was six years old. His father was in the kitchen explaining how water comes out of the faucet. Fascinated with the faucet’s ability to release water, Gamez De Francisco became enamored with the idea of drawing running water. This was a concern for his mother, as she felt her son’s desire to draw moving water warranted a visit to the local psychiatrist. According to Gamez De Francisco this was a seminal moment for him, “At 6 years old I was determined I wanted to be an artist.”

This level of decisiveness and determination made Gamez De Francisco resort to savvy tactics in his attempt to paint during a period in his life where resources were limited. It was during this time that the United States of America sanctioned an embargo on exports to Cuba that resulted in Cubans having to get creative within their material constraints. Gamez De Francisco would mix watercolors with toothpaste in an attempt to achieve the quality of oil paint, and used found pieces of cardboard as a substitute for canvas. This single-minded resourcefulness has carried into his art practice today.

Gamez De Francisco is disciplined and methodical in his approach to painting. He emphasized his rigorous daily routine that is fueled with an incessant need to make work that is always contingent on improvement. The secluded environment of the Kentucky countryside in which his studio resides allows for no distractions and enables an almost obsessive focus on making work. The grounds are both scenic and isolating, which recall a pre-Modernist model of an art studio.

However, it is not just the environment that won him over. Gamez De Francisco quite deliberately chose to have his art practice based in Louisville. In 2017, he moved to study at the School of Art Institute of Chicago. However, he recently moved back because of Louisville’s art community. He says, “I prefer Louisville because of the people, they love to support art and in an art scene that is not large. There is so many people that love art.” There is a culture of support, inclusivity, and passion that resonates with Gamez De Francisco on a deeper level and one he considers to be pertinent to a creative community.

UnderMain would like to thank The Great Meadows Foundation for support of our 2019 programming, which will include twelve in-depth studio visits of Kentucky artists. See our other publications related to this project: 

Emily Elizabeth Goodman visits Melissa Vandenberg
Hunter Kissel visits Harry Sanchez, Jr. 
Jim Fields visits Skylar Smith
Keith Banner visits Michael Goodlett

Miriam Keinle visits Lori Larusso

The Great Meadows Foundation is a grant giving foundation whose mission is to critically strengthen and support visual art in Kentucky by empowering our community’s artists and other visual arts professionals to research, connect, and participate more actively in the broader contemporary art world.

Arts

Feasts of Fantasy: The Cruel Pleasures of Lori Larusso’s Paintings

Food is central to our daily lives. It provides necessary nourishment and pleasure, as well as aggravation and anxiety. What and how we eat informs our identities in terms of gender, class, and ethnicity. Eating shapes our social relations with others and our environment. However, these are not abstract associations, but intimate and specific experiences that encode desire, taste, tradition, ritual, and etiquette. Much of Lori Larusso’s work explores the unwritten rules and underlying effects of the domestic activity of making and consuming food. With meticulously applied layers of bright glossy paint, she lovingly renders delicious confections and delectable meals, as well as kitchen and dining room disasters, to make us consider how food communicates effective experiences, psychological states, and moral dilemmas.

In her painting If you can Bake a Cake, you can Make a Bomb (2017), a dozen splattered eggs appear on the floor of a pristine powder-blue kitchen. As the title suggests, cakemaking has turned incendiary. Perhaps the baker, frustrated by the expectation of bourgeois domestic perfection, has turned against her craft. Or alternatively, maybe the chickens themselves have revolted against the pilfering of their eggs for use in our cakes, as intimated by dark silhouettes of barnyard fowl that appear in the cabinet-turned-chicken-coup under the kitchen counter. Either way, the broken eggs convey that something is amiss in this seemingly idyllic yet creepily sanitized American home.

“If you can Bake a Cake, you can Make a Bomb”, acrylic on (2) shaped panels, approximately 42 x 64 x 2 inches, 2017

“Trickle Down”, acrylic on (2) shaped panels, approximately 18 x 33 inches, 2013

In fact, a feeling of unease haunts all of Larusso’s immaculate surfaces. In Trickle Down (2013), a double chocolate chunk ice cream cone oozes sticky sweet cream onto the floor of an otherwise picture perfect interior. A cozy fire burns in the fireplace, as sophisticated busts and vases of flowers rest on an adjacent bookshelf. This mid-century modern home could be in Dwell magazine if it were not for the fallen ice cream cone that ruins the image of upper middle-class luxury. There is a tension between the cheap treat in the foreground and the impeccable home behind it, as if to suggest that we must be satiated with small affordable pleasures while an unattainable dream lies just out of reach.

The atmosphere of this picture is one of frustrated desire. In an economy where wealth and opportunity are supposed to “trickle down” from rich to poor, yet rarely do, we are torn between settling for brief moments of feeling good and aspiring for something better through real political change. Embodying this tension, Larusso’s paintings recall what literary theorist Lauren Berlant describes as the “cruel optimism” of the American Dream, or a condition in which “something you desire is actually the obstacle to your own flourishing.” Much like the sentimental fiction that Berlant describes in her writing, Larusso’s paintings capture the combination of fantasy and futility that characterize the mirage of accessible abundance propagated in the US. Although we are accustomed to wanting things that we know are probably bad for us, like that double chocolate chunk ice cream cone, the stakes are higher when we desire a better lot in life. And these paintings register this intense longing to believe in meritocracy and upward mobility, as well as the sense of resignation and exhaustion indicative of the new economy that thwarts that promise.  

