December 2006
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Exhibition Review: Salt Lake
we are woven at the Pickle Company
by Cara E. Despain

The Pickle Company, home to TRASA Urban Arts Collective, is host to two unique installations this month. Directors Brandon Garcia and Kristina Robb, along with Kenny Riches, guest curator and former owner of Kayo Gallery, presen Aerial, by brothers David and Mathieu Ruhlman, and we are woven, by a collaborative group of four artists. The continuity of the two installations is evident in a common underlying theme: the interconnectivity of people, their trinkets and relics, and the intrinsic and created memories of each. we are woven reveals a much more intimate, personal, and overtly feminine aspect of this concept.

In we are woven, Allison Baar, Moey Nelson, Sherri Pauli, and Jenni Lord collaborated to create an inviting yet evasive glimpse into the house of womanhood. A home that slowly opens and unfolds, cryptically and brazenly unearthing secret recesses and residual pieces of childhood that weave these women together. Moving through the installation is like an odyssey, a venture through a person… a woman. The viewer stands at the implied entry of the home, invited, by a small card propped on the chest, to explore and yet somewhat uninvited by the illustrated fact that this is a place for a family of which the viewer is no part. The sort-of table of contents that is the entry is intriguing; passers want to move through, inspecting photographs and reading enticing tidbits of sentiments, framed and displayed. Once the process begins, so many intricacies become apparent: there is a deeply rooted, intense dialogue between this tightly woven group, and at times the conversation is almost accessible, while at other times it may only be viewed as a voyeur through a window.

Starting in the bedroom of a little girl, you can identify with common memories, and see the starting place for ideas and aesthetics that will manifest in the woman later. When you move into the kitchen, things become more personalized and cryptic and lived in. A place where things were concocted, sifted and sorted, pieced together, eaten and discussed, to be metabolized and utilized in the more obscure fibers and vessels of the whole. The next passage is just that: a hallway of tense transition, of re-sizing and realization. No longer a small being, not yet a grown one. The impossibly tiny, handmade article, knit of an austere gray yarn, seems unsuitable for a child, but too small for an adult woman. It perches in its awkwardness next to a narrative of pictures that tenderly seem to reveal the discovery of another body—languid and lengthening -- that has changed and come into contact with another. Silent and softly lit, these fragments of time and body parts hint at the next epoch. The spaces that follow are inhabited by fawn, elegant and feminine, exposed but mysterious; photos rearranged and written over, as if to document the journey; lace and tattered paper; and evidence of a fire. It’s as though something was ignited which burned fervently for a brief moment and was abruptly extinguished, leaving its carbon foundation exposed to grow into something else. Finally, at this core is the closet. It hosts a very private revelation shrouded in lace and words. It presents an extremely charged subject that the viewer can opt to enter into, one to which they are completely oblivious if they do not. You are confronted with a special, torrid, and raw display -- the most taboo, ineffable, and innate facet of being a woman. Shown not in order to gain understanding from the viewer, but to allow them into the body to witness, and just to see. This is the zenith of the female home, where all its visceral vulnerability comes to a head. Only one person at a time, one who has chosen to receive and interpret the inescapable imagery and words, can fit inside the intimate space, the vessel where the secret has been stored. It creates a specific circumstance in which presence—that of the artist in the imagery, and that of the viewer by their choice—is fundamental and significant.

As the viewer, and as a woman, I was both a participant and a tourist. There are moments and areas in we are woven that are openly accessible, and those that are exclusive, concealed and quieted. On an understated shelf below an old record player is a juxtaposition that depicts this tension. A photograph of a somewhat ambiguous female body part, casually exposed, rests atop an intriguing book nervously bound by thin string —forbidding entrance and maintaining secrecy, and yet not creating a fortified lock. It is these subtleties that are easily overlooked but that are in many ways paramount to the work. The more bold, literal moves distract from these subtleties; it requires close inspection and delicate attention to detail to begin to recognize the slow, subconscious hum of the piece as a whole. This is how I heard the only ticking clock. Even the more blatant displays that send a pretty clear message must be found; they don’t willingly approach the viewer. A portrait of Mary hangs innocently beside a still of Snow White eating the poison apple in the bedroom, approximately replicated from memory. The divine feminine versus original sin of women is not something a little girl takes into consideration with her bedroom décor. Adorned with Teddy Ruxpin, tap shoes, rainbows, and little secrets, the room is reminiscent of a generation in which the objects of affection served as distractions or moralizing toys. Stuck between X and Y, this generation was accused of having no culture. It is the area of the installation that is not romanticized; that is an honest depiction of collective childhood memory, which resonates with viewers from this somewhat marginalized generation. The inconspicuous contents of the drawers in the dresser discuss the transition between girl and woman, and the transformation that those objects of affection consequently undergo-- the exchange of white gloves for black.

Having seen the women bustling about in the space constructing the show as if they were moving into a new home, meticulously fussing over details, delightfully chatting, softly crying, painting, and piecing, it was strange, later, to see it so hollow, devoid of the very creatures that gave it life. But this was part of the lifespan: conception, construction, passage of time, and reflection on what was built. Such personal spaces cannot be replicated by any other means other than the artists themselves. This is why it is an installation. No curator could treat all these objects with the same sensitive adoration as the women. In the stillness of viewing the installation alone I got a sense of the transience of this women’s lair. It is all in flux, aging. The flowers had wilted, the whiskey drained from the bottles, all the dust from the creation swept only to settle somewhere else… it was chasing something intangible and elusive. It was like the women had just left, or not yet arrived, like the moment between being a girl and a woman. It is a treasure hunt for the core of the piece, with little messages typed and tucked away, and little precious objects hidden in drawers all move the viewer through time and experience, and speak of the innate sensitivity and common bond of women. The objects are disguised among more decorative elements, ones that feel more arbitrary and that set the overall aesthetic for the environment. Some of the quiet, poignant little spots perhaps may have resulted from an inadvertent combination of intention and decoration.

