It would be helpful if words could capture the sequence of impressions created by a first encounter with Confetti and Distress, Honey and Suspicion. We know what to expect with paintings and sculpture, and increasingly now with performance, installation, video—all the newer media that have become familiar parts of the gallery scene. We may describe the distant view, the changes on approach, overall appearance, even the order in which details succeed each other in awareness. But while the 14 towering and sometimes interlocking structures Elisabeth Higgins O’Connor arranges in a sort of labyrinth around the Shaw Gallery have a scattering of art world precedents, almost nothing similar enough has been seen before, so that each viewer will encounter their multiple complex and contrasting parts in a unique order, and so will sort and decipher their sensory impressions to make a uniquely personal experience.
Like the assemblages of Robert Rauschenberg, they use found materials combined intuitively. Yet they don’t hang on walls; instead they stand directly on the ground, like modern sculptures that dispense with pedestals. Considering how much of them has fallen like shed skin, or drifted like autumn leaves into piles that litter the floor, they lack even the rudimentary separation that sets most artworks apart from their environments. In this way they recall the life-size, walk-in artworks of Ed Kienholz and Nancy Reddin, though without their specific, real world references. The closest parallel may be a formal garden, in which trees and shrubs configure pathways that visitors walk along. Topiaries, sculpted plants like those of Edward Scissorhands, come to mind. Nor is the reference to vegetal nature as misleading as it may sound, for while these are clearly meant to depict animals of a folkloric, rather than mythical sort, yet they are as likely to sprout flowers as fur, and their skins often look more like ornamental foliage.
Part of the challenge of recognition has to do with the extensive mix of materials the artist freely employs to mimetic and fantastical effect. What takes time to see through can take many visits to take in entirely, if anyone ever does. A visual riot of embroidered doilies, tatted scarves, lace, crocheted placemats, printed hand towels, machine-quilted comforters, foam rubber and cotton batting, swag edging, fringed and balled borders, colored cardboard, paint-spotted paper, miles of string tied like netting, rough-cut lumber, and a spine of wood salvaged from antique furniture not only add up to a figure, but topping it a face with a lively expression and posture that convey intelligence, attitude, and apparently even an unsettling awareness of the (rather smaller) observer. But once one of them appears like an epiphany, they can be seen more quickly and decisively, until faces become here, as they are throughout human perception, easier to spot than whatever makes them up.
They stand, or limp on rude crutches, or crawl over 3,000 square feet of gallery floor, much of it covered by their shed scales, or maybe fallen leaves, for it’s not at all clear what species is confronted from one moment to the next. Some are covered by thousands of colorful flowers, each hand cut and layered like shingles. They are most likely to be identified in a book of fables, or today maybe in a movie. One such story brought to mind involves a spirit that has taken up residence in a rag pile, animating its still-recognizable fragments into the semblance of a living being with a physical presence.
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At the same time, the mix of materials and the graphic gestures they imitate, which the artist employs like pencil lines or brush strokes, refuse to dissolve into the illusion. Where artists in centuries past often strove to conceal their labor in a convincing replica of the subject, O’Connor lets her salvaged materials retain their identities even as they suggest another identity. Like the 16th-century Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who arranged fruit, flowers, and even fish to become realistic portraits of typical human visages, O’Connor wants her audience to see the folkloric figure and its component parts in equal measure. The 21st century, though, has seen more serious reflection on such phenomenon by artists and scientists alike, who not only have identified a whole range of such perceptual phenomena, but explored neurological implications that turned out to be fundamental to visual processing. Thanks to this newfound interest in optical illusions as raw material for creative exploration, art enthusiasts can join gamblers, politicians, and psychopaths, all of whom are known to see designs where none exist, and take pleasure in seeing patterns (apophenia) and faces (pareidolia) in places there aren’t any: pleasure already familiar from interpreting depth and space within the flat surface of a painting or photograph.