“I’m Sorry (We Are Garbage)”, acrylic on (2) shaped panels and ribbon, approximately 3.5 x 12 feet, 2017

Larusso’s works appear as stages for dispirited characters who are perhaps in the process of relinquishing their fantasies. Whether visualizing the specter of economic precarity or environmental degradation, her paintings evoke conflicted responses to everyday experiences that we sense affectively even if we don’t register them cognitively. Lunch By The Dumpster (2013) brings to mind a quick break to eat a packed lunch by the dumpster before returning to one’s minimum wage-paying job, as well as the post-consumer waste that haunts even the smallest of meals. I’m Sorry (We Are Garbage) (2017), which depicts an apologetic party balloon attempting to lift a plump white trash bag out of a metal bin, recalls the profuse amounts of trash produced by the average American party. Although we’d probably rather forget all the decorations, paper plates, plastic utensils, gift wrappings, and food remains that get stuffed into bags after the event is over, this painting reminds us that this is part of who we are. Our garbage does not just float away after we toss it in the bin, even if the weekly trash pick-up makes it seem so.

Like Berlant, Larusso is concerned with ordinary moments and encounters more than major events and big revelatory gestures. For this reason, as well as her humorous, colorful, and representational style, Larusso’s paintings were received earlier in her career as lacking “seriousness.” This perception recalls the criticisms leveled at Pop artists during the 1960s. However, Pop was redeemed by its “coolness” that conveys a sense of neutrality, detachment, and impassiveness when approaching themes of consumerism and the everyday. These masculinist imperatives, as feminist art historians Cécile Whiting and Kalliopi Minioudaki have respectively shown in their writings, were also mobilized to exclude female Pop artists who were deemed too personally invested in their subjects to be properly Pop.

“Hungry Heart”, acrylic on shaped panel, 43 x 40 inches, 2010

“You Used to Blog About Cupcakes”, acrylic on (2) shaped panels, approximately 40 x 32 inches, 2013

Similar to her feminist Pop precursors, the convivial yet disturbing domestic scenes of Larusso’s “Shapes” series (2007 – 2014) feel engaged and impassioned more than cynical and impersonal. Pithy suggestive titles like Boil, Fried, Cracked, Wrecked, and Hungry are common in the series and reinforce the impression that all is not well in these seemingly happy homes. Although no people appear, Larusso strategically uses absent objects or out of place elements to make tangible the feelings of hunger, exhaustion, abuse, self-loathing, and unrequited love of the characters that one imagines inhabiting these spaces. In Hungry Heart (2010) and You Used to Blog About Cupcakes (2013) from the series, the oven—which is absent in the former, and defunct in the latter—serves to heighten the melodrama of the scene. Almost anthropomorphized, its open door seems to cry out, exposing the void within. Similarly, eye-catching colors like Pepto-Bismal pink, bright white, and chocolaty brown intensify the mood of anxiety, longing, and disillusionment of the once recognized food blogger who has recently abandoned her craft. In this way, Larusso orchestrates these compositions to capture a frustrated belief in the good life, speaking to what Berlant describes as the “dramas of adjustment” that characterize our age of growing income inequality.

Berlant builds on what Raymond Williams calls the “structure of feeling” or the intuited contours of a particular space in time that gives one a sense of the possibility of certain futures over others. Through her shaped paintings, Larusso brings into relief the pain, stress, and humiliation of hungry hearts that cannot be sated. However, this yearning is not only met with refusal and despair, but also compassion and optimism. Through humorous juxtapositions and exquisitely detailed subjects, Larusso conveys a sense of attachment to the world she depicts. And by accentuating its contradictions, her paintings offer a space to recalibrate and resist the patterns of life that we have come to expect. As Larusso states: “I am, in part, searching for the tipping point. When does one decide to alter their systems of belief, behavior, and take action? Is a revolution necessary, or can we incite positive change in our lives by individual acts of resistance? What does resistance look like?”

In her recent “Non-compliance” series, works like If you can Mop a Floor, you can Exercise Total Personal Non-Cooperation (2017) and If you can Perform a Striptease for your Husband, You can Perform a Lysistratic Non-Action (2018) set the stage for such individual acts of resistance. Cast-off objects like the mop and bra imply that someone has reached their breaking point and abandoned their chores mid-action. And because there are no people in these works, animals often activate the scene. Whether they be dead cockroaches swimming in a pool of mop water or an orange pussy cat turned doormat-sized area rug, these creatures produce a tension between a repugnant foreground and alluring background.

“If you can Mop a Floor, you can Exercise Total Personal Non-Cooperation”, acrylic on (3) shaped panels, approximately 60 x 84 x 32 inches, 2017

This pull between attraction and repulsion also animates Larusso’s “Eating Animals” series (2017 ongoing). Works like Strawberry Short Snake, Broccoli Poodle, and Radish Mice morph fruits and vegetables into cartoon animals. Inspired by blogs posts and Instagram images taken by parents who aspired to shape these foods into more appealing forms for their children, Larusso explores this strange phenomenon in which edible items are transformed into animals that are socially unacceptable to eat in order to somehow make them more appetizing. This convoluted game while initially appearing absurd, invites one to think about the bizarre nature of the highly processed and packaged foods that the average American regularly consumes like chicken fingers and pumpkin spice lattes.

“Eating Animals (Strawberry Short Snake)”, acrylic on shaped panel, 32 x 20 inches, 2017

Although staged and idealized in advertising and social media, food entails messy and entangled systems of procurement, preparation, and consumption. Drawn like the rest of us to the flawless and filtered images of mouthwatering delights that appear in glossy magazine pages and populate one’s social media feed, Larusso takes this source material and transforms it into complex pictures that register a sense of precarity lurking beneath their appetizing surfaces. In her series “It’s Not My Birthday, That’s Not my Cake,” different kinds of cake communicate a range of emotional states. Each one with its candles extinguished has been wished over and awaits devouring. Coconut Cake (2010) appears stout and proud despite the shaky green lettering that timidly spells out “Happy Birthday.” In On A Doily (2014), thick layers of rust colored icing cover dense chocolate cake which sits atop a delicate bed of white lace that seems to float effortlessly under the weight of the cake’s burden. Across the series, the cheerful colors of Larusso’s celebratory confections invite one to contemplate the complicated range of emotions generated by those delicious things that are in fact not yours to enjoy.

