Exhibition Review: Repeat As Needed

Kingston Gallery’s Associate Members Show, Repeat As Needed, is eerily timely. As memories of perceived normalcy drift further out of reach, meditations on repetition gain an almost urgent sense of appeal. Though globally (with the unfortunate exception of the United States,) we seem to have reached somewhat of a sandbar, an unsteady lull in the pandemic, waves still loom in the distance. Perhaps it’s natural to turn to ritual as our source of comfort, even as it operates in the daily constraints of our new routines.

Repeat As Needed, as a group show, offers each artist’s own meditation on what it means to repeat and return within their own work. Where some artists chose to make repetition an overt part of their process, others explore the concept more abstractly.  

On abutting walls are works by Amy Kaczur and Ponnapa Prakkamakul that elucidate the spectrum of responses to the show’s theme. Kaczur’s “Messages From the Marsh – Driftway Conservation Park, Scituate, MA” shows marshland blown over by the natural morse code of the landscape. Its message changes depending on the viewer’s perspective. The eye trained on the sections of matted grass may pick up on the illusion of corroding earth as grass meets water in an oxidized brown muck. Looked at another way, the more upright sections of marshland flair out wildly, a feral plain bristling under rough winds and human hands. The print immediately reminded me of one of my favorite short stories by Karen Russell, undisputed queen of modern wilderness fiction, called “The Bog Girl.” 

“Peat is harvested from bogs,” writes Russell, “watery mires where the earth yawns open. The bottom is a breathless place—cold, acidic, anaerobic—with no oxygen to decompose the willow branches or the small, still faces of the foxes interred there. Sphagnum mosses wrap around fur, wood, skin, casting their spell of chemical protection, preserving them whole. Growth is impossible, and Death cannot complete her lean work.” Where Russell’s peat bog is a frozen world, Kaczur captures the animation of the marshland. Both landscapes, however, have an inescapable pull. Kaczur tells us that there is a message to be found there, Russell that even the most unforgiving peat bends back to reveal a first, fierce love. So we scan the thrashing grasses, again and again.

Amy Kaczur, Messages From the Marsh – Driftway Conservation Park, Scituate, MA (2020), Archival Pigment Print. 20 × 30 inches.

Prakkamakul’s work is a similarly mesmerizing assessment of natural phenomena. Her piece “50 Shades of Blue” recalls both the style and ethos of Agnes Martin, a personal favorite, who explained late in her career: “[my art is] not really about nature. It is not what is seen—it is what is known forever in the mind.”

When I ask Prakkamakul about her process, she says: “every morning since I started working from home, I have been making a pastel drawing of the sky color at 6am looking south which is the direction I see when I wake up.” She has over 100 pieces, only half of which are showcased in the work. Fifty Shades of Blue spans the 6 am sky from March 16th to May 2nd, 2020. 

Ponnapa Prakkamakul, Fifty Shades of Blue (2020), pastel on paper. 60 × 84 inches.

Prakkamakul’s process is more starkly repetitive than Kaczur’s, and she touches on the importance the ritual of painting has to her: “this process allowed me to concentrate on representing the color of the sky that changes quite quickly and made me forget about everything around me for a while,” she explains. “I plan to continue until I do not need it anymore.”

Steven Cabral, whose acrylic painting hangs at the very start of the exhibition, had similar thoughts throughout his process. 

I smile and nod when he says: “I think about Agnes Martin a lot.”

“She loved to be out in nature,” he continues. “That feeling you get, you can’t really describe it. I don’t think the English language has a word like that.” Instead, Cabral draws inspiration from the Japanese concept of 浮世 (ukiyo), which means “the floating world.” Ukiyo-e, “paintings of the floating world” was a style favored in Japan from the 17th through the 19th century, popularizing woodblock printing to depict lush gardens, beautiful women, folk tales, and more. The notion of a world of pleasures, hidden, floating just above the mortal one, is something Cabral explores in his own work. 

Cabral’s paintings begin as paper sculptures. “My hand is just an extension of my thinking,” he explains. “Once I get an image I want, I start to rip things, start moving things around. So the activity is really different from painting, it’s more physical.” Once he brings his brush to the canvas, the paper shapes he has manipulated begin to build their own language. 

Steven Cabral, Untitled (2020), acrylic, crayon, and colored pencil on canvas, 50 x 50 inches.

“Each element has their own personal definition. So the pink triangle with the transparency layer,” he explains, referencing the top left corner of Untitled, above, “that could be a lexicon for a window I can’t reach. The opaque, gray, textual surface could be, like, a layer of raw emotion, or anything. It protects this hidden world that nobody has access to.”

Cabral views his multimedia process as “a way to narrate another story.” As for the repetitive aspect of his work, he thinks for a moment. “I think [patternmaking] has always been there, but it’s a little more evident now,” he says. “I’ve always thought of myself as a pure geometric painter, but over the past year I’ve become what I call an organic geometric painter.”

There are layers to this lexicon. Cabral emphasizes the importance of the viewer having their own interpretation of his work, while his understanding remains obscured—he retains a deeply personal attachment to the work, evident in the painstaking process of creating it, while also offering it up for the viewer to see what they wish, or to notice what is obscured.

One of the most interesting elements of the show is what is perhaps an initially intuitive association of repetition with routine. In an effort to vary my word choice in this review, I first used the two interchangeably, without thinking.  But the truth is, repetition does not necessitate sameness.                                                                     

Take Rachel Thern’s works of pen on paper. “I usually start from a small quick sketch or an image in my mind, something organic taking place within a space, and then keep building on it with the sorts of lines my arm and hand feel like making,” she explains.

Rachel Thern, both Untitled (2019), pen on paper. 16 x 13 inches.

“The piece with the arcs crowded in the upper right-hand corner,” she continues, referencing the drawing on the right, “was the most intuitive in terms of process, it basically appeared as I worked on it.” Her work establishes itself in the space between repetition and consistency, even anticipation. Thern’s drawings are reminiscent of surrealist automatism, the style of drawing favored by some surrealists, which allows the subconscious to take control. Thern’s swirls and loops, at turns measured and sprawling, are evocative of drawings by Hilma af Klint and her spiritualist group, “The Five.”

Automatic drawing by The Five, courtesy of The Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm.

While Thern, like Klint and her spiritualist contemporaries, draws the same shapes over and over, they pulse and thrum with energy, allowing repetition to break free from the bounds of convention. 

“I wanted [them] to have more of an effect of 3D space,” she says, “as if they were natural processes taking place somewhere.”

Repetition does not imply monotony, far from it. Our bodies are powered by repetition—footsteps, blinks, the continuous undertaking of cellular respiration. In fact, almost imperceptible processes of repetition are often the driving mechanisms of change. We have all stopped to watch, breathless, as our own repetitive processes play out in the form of contagion across the globe.  Repeat As Needed makes its home in this space between change and stasis, pushing and stretching the smallest loops of our experiences to see just how wide their sphere of influence can become.

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