SOLOS at the CAC 2021

            The Contemporary Arts Center annually hosts both visual and performing arts residencies as part of their programming. Applications may be made for consideration for these residencies, and through that process artists whose work shows potential for development during the residencies are selected for studio space and time, curatorial attention, and required participation in public programming; usually, open studios. According to the overview on the CAC website, the studio space in which the artists work is then converted into exhibition space for a group show that functions as a set of singular, solo exhibitions, titled “SOLOS: Exhibitions of New Works by CAC Visual Artists-in-Residence.”  For 2021, four residents made this recurring showcase of works during their three-month habitation of sponsored studios.  J Knoblach, Ellen Bull, kai barrow, and Keysha Rivera brought the manifestations of their practices to the public for a month-long post in the Center.

            J Knoblach refers to their multi-media installation, “Point Nemo Full of Mermaid Tears Hallowed Be thy Name,” with a poem reproduced on the CAC website.  In it, Knoblach muses on space; time; the body; religion as represented by the rosary, Magdalene (personally, a favorite saint) and a “tr*ns” Jesus, and the elusive Point Nemo “around the corner.”  They represented these themes in their installation with video, multi-media framed photographs, and especially nurdles – defined as small pellets of plastic that are used as raw materials in the production of plastic products, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The rosary that Knoblach mentions is one made of nurdles, and this begins to speak to the commodification of religion, specifically Christianity, which has been a large part of the sometimes untold history of this church.

            But this is not the only theme in either Knoblach’s poem or in the installation itself. In 2018, Knoblach’s work was included in the CAC group exhibition “Constructing the Break,” which I also reviewed for this journal.  Some of the imagery from the photographs they showed in that exhibition is re-appropriated in “Point Nemo….” Specifically, the color magenta and a figure walking in a large bubble through the swamp flash through videos placed underneath plastic tarp, almost as though the bubble in which that figure existed had been flattened out.  These videos, made in collaboration with videographers Alahna Moore, Kristina E. Knipe, and Gabby Garcia Steib according the artist’s inventory, are paired with an erratic soundtrack punctuated with noises reminiscent of low grunting or growling.  Knoblach also includes the splashing sound of the figure walking through the water, a reminder of the actual presence of this figure encased within the pristine landscape through which they walk.  The combination of various influences and themes throughout the installation is as rich as the complicated stories of religion, the environment, and identity that Knoblach appears to reference.

            Ellen Bull’s installation, “More Yolks, Less Folks,” immediately recalls the “Eggs to Breasts” installation originally included in Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro’s project “Womanhouse” (1972), made as part of their co-founding of the Feminist Art program at California Institute of the Arts.  In this project, Chicago and Schapiro invited or required their students to create different rooms on different themes related to womanhood.  The breasts-to-eggs installation, made by Vicki Hodgett, featured sculptural, naturalistic representations of female breasts which morphed into the shape of fried eggs.  These covered the walls and ceiling of the kitchen, often regarded as the locus of domesticity and nourishment, but also a place of witchery and establishment of female power.

            According to Bull in a statement on the CAC website, the installation is “a personal investigation of this past year and the witnessing of our communities as finely interwoven tapestries, able to hold sadness, fear, relief, and grace simultaneously.”  Bull has explored a personal “sense of isolation, honoring the fragile space for holding hope, finding a sense of abundance despite scarcity fearmongering, and working to create joy” through the sculpture, installation, textiles, and film incorporated into the exhibit.  Bull is experienced as a costume designer, and so the inclusion of textiles which appear both as tapestries and as soft sculpture is not surprising. 