“It’s Not My Birthday, That’s Not My (Strawberry Short) Cake”, acrylic and enamel on panel, 12 x 16 x 1 inches, 2010

This complicated space of longing is eloquently captured in the poems written by Carrie Green to accompany Larusso’s painting in their co-authored chapbook. Dedicated to “women artists everywhere, whether their medium is words, paint, or buttercream frosting,” the book is an ode to the overlooked domestic labor of cake baking and decorating. In its last poem, “Not Your Cake” Green’s ekphrastic text brings to life the space of desire embodied in Larusso’s painting It’s Not My Birthday, That’s Not my (Strawberry Short) Cake (2010). It reads:

The cake winks from behind
the neighbor’s starched white curtains

strawberries and cream and yellow cake
striping a green Formica background

You spent your last birthday
eating boxed macaroni from the pan.

Now you imagine the layered sweetness:
moist cake, rich fullness of cream,

tart bite of farm-stand fruit
carried home in the green paper cartons.

The kitchen is empty, washed pale
with early June light. Did you miss

the singing, the bright bouquet
of balloons marking the mailbox?

Flame has blackened the candlewicks,
and someone has served a generous slice

or two. The missing wedge
opens to you, an invitation.

It’s not your birthday. But why
couldn’t this cake be yours?

Although quieter in their sentiments, the paintings reproduced in It’s Not My Birthday, That’s Not my Cake highlight Larusso’s long-standing interest in how the seeds of change are sown into ordinary experiences. Seeking to re-contextualize revolution on a micro-scale that speaks to the complex entanglements of the domestic sphere, her paintings ask questions about how our intimate experiences with food educate and enculturate us, serving as a vehicle to alter the world in which we live.

New series “I Like Your Pictures and I Like YOU”, 2019, in progress in Larusso’s Studio in Lexington, KY.


UnderMain would like to thank The Great Meadows Foundation for support of our 2019 programming, which will include twelve in-depth studio visits of Kentucky artists. See our other publications related to this project: 

Emily Elizabeth Goodman visits Melissa Vandenberg
Hunter Kissel visits Harry Sanchez, Jr. 
Jim Fields visits Skylar Smith
Keith Banner visits Michael Goodlett

The Great Meadows Foundation is a grant giving foundation whose mission is to critically strengthen and support visual art in Kentucky by empowering our community’s artists and other visual arts professionals to research, connect, and participate more actively in the broader contemporary art world.

Arts

Ghosts and the Clothes They Wear: Mike Goodlett’s Life with Art

It’s been a week or so since I visited Mike Goodlett in his sanctuary.

“Sanctuary” is one of those go-to words I never go to, but I’m going to it now, after having experienced its manifestation in real life.  Where Goodlett makes art is simply that: a place of refuge, of safety, sort of sacred but also a little scary, like a hiding place you go to in dreams when you are being chased by blurry creatures you may not be able to remember but then wake up and try to draw.

In this case, “sanctuary” is an anonymous farmhouse with a gravel road leading up to it tunneled in trees and vines.  The day I visited was all crystal-clear blue sky, a beautifully strange shine on and coming from everything, like a photograph that never gets taken but somehow still is a photograph.  The house is white-sided, two-storied, and gray-roofed, with multiple front and back doors, lots of windows, and all around it is yard going off into land, some of it barren, some of it treed, grass just now sprouting into life.

Mike Goodlett’s Studio

I parked and got out of my car.  There wasn’t any wind, just that bright chilly air.  Even though I had never been here before, it was like a returning.  Meeting Goodlett was like that as well.

He is tall and unassuming, very polite, and we shook hands after I called him on my phone, confused by which door I should knock on.  We both were awkward at first, but almost instantly we got down to business.  I was here to see his art, and this is where he makes it, so we went on in, an automatic transfer from reality to ghostliness.  Nothing unnerving at all about it though.  There wasn’t an abandoned-house fustiness, or even a feeling of loss; it was the smell and ambience of lives having been lived, dusty but clean, sunlight baking old wood and plaster into an atmosphere.

“I’ve always wanted to be left alone,” Goodlett said.  It was sort of a joke, but I think he meant it as a solemn introduction too.

“I mean, I can’t find a group I want to be a part of.  So being out here for me has made a lot of sense.”

The house is actually his grandmother and grandfather’s. They died 30 or so years ago, and since then Goodlett has used the rooms, and the vicinity, as his studio and headspace, creating batches of artworks made from the humblest of materials (concrete, plaster, thread, ball point pens, pencils, crayons, and spray-paint) but that exude a sophistication that belies the humility of their construction.

Goodlett escorted me through each room of the house, which is gutted mostly, emptied of hominess so it can supply this new form of utility.  The wallpaper is shredded at points, but still covers many of the walls in a handsome form of pentimento, like a shirt half torn off.  A small black wood-burning stove occupies the middle portion of the house, releasing that warmth and smell from my own backwoods childhood: wood-smoke almost like a cologne.  In the kitchen a long table covered in stacks of books, drawing paper, pen and pencils, a coffee urn.

In each of the rooms Goodlett displayed works he wanted to show me.  We started out, though, in a cold little side area where he was experimenting with spray paint and cut-out stencil-like netting.  There were chunks of sculptures in here as well.

He walked around showing me what he was trying to figure out, and then told me, “I love changing materials, figuring out what they can do for me.  Ideas, too. I move from one body of work into another that way.  I know a body of work is finished really when I don’t have any more energy for it, and when it has a place to go.  Energy and interest are kind of linked that way.”