Installation is a lot of work, and is often as much about the process as it is about the completed set. Through the process of fabricating their collective piece, all of these women revisited their experiences, pain, and splendor that we, as the viewers, see in the finished work. The home they built emanates the story of their transit through the space -- woven into it as a part of a continuing dialogue.
Exhibition Review: Salt Lake
Shawn Harris: Still the One
by Kasey Boone

In March of 2004, unsolicited and unilaterally, I climbed upon my digital soapbox and declared Shawn Harris "the best we've got." In his amalgamation of photography, painting, and found and constructed objects I saw a vital artistic medium that could address a variety of subjects with wit, beauty and insight. Despite such effulgent praise, Harris essentially disappeared from the scene. Now, over two years later, he reemerges with an exhibit of new works at the Rose Wagner Arts Center (through the month of December).

Harris's return impresses upon me the imperative to evaluate my grandiose assessment and decide, with his new exhibit, if his talent is indeed prodigious or rather prodigal. Was my soapbox well-constructed, does it still stand firm? Or has it weathered and weakened? Two years later can I still say the same thing or should I maybe get down before I hurt myself? With Harris's works at the Rose Wagner, a series of pieces inspired by a recent trip to Southeast Asia, I'm not entirely certain.

My uncertainty comes not from the method. I still love Harris's way of constructing art. His "sculptography," what in 2004 I called "settings," continue to vitalize his photographic work, creating pieces that unsettle the traditionally safe gaze of the 2-d print that we use to capture (a violent word) our world. What makes me uneasy in my assessment is not the method but the mode. We all like to travel and who can't blame an artist for putting on a show of work from a trip abroad, making it possible to write off the whole thing to the tax man. But tourist art is rarely good art.

Some of Harris's images give us the tourist's gaze -- they show the local flavors, the colors and textures, the charm, the difference of a foreign locale. But there is a disappointing sameness in some differences. Artistically, the rickshaw driver of his "Cyclo Saigon" |1| is not considerably different than the striped-shirted gondolier in the canals of Venice or the ten-gallon hatted carriage driver circling Temple Square.

But I'm not quite willing to abandon my soapbox yet, because, despite the unfortunate tourist aura of some of these works, I can still see the incisive mind of Harris that I enjoyed two years ago creeping into his pieces. Like a bloondhound able to focus on a single scent in a forest of olfactory confusion, Harris's eye for the ambiguous, unsettling image surfaces in many of the current works.

Southeast Asia is becoming a tourist hotspot, especially for young people, attracted by a destination where the dollar is still powerful, the beaches are plentiful and one doesn't have to worry about donning long pants just to see the interior of a stuffy cathedral. But for anyone over forty, anyone that can actually remember the military conflicts in Southeast Asia (if only, in my case, from the television screen) excursions to places like Saigon and Hanoi come with more cultural baggage than will easily fit in the overhead compartment.

Though Harris was barely born before the conflict ended, his pieces seem to allude to the unease of historical baggage. The title "Captured on the streets of Hanoi -- An isolated reminisce" has an ominous feel to it even when the actual image is only a blurred view of a street scene.|2| "What is Past is Past" is the most direct allusion to the recent past.|3| The large image shows a partially dismantled tank sitting idle in the jungle. A sideways jar, protruding (as in other pieces) from the larger image seems to encapsulate the past, sealing up our sorrows and fears. But the tank is far more imposing than the jar and while the title seems to brush aside the past the image is not so reassuring.

Harris' technique of collaging different photographs from different times, angles, and places and in different formats is effective in creating ambiguous situations that in their indeterminacy cause a certain sense of pleasurable unease. In "Reverberations of Secrets" the color image of a woman carrying a child down a tree-lined lane is superimposed on a larger black and white image of a similar lane devoid of human presence.|4| These in turn are superimposed on what gives the feeling of being a scroll tied to two bamboo sticks. Past and present become confused. Is the woman walking towards a future or into the past? In "Journal at Angkor" a boy and a girl are collaged with elements of the famous ruined temple.|5| The center of each child's chest is embedded with another photograph -- a trio of young monks amongst the ruins, in the boy's case, and a young woman pumping water from a well in the case of the girl. It is difficult to decipher whether the artist is indicating the children's predecessors or their future incarnations, but it is this ambiguity that gives the works appeal.

So, in the end, where do I stand? Cautiously atop my soapbox. As I wrote in 2004, Harris has "got breadth and he’s got depth. He’s got a voice and he’s got something to say." I enjoyed more what he had to say in 2004 (how many of us, after all, like looking at others' travel photos?) but I think this exhibit shows that the artistic voice he has created with his sculptography is potent even in latent situations. A weak artist on tour will quickly drown in tourist clichés and Harris succumbs to his fair share, but his technique of collage and use of multiple viewpoints and multiple materials allows him to always call into question the clichés in the same moment he is uttering them.

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