            Bull’s work in installation is something new for this viewer.  The palette of yolk yellow and peachy orange is unified in its analogous scheme, and the dramatic lighting recalls Bull’s experience in theater.  Both of these elements join to dramatize a joyous lived experience. In one photo sent by the artist, Bull appears with closed eyes and face pointed toward the sun while encased in a peach-like shape.  The optimism suggested by the tropes “peachy” and “peach of a day” is a warm acknowledgment of the possibility of happiness in the direst circumstances, which for New Orleans also recently included a catastrophic storm from which the city and its environs are still recovering.

            kai barrow’s installation, “Debt.”, has but this one word as a statement on the website. barrow is a self-taught artist whose work encompasses performance and still imagery, involves their investigation into the works of the Black imagination. barrow’s multimedia installation, documented by photographer Ryan Hodgson Rigsbee, involved multimedia panels positioned atop cloud-like forms emerging from a Baroque-like darkness.  The imagery stems from the tradition of street art and recalls a current exhibition of Basquiat’s paintings at the Broad in Los Angeles.  Those works show the indexical sign of the artist’s presence in the imprint of the soles of Converse sneakers across a drop cloth stretched as a traditional painting.  The layers of barrow’s work, and a resulting dominant form in the composition, are also similar to Basquiat’s handling of two-dimensional space.

            This seems too easy a reference, though.  In these brightly colored, vibrant, Orphist-like panels, barrow employs imagery related slavery and imprisonment, the latter of which is most clearly referenced by hatch-marks on a chalkboard-black wall.  The color feels indicative of race, and the visual movement barrow creates with the repetition of abstract forms suggests the constant repetition of elements of the Black experience. These hatch marks, in particular, ask whether the time spent in this space is counted off, a way of marking it as the panels rise dreamily, without time, from their cloudy bases.  The European influence of avant-garde abstract movements – most specifically, Expressionism as expressed by Kandinsky – in addition to the Delaunays’ influence of Orphism, combines with barrow’s own vocabulary of raw imagery.  This combination is a truthful statement about the integration of vastly diverse communities. The “debt” that barrow indicates is more on the societies that consumed the Black experience, and even those avant-garde, 20th century artists that barrow seems to borrow from are guilty of this practice.

            Keysha Rivera’s personal website proclaims a general artist’s intent on its home page: “The place in which I’ll fit doesn’t exist until I make it.” In general, this seems to be the overarching theme of these exhibitions as a whole.  Rivera’s installation, “Finding Home Through Textiles,” was a combination of photographs, installations, and videos that want to do just that. “Home” often gets made through the objects placed in a space – a lived-in spot that bears the smells, marks, flaws, curiosities, and loves that bring comfort.  It’s an especially poignant sentiment in a time where the global collective has found itself bound to these spaces.  Like the artist Edra Soto, who hails from Puerto Rico, Rivera brings imagery familiar to one home to this one.  In Rivera’s case, it has much to do with the family unit. 

Mother’s Tongue is a tufted rug spit through with red, dangling forms, lapping at the air.  Rivera says on Instagram that “having an accent or speaking ‘different’ generally means exposing yourself and as [a] child I never understood the complexity of language in a racial capitalist world.”  While Rivera eschews text, unlike other artists who have employed it to communicate about the impossibility of communication such as Elizabeth Dove and Glenn Ligon, the icon of the disembodied, lolling tongue speaks loudly (pun intended) of the muteness implicated by language barriers. Family photos, pillows, furniture, and other accoutrements of the intimately lived experience contrast with the feeling of displacement.  It is these comforts that are evident in Rivera’s use of tufting and rug-work to make this piece in particular that soften the harsh reality that it conveys.

Each of these artists takes on an aspect of feminist theory and involves it in their work in a singular way.  So, as the title “SOLOS” suggests, these are solo exhibitions, but they are joined by a similar theme.  It is this unification that makes the transition from room to room, studio to studio, seamless though the works are starkly different.  To me, this is an indicator that not only does work still need to be made and done to promote the feminist ideal of equality, but also that it is a theme ripe for individual interpretation.  It also indicates the theme of community in isolation, which has dominated the lived experience for almost two entire years.  As communities emerge and rejoin in what are hopefully the death throes of a deadly pandemic, this combination of exhibitions gives hope that the rejoining is healthy, explorable, and structured in a personal and shared way.




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