Some insight into the artist may be gleaned from an assortment of drawings shown in a small gallery next door. Many are virtuosic portraits of her raw materials in their original states, as if depicting a parallel universe in which they fulfilled domestic fates. Stacks of pillows and bedding or ornamented fabrics are almost obsessively observed, meticulously drawn, and pinned directly to the wall. These cannot be considered preparatory studies, since they show no hint of the figures they became. If anything, they make the case for textiles as legitimate subjects for visual contemplation. It’s not exaggerating much to compare them to the remarkable drapery studies made during the high Gothic era, some of which seem to capture an entire universe in a vast web of pleats and folds. A few drawings that do seem to anticipate the figures present animals as actors and plants as backgrounds in what might have become book illustrations or another version of what’s seen in the gallery: dramatic tableaux perhaps, in which the figures interact with each other. Some look like stuffed toys, others are dressed as if to entertain a human audience. In one, helicopters serve as antagonists. What seems clear is that we’re not in the Lake District any more, while the anger of the protagonists, possibly standing in for all nature, has become far less ambivalent.
Viewers may well ask whether these figures are seen in the act of constructing themselves, pulling their necessary materials together, or are falling apart into their component parts before the audience’s eyes. Of course they could be doing both simultaneously, in a more obvious and visible version of what all living beings do throughout their lives, and arguably all material things do throughout their existences. In this sense, relative age can be measured by which process—creation or dissolution—has the upper hand. Nor should anyone assume that what appears in a gallery entirely equates with intentions. Their incomplete state may only identify them as a work in progress, which would befit a project so ambitious in size and originality. The titles, on the other hand, suggest something more static than active: something like allegory. “Lust,” “Caution,” and “Temptation” sound like durable traits, while “Trudge,” “Sentry,” and “Better Be Quiet Now” convey the sense of being trapped in time.
Confetti and Distress, Honey and Suspicion is refreshingly lacking in ideology and sermonizing. While the artist’s memories and opinions inform the details, autobiography is no more essential in appreciating it than knowledge of a narrative, whether borrowed or invented. Yet something is going on here—probably several things. The apparent nostalgia for textiles could open an entire conversation about domesticity and craft, just as the blending of animal and vegetal themes invokes the unity of nature. One possible reading, though perhaps not one the artist would insist on, tells of how humanity, having finally emerged after a million years from the struggle with nature red in tooth and claw, and having passed through a brief era in which the natural world seemed subject to human command and exploitation, has begun to realize that the wild world holds far greater perils than were experienced before. Talk of a sixth great extinction carries the implicit threat that the human victory over nature will prove Pyrrhic in the end, lending new significance to O’Connor’s choice of “man-made” materials.
Four of those materials—confetti and honey, distress and suspicion—may sufficiently account for Elisabeth Higgins O’Connor’s intentions. She has indicated that this work is intentionally awkward, in order that the people who experience it not become oriented too quickly: they should not know with certainty where they are or what they face. In addition to the uncertainty produced by the haphazard feeling of incompletion, the unfamiliarity of the subject matter, and the lack of clues, the method of construction conflicts viewers. On the one hand, the still-identifiable materials draw viewers closer, attempting like so many scientific observers to peer closely enough to truly see. Yet at the range where the parts can be most readily identified, it’s impossible to take in the overall structure. As with any detailed, large work, it is also necessary to back up far enough to bring the whole into focus. Once again, these gigantic, obvious and yet mysterious figures bring those who walk among them back to such fundamental facts, all of which, as in the real world, are really questions.
“Confetti and Distress, Honey and Suspicion,” by Elisabeth Higgins O’Connor, Shaw Gallery, Weber State University, 3848 Harrison Blvd, Ogden, through Nov. 21, Hours: Mon-Fri: 11a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat: noon-5 p.m. Info: weber-edu-dova.org/shawgallery/801-626-6000
This article appears in the October 2015 edition of 15 Bytes.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.