Surgeons and airline pilots probably shouldn’t pretend to know more than they do. But is it wrong when an art critic does? After all, what we do is hardly dangerous, or even, for that matter, important. But it may still matter, if for example an artist knows something the critic doesn’t, something he can look up and pretend to know, but would be more honest to admit he learned from her.
Such is the case with Torey Akers, a freelance writer, curator, and multi-talented artist whose Forgetting Lyric, on display at Bountiful Davis Art Center until Sep. 10, updates the Georgian (late 18th century) vogue, previously unknown to this critic, for wearing an image of a lover’s eye as a confidential keepsake. In those days, the Lovers’ Eyes were usually watercolor painted on thin slices of ivory, and in keeping with the popularity of miniature painting, exquisitely done. The result, when displayed in a notorious manner, dared the observer to guess the scandalous subject’s identity. Others may have been more discreet.
Akers has chosen to set her eyes not in hat pins or brooches, but in small but elaborate, multimedia relief sculptures, made largely of fabric or leather and sporting dozens to hundreds of decorative pins with variously colored heads. She dates her version to the Victorian era, right after the Queen lost the love of her life, Prince Albert, and so donned black mourning attire — widow’s weeds — that she wore without exception for the remaining 40 years of her life. This led to a fashion among the gentry not only for wearing black clothing, but even for black jewelry, which was primarily made of jet, a mineralized form of wood that is the poorest grade of coal, but carves and wears well. Akers’ use of black-headed pins lets her invoke those elaborate mourning accessories, which are still familiar enough to suggest a mortal connection even among those who don’t know the original source.
The timing of this work is specific and should be immediately graspable. During the pandemic, even mortality was insufficient motivation to allow intimate meetings, so friends and lovers, no less than spouses and children, were suspended involuntarily in a state of longing, a condition that captured the artist’s imagination. Specifically, and appropriately, Akers wanted to explore “the relationship between love and mourning,” and it’s here that the Victorian precedent really comes into its own. When separation meant a permanent rupture, longing became the fundamental characteristic of life.
From the start, Akers makes it clear she has no intention of limiting herself to the historical paradigm. While she does present “Louise” in the form of her eye, she also portrays her through that other key part of human anatomy: her hands. The eye is built on a scrap of black leather, folded into a triangular shape, wide at the top and narrowing toward the bottom to suggest the shape of an eye from brow ridge on down. The eye appears near the bottom, where a stone-like black substrate curls around it like a tail. A small field of indigo and pearl spheres swirl around the eye, while the whole is so engineered that no setting or base is visible — it just floats on whatever it’s attached to. The hands seem to emerge from sleeves of black foam, so thick and extensive are the black-headed pins. The way one hand folds over the other makes for an ambiguous message: is it one person’s hands resting together, or two unseen persons, one caressing the hand of the other?
Compare “Louise” to “Ana,” also leather but this time red, a passionate color, but one that can also suggest suffering, as from a wound. The black foam of beads stretches nearly across the bottom of the piece, while the red peeks through in several places and takes over the top, suggesting an eye peeking out from under a red cap or beret. Whether these pieces are meant to represent something of that sort is improbable, though; more likely, they are meant as pure design.
It’s one thing for an artist to conceive of a conceit like the lover’s eye, but another to confine herself exclusively to it. So it’s not surprising that Akers wandered off-message to arrange bead-like pins of several colors that suggest highlights around an eye, and then placed the whole thing atop a reclining nude figure. That the whole figure stands in contrast to the others pieces isn’t Akers fault, though. She is known for some remarkable nude figure studies, several of which accompanied the Lover’s Eyes to Utah from her studio in Brooklyn. Unfortunately, they proved a challenge for a family-oriented art center. Although they are thoughtful and not at all erotic, a decision was made to withhold them from public view. Lest anyone feel cheated, they are available on the artist’s website, toreyakers.com, along with numerous other examples of her broad interests and remarkable knack for invention.
Rounding out Forgetting Lyric are several other departures from the ideal of the Lover’s Eye. “Mom” appears to be an older woman, appropriately, whose setting of black, gold, and silver beads appears to be part of a purse, judging by the leather handle. “Mouth” is painted on a transparent oval disc, a setting in which it disappears amidst spatters and drips. There can be little doubt that the connection between the maker or wearer and the subject here is a strong one, but not a characteristically happy one. The lyric, the song of forgetting, is often likened to a gradual diminuendo, but such is not the case here. Part of forgetting is severing, and that injury is never far from Torey Akers’ mind.
Torey Akers: Forgetting Lyric, Bountiful Davis Art Center, Bountiful, through Sep. 10