At first glance it looks like the paper is still on fire. But it’s just how it was made. To make Floating Wall #1, artist Julie Pereira made layers upon layers of dyed paper, then burned them with incense. The resulting pattern on the paper looks like frozen smoke, like underwater photography, like clouds.
The piece is a fitting formal introduction to “Between Beauty and Decay” — now on view at Artspace on the corner of Crown and Orange until Feb. 24 — as Pereira’s piece seems to capture the exact moment in the exhibition’s title.
But there’s more.
The exhibit, as the accompanying text from curator Erin Joyce says, seeks to tackle the “time of great uncertainty, political change, and protest” that we’re living in. The artists are tackling questions about “identity, politicism [a word I am not ashamed to say I had to look up], terror, the end of nature, and human suffering and survival.”
Natalie Ball‘s piece, How To Play The Game, takes on the chaos at the exhibit’s heart most directly. With a laundry list of items including a deer skull, chicken wire, boxing gloves, an oil barrel, rope, and a pair of Nikes, Ball’s piece spills through a good quarter of Artspace’s gallery space. At first we see the mayhem — the dirt on the floor, the drawings right on the walls, the panoply of objects thrown around like the wreckage left after a tornado. But spend a little time wandering amid the piece, and a sense of narrative emerges. There’s a spider trapped in a cage. Another one, at the far end of the piece, seems to notice. Will the free one release the other from captivity? More intriguing is the sense of precarious balance. Taut ropes that keep a table tipped on two legs. A few objects, including a deer hoof, have been put together to resemble a microphone, which is then somehow still sitting on the slanted tabletop. Something has just happened, something is about to happen. If we were to break the cardinal rule of an art gallery and touch something, it might all come apart. But in the meantime, the piece is suspended, unreal. We’re in a break between chapters in a long story, and maybe if we’re clever, and a little mischievous, we get to decide what happens next.
In the next galleries over, Andrew Erdos‘s Mountains I, Mountains II, and Incantations float like icebergs in Artspace’s window, glass blown into shapes that echo the natural landscapes depicted on a monitor nearby. The projections in Basma Alsharif‘s Deep Sleep read more like a fever dream.
In We Are the People Who Are Darker than Blue, Jetsonorama (a.k.a. Chip Thomas) makes his point directly and effectively. On an entire wall of the space is a blown-up photograph of children dancing in a circle. They could be in a class in an elementary school, or at a summer camp. In fact, as Thomas’s accompanying text explains, they’re in an orphanage in Cote d’Ivoire for children with AIDS, or whose parents have died of the syndrome. “One might expect an AIDS orphanage in an impoverished country to be a depressing place,” Thomas writes. “However, I have honestly never seen a place with so much spirit, hope, and optimism. Kids, given the opportunity, will be kids.”
The personal and the political meet head-on in the pieces on the other side of the gallery dealing with America’s treatment of indigenous culture. Kim Weston‘s series of photographs put her between us and her subject, a series of ceremonial dances. She knows what meanings the dances carry. She also knows that most viewers don’t. So her photographs let us in, but only so far. Enough to be drawn in, but if we want to know more, we’re going to have to find it out for ourselves.
The sense of invitation and distance extend to the line of red objects on the floor that look at first like flower petals. They’re each a small pouch filled with tobacco. We’re invited to take one, to bring it home, to burn the tobacco and let the smoke hang in the air. It feels significant to be asked to do this. Both most of us still don’t know what it means. Should we take part in ceremonies like this if we don’t really have any connection to them — if we don’t really know what’s going on?
Those questions are honed to a much sharper point with Nicholas Galanin‘s pieces. Three of them are titled Repatriated Cultural Object, Tlingit, USA, Alaska, and are given a number, as if in a museum catalog. A fourth piece is titled Repatriated Watchman Totem Pole, Tlingit, USA, Alaska. It is also given a catalog number. But the artifacts we might expect are nowhere in sight. Instead, they’re just mirror boxes. The insides are impenetrable. They only reflect back — the other pieces nearby, the gallery’s walls, and us.
It’s hard to convey in words and pictures the screw-you punk-rock aggression in these mirror boxes, but in person, it is there. Did the labels make us think for a minute that we’d see some indigenous art? Well, too bad. Meanwhile, the reflections are penetrating, accusatory. Why do we go to art galleries and museums to see artifacts from other cultures? We learn all too often that the artifacts were acquired in sordid ways. Why is it still okay that they’re in a gallery? Do we go to museums and galleries because it’s safer? How much are we deluding ourselves about that safety? What does it say about us if we’re still okay with the whole thing? What realities are we trying to avoid? Galanin’s simple, extremely effective pieces throw these questions in our faces — and suggest that we all have a lot of work to do in order to find answers.
“Between Beauty and Decay” runs at Artspace, 50 Orange St., through Feb. 24. Click here for gallery hours and more information.