The Artists Foundation in the South End presents three solo shows, Free Translation a sculpture installation by Phyllis Ewen, Just Keep Drawing a collection of drawings by Ria Brodell, and Letters in a Coma a video by Jennifer Schmidt. It’s a lot of work packed into a small space, and the artists are notably diverse in style and medium.
By far the most compelling work of the three is Jennifer Schmidt’s video piece, Letters in a Coma. Effectively exploring the phenomenon of 'the uncanny', the piece speaks to what Freud characterized as the aesthetics of anxiety: “It is when [Freud] starts to pursue the idea of ‘repetition’…It is cited as one of a number of cases where an ‘unintentional return’ may produce ‘the same feeling of helplessness, the same sense of the uncanny’, such as being lost in a wood but returning to a familiar spot, or ‘groping around in the dark in an unfamiliar room’ and colliding with ‘the same piece of furniture’. Freud postpones discussion of ‘how the uncanny element in the recurrence of the same things can be derived from infantile psychology’, saying that he treats it elsewhere as part of the ‘compulsion to repeat’ that dominates the unconscious mind’. After Freud, repetition will never be the same.” (Haughton 2003) Literally en-trancing, Letters in a Coma sits hypnotically somewhere in between painting, video and digital needlepoint. The video has several layers. On the very surface is a blue stencil that frames the background. The stencil features two birds facing each other and recalls a design remembered from childhood giving it a distinctly nostalgic flavour. Within and behind this frame, is a changing background consisting of a kind of pixilated grayscale plaid that fades in and out of perceptibility and provides the grid for appearing and disappearing tic tac toe games repeatedly played in bright colors. The red diagonal lines that appear resemble scars or cuts as they bleed through the screen. The sound is integral to the piece, on which Schmidt collaborated with Colin Askwith (Contra). Apparently a mix of acoustic and electronic elements, the result is an eerie soundscape through which a heartbeat (or hospital monitor) occasionally emerges. The weaving of image and sound here builds us up to a climax that never comes, giving the piece a time-lapse quality. The xoxo’s of the tic tac toe games also remind us that the piece is also made of zero’s and one’s; the game playing, the persistence of the grid and the notion that the image is generated through a repeated activity gives the impression that Schmidt has somehow stitched a video together through a needlepoint sampler. In many ways, the piece explores the uncanny- that which is both familiar and strange, the anxieties of memory, and the futility of communication.
Free Translation is a sculpture installation by Phyllis Ewen. Organic forms made of hollow cast latex and wire are affixed to the wall. These jellyfish like creatures are encased in meticulously manipulated wire architectures which cast spidery shadows on the wall. The cast latex gives these forms a slimy quality and some of them are lit from within with tiny colored lights. Because these forms are all more or less the same size, they give one the impression that they are a group of migrating organisms or dispersed pods. Unfortunately, Ewen’s use of petals and other floral detritus emphasizes the forms’ crafty quality making them seem more like quirky vases than compelling sculpture. Somehow, even though they are vaguely gross, they are not quite weird enough. These forms lack the otherworldly strangeness of other organically informed work such as Hesse or the containment work of Clark, partly because they are overly crafted, precious, and hopelessly pretty.
In the office gallery is a collection of small drawings by Ria Brodell entitled Just Keep Drawing. These drawings suggest illustrations to iconic narratives of Americana. Featuring men with moustaches, octopuses, and heads inside of jars, among other characters, these drawings accumulate to create a kind of grammar of the unconscious. The drawings present us with bizarre and banal scenarios which seem like punch lines to jokes we haven’t heard. The drawings are a bit too good, and the titles perhaps too clever to really engage us to explore the imagery. The drawings give the impression of being Brodell’s research into the development of a playful visual vocabulary.
The Artists Foundation
"Free Translation, Just Keep Drawing, and Letters in a Coma" is on view until December 18th in the Artist Foundation Galleries & Video Room on the first floor at 516 East 2nd St., South Boston
All images are courtesy of the artist and the Artists Foundation.
Jessica Poser is a regular contributor to Big, Red & Shiny.