This house itself was like his manifesto in a lot of ways: objects and ideas half-formed, trying to find each other.  An exuberance flashed out of everything that’s not finished, that was looking for a way to be something else.  At one point he showed me some homemade lace he’d constructed from thread, pastel cobwebs shaped into socks and little hats, creepy and droopy but also innocently tattered, as if made to be used by ghosts.

Goodlett walked us through a hall and into another first-floor room, which was crowded with more sculptural works, as well as pages and pages of his drawings spanning across the gray-painted wood slats.  His three-dimensional objects have a tenderness you can’t name, concrete/plaster-formed mainly biomorphic and/or humanoid shapes that have evolved from the drawings.  And conversely, the drawings often vacuum in the shapes of the sculptures, a sort of aesthetic circle-jerk that reminds you both of angelic visitations and, well, group sex.

Or, as Goodlett likes to call it, the intersection of “whimsy” and “pornography.”  That’s one of his main themes, he told me, a way of trying to figure out the meaning of those two usually unintegrated penchants, often seen as polar opposites.  Whimsy in visual art often can become a twee exercise in flirtation, pornography a way to shock or display street cred.  The drawings, on paper and cardboard, created through an enmeshing of ink and pencil, needle and thread and paint, get at that merger without losing a sense of vigor and intimacy.  They are shapes pulled from gestures and moans that have ballooned into myth.  Through that clarification process, whimsy connects to porn, and abstract goes concrete.

In a drawing from 2011 titled “Dress Socks” (from a show called “Dress Socks and Other Diversions” at Institute 193 in Lexington, Kentucky), Goodlett gets down to the whimsy of porn and the porn of whimsy through a delicate fetishization of everydayness.  It’s an abstracted image of socks, given a veil of obsession, but a delicate ritual line informs every aspect of the drawing, like a Spirograph finding its way to language.  The drawing’s beauty comes from Goodlett’s dedication to finding what makes something erotic when it is not, what makes something endearing when it’s just an object you slide your feet into.  That investigation is done without words but through an adherence to what drawing can mean and do, a visual language that does not ever need a thesaurus.

Mike Goodlett, Dress Socks, 2011, ballpoint pen and thread on paper, 19 x 15.5 inches

We went upstairs.

Witnessing all of Goodlett’s rooms on display in his own personal museum up on the second floor, I kept thinking of Philip Guston’s jazzy delinquency and Georgia O’Keefe’s penchant for curves – all of that aestheticism laid bare through a need to make something personal, to find relief.  Throw a little Dichirico in there too, especially when taking in Goodlett’s objects: that stony sense of stillness matched with a yearning for songs of love.

In a piece I saw in one of the rooms, “Untitled” (from the 2015 exhibit “Human Behavior” at the John Goodlett Kohler Art Center), the connection to all of the above references comes through clearest.  The shape is chandelier crossed with internal organs, all of that turned to stone and then clothed in gauzy spandex, like something a mummy-stripper might put on to take off.  The muted color gives it dreaminess and pallor, but also highlights the stalagmite seriousness of its existence.  The solidity of it is an elegant joke too, like a lead balloon, but also you feel enlightened by its sense of holiness somehow.  It’s something you might worship, like an Egyptian artifact after the fact.

Michael Goodlett, Untitled

Goodlett mentioned Osiris in this room upstairs. The Egyptian-ness of his pursuit.

“It’s like inviting something supernatural to come and visit,” he said.  “Like I’m making vessels to contain them.”

One of many Osiris’s many identities is “Lord of Silence.”  He also goes by “Ruler of the Dead,” probably the first Egyptian deity to be associated with the mummy wrap, containing the dead in supernatural fabric to protect them as they made their way out of themselves.

Goodlett also explained to me that he works in cycles. Each cycle gets determined through exhaustion and external deadlines.  He is constantly pursuing obsessions, materials, and subject matter with an eye toward perfecting what he can, reinventing what he invents, and repurposing what he gets rid of.  (Right beyond the back porch is a beautiful pile of tossed-aside concrete and plaster pieces, a little encampment of future shapes, ideas, connections.)

In each room upstairs, drawings and sculptures waited for us politely, leaned up against the walls, ready for whatever.  My mind went to J. F. Sebastian from the movie Bladerunner.  He’s the genetic engineer left behind on Earth after most people have gone to colonize other planets, and because of dystopian loneliness and boredom he creates a generation of toys and androids to help him feel a little less alone.

I’ve always considered J. F. Sebastian a beautifully realized portrait of an artist without the normal baggage associated with “being an artist.”  His connection to what he makes is sincere and real, and yet he also understands the purpose of his practice in a pragmatic, unadorned way. He needs to make things in order to have someone there at the end of the day to greet him, to break away from a world that may no longer be there for him.  He creates an ecosystem out of bits and pieces, and in a movie filled with bleakness and doubt his existence feels the most hopeful and ironically the most grounded.

At one point, in one of the rooms upstairs, Goodlett brought in a bunch of drawings and laid them out on the floor, an overwhelming overspill.  You could tell he doesn’t like to talk about his work until he starts talking about it. But once he got going, he seemed relieved to be able to say what he wanted to say.

“Solitude appeals to me,” he said.  “But I also know I need to have a place for all of this stuff to go.”

He mentioned Philip March Jones as one of those external factors who’s assisted in understanding where he might fit in the world outside of here.  Jones, funder of Institute 193 and currently its Curator-at-Large, visited Goodlett here ten or so years ago and would not take no for an answer after asking Goodlett to have a one-man show.  Now dealers and curators often come to him.

