Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Plural & Partial @ Rio Gallery

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Behind her charming bracelets, Haworth has something edgier to show. “She Was Not There” and “She Was Defined by Negative Spaces” comprise a symmetrical pair of mixed-media canvases that make their most telling point through their ambiguity: is this one woman, or two playing similar roles in familiar stories? Every work in Plural and Partialmixes media in some way: here the artist paints over collaged materials, including newspaper stories of bizarre, resonant violence. The male silhouettes in the background feel ominous, but Haworth’s signature Pop sensibility resurfaces further along, in “Art Woman” and “Miss O. Regrets.” In the latter, a semi-nude torso, animated by images overlaid on transparent layers, sports a bullseye that just might be the barrel of a gun pointed back, recalling that Miss Otis was both victim and perpetrator in her story. Popular songs carry true stories right under the censors’ radar.

Amy Jorgensen, who draws on the connection between photography and crime—mug shots, crime scenes, evidence documentation, and photos possibly made while breaking the law herself—juxtaposes sexually tinged language with images to ambivalent effect. In “Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue,” the title refers to blue cyanotype copies of ‘Surveillance Photographs of Militant Suffragettes’ from the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, printed on vintage handkerchiefs. In the video “Well Behaved Women,” meanwhile, a digitally fogged female figure whispers Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s often mis-attributed line—‘Well behaved women seldom make history’—while a louder, more insistent voice attempts to mask hers by repeating, ‘The rain in Spain stays in the plain.’ Elocution lessons trump social truth? But the point is paradoxical: as Jorgensen knows, words whispered in the right ear are far more powerful than those openly spoken.

Hand-crafted textiles appear among the assembled materials in four of the six bodies of work, including their most stark use by Angela Ellsworth, in “Linda and Eliza.” These tea towels, with their coarse fabric and unfussy red borders, speak of hard wear in utilitarian service. The women’s portraits, stitched in black yarn, recall Veronica’s veil capturing the image of Jesus. Nothing about them is transparent: who these women are, and why one face appears to disintegrate while the other seems stern and remote, may never be known. Instead, those questions will likely go unasked, in shocked or puzzled deference to the lines of yarn that emerge from each face, from the eyes of one but from nowhere in particular on the other, and run as though they might lead to words of explanation, only to puddle on the plinth beneath each portrait. They evoke no obvious or familiar signifier. They may ask where the artist’s line will go now—where she will ‘draw’ next—but before the mind can ground itself, they produce a feeling as uncanny as a ghost story.

Valerie Atkisson’s “Handkerchief Totem” invokes genealogy, a narrow theme on which she displays a wide aesthetic range. In one version of “Matriarchal Line,” laser-cut stainless steel tells a tale of geography and history, sinuously twisting across the wall like a river or a snake, invoking in alternately positive and negative images the migrations underlying so many Utah stories, then winding down to a watercolor finish. “Matriarchal Line” is also the title of a seemingly unfinished sequence of portraits that run halfway across a page, while their penciled emendations continue the rest of the way, violating a basic rule of art to make a point. If history leaves the future open, its lost details also void the past. She knows the names, birthplaces, and dates of many forebears, but not how they looked. Hanging “Matriarchal Line” uses those dry facts in a sculptural exercise: a cloud of labeled triangles resembling a swarm of butterflies replaces the linear family model with a more horizontal, simultaneous view of her extended family.

Atkisson’s interest in family isn’t strictly historical. In “Weight,” she sketches the living family in three elements arrayed vertically. On the floor sits a bathroom scale, modified to read out the individual names of its users, as though it could sort the family by weighing them. At eye level, a full calendar of events gives a vivid picture of what it takes to organize a modern household’s interlocking schedules. Above the calendar, the clock, its face replaced with one marked in pounds, identifies the true gravity of time.

So much for the snapshots: works that capture discrete moments. Like Haworth, Liberty Blake and Shawn Rossiter record time in layers laid down like geologic sediments, but their collages also express the passage of time as a narrative existing in space and time. On one wall, the first four panels move “By Transitions” (so the title tells) three times, building momentum as colors go from black to tan, tan to black, and black to white. Collaged materials lend texture and dramatic passage to blocks of color, occasionally breaking through the surface to create high points along the journey, like viewpoints along a scenic highway. In the second four panels, a crescendo of white equates to a landscape, climaxing with a vertical element bordering on the abyss, beyond which darkness falls. Although their largest work, “Magnificat,” takes its name from one of several encyclopedia pages staggered, seemingly at random, across its middle, the reference to two women, each unable to conceive, rejoicing in their both becoming miraculously pregnant, suggests a reading. Beginning on the left, a series of box-like spaces and claustrophobic, labyrinthine walls release a string of sinuous glyphs that weave around a static mass. Straight lines and sharp angles give way to animated curves and a feeling of escape into an open future.

Most artists respect gallery conventions: discreet works hang on walls, bordered and bound, and we’re happy they do. The welcome exception comes from Annie Kennedy, whose art foregrounds a process of exploration and discovery, rather than a finished performance that argues, true or not, that the artist was never in danger of losing her way. Kennedy remakes her space into an installation, filled with her distinctive assemblage, which she begins by draping her Mantle across the space between the walls, closing in a private, even a sacred space within the gallery’s larger room. ‘Mantle’ may be the most complex single language act here, referring to coverings that range from diaphanous and luminous to heavy and concealing, from ones that identify the wearer to those that convey authority. Drawing on her familiar stock of resonant tropes, Kennedy builds her “Mantle” from handkerchiefs stained with grape juice, invoking a tent used on a pilgrimage. Inside this portable shrine are two works-in-progress that she intends to continue to rework as her mental and emotional states require. Opposite each other on its walls, one is “Body” and the other is “Spirit.”

What makes assemblage so powerful, and so appropriate here, is its ability to not just represent, but embody multiple realities. Modern artists who grapple unsuccessfully with concepts like ‘contemporary’ may not grasp this. Along with its metaphorical resonance as an entryway, an object like the salvaged door that became the picture frame in “Spirit” retains its past identity as a door, even as its single glass panel becomes a picture frame in the present and its burst open body addresses the future as a reliquary. Each assemblage combines salvaged objects chosen for their history, allegorical significance, and visual compression with items fashioned by the artist. Reliefs built up from paper layered like contour models and portable reliquaries made of tins filled with wax mingle with ironic family heirlooms, while paint slathered in thick impastos unifies discordant materials the way a layer of dust might. Or ashes. Her immediate impetus is two life-threatening illnesses, one hers, one her mother’s, that date to the inception of Plural & Partial. But those challenges do not put her in mind of suffering or danger. Her art celebrates the family story they have both been permitted to carry forward.

Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.

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