All of my talk about J. F. Sebastian and solitude and sanctuary might make you consider Goodlett an “outsider artist.”  I truly hope not.  I don’t really think those old-school rules of arbitrary classifications apply here or basically anywhere now.  Goodlett graduated from an art school in the 1980s (Cincinnati Art Academy), and he has had exhibits at a lot of high-end joints, write-ups in national media (BOMBmagazine and Artforum, just to name a couple).  His outsiderness really is not something to focus on or to conjure.  He is an artist living his life, using what he makes to keep his life and energy and interest going.

At the end of our visit Goodlett told me he had to go to the grocery store next.  He explained how he’s one of the only family members left who can take care of his elderly mom and his aunts.  He spends a lot of time making sure they are doing okay, and then he comes out here to pursue what he needs to pursue.

This farmhouse from his childhood is not Paradise Gardens, or a version of Watts Towers.  It’s just where he has wound up.  Somehow the journey and the destination have merged into both an artistic practice and a reason to live.  Making art, whoever is making it, weaves the inner-world into the outer-world in a way that allows you to recover and replenish and continue.  This rooms in Goodlett’s farmhouse are always evolving, changing, and he always struggles to figure out what fits where.  What drawing can give birth to three dimensions, what object can be sucked into two.  This space has given him permission to do the work he needs to do: making clothes for ghosts, making ghosts so he can make clothes for them.

“I guess you’d call everything I do part of an ongoing installation that never ends,” he told me.

Eventually, we went outside and did a little tour of the yard and surrounding area.  Just beyond his front yard is a thicket of tall trees where he’s installed a couple of sculptures.  One of them, sprouting from the mud like the hardened teats of a buried cow, is the perfect example of whimsy sliding into something a little less than charming and more guttural.  It’s ridiculous but also makes perfect sense.

Goodlett’s pursuit of art is converging the need to be seen with the need to disappear.

Right before the end of our visit, Goodlett talked about his legacy in terms of where all this work might go.  He told me he had a dream that he would have all of his works stored in an anonymous storage shed, and he would give the key to someone, right before he passes.  He smiled.

“The only problem is – who do I give the key to?”

I nodded my head.  We said goodbye.

The night  before visiting Goodlett, I went to an Iron and Wine concert, so I was playing Iron and Wine songs all the way here and all the way back.  When I arrived, and when I left, the song I was listening to was “Resurrection Fern,” from the 2007 album The Shepherd’s Dog.  The music is steel-guitar languish blurring into folk-rock lament.  Sam Beam’s voice has a cadence and warmth to it, like a voice you hear only inside your head when you’re dozing off in church.

“Resurrection Fern” starts with these words:

In our days we will live
Like our ghosts will live
Pitching glass at the cornfield crows
And folding clothes.

I won’t be able to hear that song now without thinking about the depth and amount of Goodlett’s work, the place where he makes it, and the life he’s lived in order to be able to do it.  There’s a poetry to his pursuit you can’t write poems about; you can only acknowledge his lifelong project by knowing his work is a journey toward making more work, and more work, until all of it will need to a final place to exist – a pyramid, a museum, a storage unit, or a haunted house. It doesn’t matter.  Wherever it all goes it will be called “home.”

Arts

Temporal Slippage at the MS Rezny Gallery

By nature, a palimpsest is a document that collapses time, bringing together two disparate moments juxtaposed one over the other. It is this temporal slippage that is at the center of Martin Beck’s current exhibition on view at MS Rezny in Lexington. Beck’s works function as the titular palimpsest (or Palimpsest 2 in this particular case) by drawing on the historicity associated with the nude in Western art history—both with regard to the long tradition of the nude dating back to antiquity and in terms of its usage in order to create a sense of the past by removing the sartorial markers of a present moment—while simultaneously imbuing the works with an undeniable sense of the here and now.

Taken from life, Beck’s figures contain a certain phenomenological quality that makes them undeniably present, particularly through the tactility of his chosen medium. Moreover, his drawings engage with the present through the inclusion of subtle and simple symbolic objects—including guns and even the hammer and sickle—that remind us of the highly contentious and politicized climate of our current moment. In so doing, Beck draws the viewer into a moment of deep contemplation of the conditions of their present state, both in front of the work and in our society on the whole.

Martin Beck, “Tuesday”, 2019, Mixed media on prepared paper, 29 1/2 x 29 1/2 inches

For all of the works in Palimpsest 2, Beck manages to blur the line between eternal and ephemeral. On the one hand, works like Tuesday engage with the long tradition of the nudes within the western canon. In this work, a young woman appears seated, legs stretched out in front of her as centuries of reclining female nudes have done before. Beck further gives her a sense of timelessness by rendering the setting completely illegible. Abstract coloration has taken the place of any scenery, including whatever implement she is seated upon, providing the viewer with no historical content to understand this appearance. With no such temporal signifiers, we are left with an eternal nude.

At the same time, this eternal quality is undercut by the tactility of the work and the fact that it is drawn from life. While Beck uses a variety of media in creating his drawings, the works are all clearly marked by the hand of the artist in the present moment rendering them not only visually compelling, but also imbuing them with a haptic quality. The gradations in texture and color as well as the clear imprints of the hand used to contour and shade all provide the work with a sense of immediacy and the momentary.

While the subject matter may feel eternal, the works are undeniably the result of an instantaneous and particular interaction. This momentary quality is furthered by the fact that all of the works are drawn directly from life. According to Beck, “working from life, the model and artist reveal the truth of a specific time, place and act. […] Rather than think of these as pictures of people, for me these are authentic depictions of selective experiences.” As such, Beck’s nudes are given an ephemerality and a temporality of the present, despite the lack of signifiers that would tie them to a time or place.

Martin Beck, “Ties That Bind”, 2019, Mixed media on prepared paper, 29 1/2 x 29 1/2 inches

Yet not all of Beck’s works involve the complete disavowal of present-day objects in order to create this collapsing of time within each one. Some works, like the piece Ties that Bind, include clear references to our current moment in the form of specific items, while still maintaining a sense of temporal ambiguity. In this piece, Beck depicts a woman lying on the ground, with her head at the bottom of the composition and her legs propped up on some unknown, wrapped object, holding an assault rifle next to her right hip. Beck unsettles the woman from time and space, not only through her nudity, but again through his abstraction of the background; Beck denies the viewer a concrete horizon line and thus she appears floating and timeless.

At the same time, Beck’s inclusion of the gun works to draw us immediately back to the present. Given the prevalence of gun violence—especially that carried out with assault-style weapons—it is impossible to view the rifle by her side and not consider both the carnage and the contention surrounding these objects in our current moment. As such, Beck uses these objects to further the sense of the present within each work.

Martin Beck, “Material Girl”, 2019 Mixed media on prepared paper 29 1/2 x 29 1/2 inches

Martin Beck, “Home Grown #4”, 2018, mixed media on prepared paper, 29 1/2 x 42 inches

While some of the items included in Beck’s images are unabashed signifiers of our present moment, others have a subtler allusion to temporal “now.” For instance, several of the works, including Material Girl, Lurid Red, and Home Grown #4, all involve nude figures—a singular woman in the cases of Material Girl and Lurid Red and a man for Home Grown #4holding a hammer and sickle. Unlike the assault rifle, the signification of these objects is less immediate; in the almost three decades since the decline of the Soviet Union, the hammer and sickle have become more historic signifiers than anything else.

Yet Beck’s inclusion of these object in works that—which through their tactility involve a sense of immediacy and the present—functions to dust off the historical characteristic of the hammer and sickle and force us to examine their role in the present. Given the current contentious geopolitical situation between the United States and Russia, and the outspoken desire of Russia’s president to return to the glory days of the U.S.S.R., these seemingly outdated objects do have a clear bearing on our contemporary existence.

Furthermore, the continued debates over “Socialism” and its place within the United States is also evoked, albeit not answered, through Beck’s inclusion of these items. In considering his works with regard to the palimpsest, this inclusion lays bare the fact that the same object or text can participate in different discussions at separate moments overtime, wherein traces of the past engage in dialogue withnew iterations in the present.

Moreover, in addition to the multiple temporalities at play in each work, the show evokes the sense of the palimpsest for which it is named when viewing the works in a conglomeration. As documents, palimpsests are multifaceted and often layered works, with newer text interspersed amongst the older. The result is a document that requires both close reading and a sense of distance in order to fully ascertain its full meaning. This oscillation between proximal and detached viewing is underscored in the way the exhibition is curated. Beck’s works adorn not only the surrounding walls of the gallery, but also a smaller, four-sided pilaster and both sides of a false wall.

These two structures divide the gallery so that only some of the works can be viewed from a single, distanced vantage point. Moreover, the placement of the pilaster requires us to get close to the images, and to even be surrounded by them. In so doing, we engage each image, phenomenologically speaking, with a close intimacy of the present while simultaneously being made aware of a larger continuum within the body of work, much as we would while actually reading a palimpsest.

On the whole, Martin Beck’s latest works call our attention to the present and its position within a larger temporal trajectory. The tactility of his medium and his use of live drawing bring us, the audience, into a particular ephemeral and instantaneous moment, while his subject matter—the nude—calls our attention to a longer tradition of history. Similarly, Beck’s use of abstract backgrounds works to remove us from a specific temporality, while the objects he often presents alongside his figures draw us back into our contemporary settings. Beck’s work thus demands both proximity and distance, presence and detachment, from his viewers, creating a layered and multifaceted experience.

Arts

Through Line to a Third

The problem with binary thinking is that by reducing the world to a simple either/or proposition, we neglect to see a third option. In most cases, our experiences, identities, and worldviews cannot be simply categorized as one thing or another; more frequently these entities are mutually inclusive, existing on a continuum or in a dialectic, rather than a dichotomy. This third option—wherein two things not only coexist but are interrelated—is at the heart of Melissa Vandenberg’s work as an artist. Vandenberg’s practice brings together elements of right and left; historical and contemporary; North and South; masculinity and femininity; and ephemerality and permanence in such a way that highlights how these polarities reveal a third, interconnected option. Working in a wide array of media and subjects throughout her career, Vandenberg explores the borders of our thinking and makes us aware of the processes therein.

Melissa Vandenberg’s interest in the interconnection of various seemingly polar entities is rooted in her own identity as an artist. When asked if she considers herself a Southern artist, for instance, Vandenberg opts for a more ambiguous identification than offered in a simple yes or no. Rather, she demonstrates both an interest in embracing the moniker and a reluctance to truly identify as such, given her status as a transplant. Born in Michigan and having migrated slowly more southward through her education and work—completing her MFA at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale and having worked in Indiana and Tennessee before settling into a faculty position at Eastern Kentucky University in 2009—Vandenberg is acutely aware of her status as a Northern native living in Appalachia. At the same time, having spent a decade in Eastern Kentucky, she recognizes the influence of the region on her identity as an artist, readily embracing the environment as a consideration in her work. Hers is thus a perspective of both insider and outsider, one who knows the area from having lived here, but whose native identity is tied up somewhere else.

“Homewrecker”, sewing machine, knives, deer hide, chair, brick & mixed media, 42 X 60 X 55 inches (dimensions variable), 2019. Image Courtesy of Maus Contemporary.

Similarly, Vandenberg’s work cannot be defined by a particular medium. Her practice involves sculpture, installation, performance, drawing, and photography, and she readily embraces working in all of these forms. Not identifying with a particular medium, however, has made her feel alienated in many American art contexts until relatively recently. As she notes: “I’ll use video and photography [and I’ll] also draw. I’ll do performance. I’ll do installation. And I didn’t feel like I had a niche or home for a long time and I think that [lack of a particular medium] was frowned upon, not just from commercial venues, but just in general, as if I was indecisive. And I’m like ‘no, I’m equally serious about all these things and it should be my concept that’s leading the material choices anyhow. […] Isn’t that where we went after the 60s?’” Vandenberg’s identity as an artist could be defined as “mixed media” or “intermedia”, but she will also readily admit that there are clear connections between these seemingly disparate entities of her own practice. In particular, she regularly embraces fiber as the basis for her work, making large scale, soft sculpture from sewn textiles, using sewing machines in her performances, and even using cotton rag paper as the basis for her drawings. As such, her practice similarly defies the binary that an artist must either be understood as a medium-specific or multimedia practitioner, offering a third option comprised of both.

“Doublespeak”, match burn on Arches paper, 22.5 X 30 inches, 2018. Image Courtesy of Maus Contemporary.

“Double-talk”, match burn on Arches paper, 22.5 X 30 inches, 2018. Image Courtesy of Maus Contemporary.

Looking at her work, it is readily apparent how her practice similarly engages with the dialectic between seemingly binary entities. In her most recent body of work, Vandenberg has created a series of triptychs comprised of “burn drawings,” which she has created by burning matches directly into Arches paper. In particular, her set of skull drawings, entitled Doublespeak, Double-Talk, and Red Vanitas, examine how two entities that are apparently diametrically opposed can actually merge to become one in the same, or an inclusive third. In each of these three works, two skulls look out in opposing directions, their metaphorical gazes fixed on something the other clearly cannot see. At the same time, their cranial structures overlap, merging them into a singular entity, one that is equally dependent on the form of the other in order to exist.

“Red Vanitas”, match burn and ink on Arches paper, 22.5 X 30 inches, 2018. Image Courtesy of Maus Contemporary.

For Vandenberg, this overlap and the dichotomy it undermines function to critique the extreme prevalence of binary thinking within our contemporary culture, both locally and world-wide. She notes: “I’ve been using conjoined metaphors for a while. I think [of the motif as reflecting] this political climate, the general divisiveness, [and] realizing, you know, the supposed right and left—and this is even a global situation, not just here.” Vandenberg’s skulls do look left and right and, yet, the two are ultimately part of the same entity. These works, therefore, call attention to the fact that the ideological and, even, the physical delineation of left and right are interdependent parts of a single whole. Just as a physical object cannot have solely a left or a right side—as there will always be a boundary on the opposite side—neither can a political ideology exist solely in one camp or another; the limitations of the polar opposite are, therefore,  essential to create a cogent definition. By conjoining the two entities as such, Vandenberg highlights the fact these distinctions in our culture are truly interdependent.

Vandenberg’s skulls not only ruminate on ideological dichotomies, but they also undermine the duality between past and present, or the (art) historical and the contemporary. For Vandenberg, this series of burn drawings offers an opportunity to consider the legacy of historical motifs and objects. The use of the skull makes a clear reference to the Dutch still life tradition of the “vanitas,” wherein the still life painter would include a material reference to death among the sumptuous painted display. At the same time, both materially and temporally, Vandenberg’s skulls convey a particular sense of the present. As previously noted, the conjoined nature of them calls attention to our contemporary historical conditions. Furthermore, the materiality of the burn drawing itself has a clearly instantaneous quality to it, one that is created with a meticulous precision in terms of timing, which imbues the work with a clear sense of the now. Combining the historical references with this notion of the present, Vandenberg’s work thus calls attention to the falseness of the dichotomy between past and present, revealing the continuum upon which both entities exist.

Vandenberg’s interest in combining seemingly dichotomous entities is not solely a recent venture. For years now, she has explored the limits of these distinctions throughout her practice, both literally and metaphorically. Geographic delineations, in particular, have been a consistent theme throughout much of her work. Just as her own identity as an artist has been shaped by time spent in both the North and the South, she has used her practice to explore the differentiation between these two regions. In 2010, for instance, she carried out her Middleland Project, wherein she spent several weeks traveling along the boundary between the Northern and Southern United States. The project offered a reimagining of American borders, highlighting the various identities that emerge within and across these two regions. As Vandenberg notes: “[t]hese are not your usual border states; semantically they are an amalgamation of the Heartland, the Midwest, the Bible Belt, just south of the Rust Belt and flanking the Mason Dixon Divide. They provide a rich yet fractured history as ideologies are constantly challenged from the surrounding North and South.”[1]

‘Middleland Project’, 10X14 digital photographs, 2010

Vandenberg documented her journey in a variety of media, including photographs and a blog  that she maintained during her travels. The resulting project is a series of images and texts illuminating the complicated and multifaceted expressions of regional identities that exist along the borderlands, demonstrating the ways in which people North of the divide share values and lived experiences with those South of it, while also noting the moments in which real differences are apparent. In exploring the line between North and South through this project, Vandenberg highlights the existence of a third possible identity, one that transcends and transgresses the division of the border itself.

“Monument”, US flags, polyester, wood, nylon & hardware, 66 X 26 X 26 inches, 2016. Image Courtesy of Maus Contemporary.

Her practice not only considers the interwoven nature of geographic boundaries, but also the interrelatedness that characterizes gender binaries. In particular, her sculpture practice has, for years, juxtaposed elements of masculinity and femininity in a way that calls attention to the limits of these two categories. For instance, in her work Monument, Vandenberg combines the masculinity associated with militarism and patriotic service with the femininity of textile work. In this work, Vandenberg constructs a portable, stuffed obelisk out of the fabric of several deconstructed flags. As such, the work calls attention to the particularly masculine traits of patriotic duty and military sacrifice, alluding to the cemetery memorials that mark the graves of countless American soldiers. (While women have, for centuries, served in military roles, the vast majority of service members killed in the line of duty have been men, due largely to the exclusion of women from combat roles until 2016.)

At the same time, Vandenberg incorporates clearly feminine signifiers into her monument through her choice of materials. Sewing, and textile work more generally, is unquestionably feminine, having been one of the primary forms of craft practices that have characterized women’s art for centuries. Broadly speaking, within flag culture, women’s roles have historically been as makers, using our talents with needle and thread to construct symbolic objects, the most iconic example of such being the Revolutionary War seamstress Betsy Ross. Therefore, by incorporating this textile tradition and rendering her monument visibly soft—a characteristic often attributed to women both in physical form and in temperament— Vandenberg complicates the masculinity associated with the obelisk and the militaristic culture it represents.

In bringing together two sides of this binary, Vandenberg again demonstrates how these notions are, indeed, interconnected. The softness of the stuffed fabric combined with the rigidity of the form of the obelisk proposes a reconceptualization of gender wherein the dichotomy between manliness and womanhood is replaced with a more nuanced and dialectic understanding. Because this form is neither completely masculine nor completely feminine, it posits the existence of some hybridity between the two, thus illustrating that the binary is false and that some combination thereof is likely more common.

In her practice, Vandenberg has challenged the apparent duality of gender on multiple occasions, including in more recent work like the piece Homewrecker. In this work, Vandenberg has constructed a sewing station precariously propped up on a variety of knives, all of which sit on a flattened deer hide, while a brick placed on the pedal keeps the machine running. Like with her monument, the sewing machine itself is a synecdoche for womanhood.  The metaphorical reference to womanhood is made more apparent through the fact that it is a “homemaker” brand machine, calling to mind one of the central elements of women’s labor and identities for centuries. At the same time, the knives—bowie knives along the base of the machine and throwing knives extending down the legs of the chair—coupled with the skinned deer hide allude to hunting, one of the most traditional and archetypal roles for men going back to hunter/gatherer societies.

And yet even with the clear gender distinctions that are apparent on the surface of the work, the piece highlights the complicated and intertwined nature of gender. For instance, as Vandenberg notes, the deer hide itself can be understood as a feminine form, particularly as deer have held “a lot of symbolism in every religion, […]usually related to purity and fertility.” The masculinity of hunting is therefore undercut by the femininity associated with the deer in various spiritual practices. Through this juxtaposition, Vandenberg continues to complicate binary gender distinctions in her work, highlighting the capacity of objects and individuals to perform both roles simultaneously.

“Homewrecker”, sewing machine, knives, deer hide, chair, brick & mixed media, 42 X 60 X 55 inches (dimensions variable), 2019. Image Courtesy of Maus Contemporary.

The gender dichotomy is only one of the multiple binaries challenged in Homewrecker; the piece also ruminates of the duality of ephemerality and permanence. In particular, the physical construction of the work is both temporary and enduring. On the one hand, the assembled items that comprise the sculpture—the sewing machine, the seat, the knives, the hide, and the brick—are all sturdy and long-lasting items. On the other hand, the permanence of these objects is undercut by the dynamic and mechanical nature of the work. By strategically placing a brick on the foot pedal of the sewing machine, Vandenberg has created an object that will continue to vibrate so long as it is on display, ultimately causing the knives to cut into the deer hide and thus destroy the work as it once existed. In creating a work that appears static but is, in fact, always changing, Vandenberg highlights the interrelatedness between the ephemeral and the permanent. That the deer hide appears permanently whole but is actually being altered moment by moment illustrates how things may appear eternal, but they are never quite that. At the same time, that the fleeting and momentary vibrations of the sewing machine are causing the knives to damage the hide instant by instant also illustrates the impact of ephemerality on more permanent conditions.

Throughout her career, Melissa Vandenberg has used her practice to critically examine multifaceted and complex issues, layering meaning into the various elements of each work to create a totality rife with bold statements and nuanced assertions. Despite working in a wide variety of media, there are clearly remarkable through lines that create wholeness out of what could be understood as disunity. Similarly, though her work addresses a considerable number of disparate ideas, the distinctions among them frequently function to unite her practice and the issues she addresses. Her work challenges us to think in more complicated ways, abandoning reductive logic that seeks to delineate the world in binary forms, offering us instead a way to see a possible interconnected third.

Portrait of the artist by the artist, Melissa Vandenberg

[1]Melissa Vandenberg to Middleland: Artwork and commentary focused on the landscape flanking the Mason-Dixon Divide. , February 26, 2010, http://middleland2010.blogspot.com/?view=magazine.


UnderMain would like to thank The Great Meadows Foundation for support of our 2019 programming, which will include twelve in-depth studio visits of Kentucky artists. See our February submission related to this project: UnderMain critic Hunter Kissel visits Kentucky artist Harry Sanchez, Jr. 

The Great Meadows Foundation is a grant giving foundation whose mission is to critically strengthen and support visual art in Kentucky by empowering our community’s artists and other visual arts professionals to research, connect, and participate more actively in the broader contemporary art world.

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Make your FREE reservation now at reservations@under-main.com

UnderMain invites you to attend Critical Mass III: In The Mid March 15th & 16th. In its third iteration, after being hosted in Lexington and Louisville, the conversation will now move to Northern Kentucky to be held at The Carnegie Center in Covington. The Critical Mass Series is based in a common desire to create a platform for critical thinking in the arts: including artists, art critics, and curators.

CMIII: In The Mid will center on the experience of art professionals living and working outside of the major art centers for contemporary art. The panel-community discussion will also examine the role that written criticism plays in engagement of regional artists and institutions in a national and international dialogue.

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