All in the Timing: Chantal Zakari’s A Work in Progress at Kingston Gallery

Emma Newbery | November 5th, 2020

Chantal Zakari’s show A Work in Progress opened at Kingston Gallery on November 4th, 2020. In some sense, because of the show’s timing, this title remains true even after its opening—the show greets an audience emerging, nerves frayed, from an inconclusive election night. “On one hand,” she muses over FaceTime, “what is the place of making artwork that immediately responds to what’s happening? Then what is the place of doing a long term project? I mean, ideally, I wish my show did not open on that day, but,” she smiles ruefully, “it’s out of my control.”

Zakari’s show is a symbolically rich minefield of American memory, perhaps uniquely suited to meet the current, American mindset. As Zakari explains: “I’m not an artist that defines herself, by the medium. In previous shows, I collaborated with my husband, who’s a photographer, but we’ve done resin sculptures and oil paintings, too.” 

Zakari privileges concept over form, with fascinating results. Her approach may be unorthodox, but it is highly intentional. When I ask more about the oil paintings, she smiles:  “I didn’t paint any of it. I actually sent it to a place in China where they painted it.”  She takes in my startled expression. “Conceptually,” she adds, “there was a reason why we did that. What came back, you know, had the residues of the production from China. And I mean, it’s always embedded in the conceptual ideas, right?” 

Her concept for A Work in Progress, an exploration of the accumulated meanings and memories in the Watertown Arsenal, expands her audience’s understanding of both the physical and emotional architecture of the historic manufacturing hub. “I was trying to think of how to approach this to express that layering, because I was especially interested in the layering of the real estate. The arsenal, that space, that real estate, is a work in progress, right? It can change. So the metaphor that I thought of is to have photographs from the archives that are all overlaid.”

Layered portraiture in the theme of “Construction” (2020). Image courtesy of the artist.

Zakari has chosen an excellent site for an exploration of architectural pentimento, one with layers of personal as well as material significance. During World War II, the Watertown Arsenal employed 10,000 people in the manufacture of cannons, bullets, and by the 1960s, in the operation of a nuclear reactor. The workforce was primarily composed of immigrants, for whom the Arsenal’s steady salary served as a way to launch into the middle class American experience.

“It was a living place,” says Zakari. “They would tear down the old buildings, build new ones, and tear down those. It kept renovating itself. It’s just this gorgeous building. So I started thinking, how is it that these buildings are so beautiful, and they were made for a factory? I look at the place sometimes and think, how did we lose this sense of aesthetic?”

Chantal Zakari, Destruction (2020). Image courtesy of the artist.

Interested to see the documentation of the Arsenal’s transformation, Zakari dove into the online photo archives. “You wouldn’t believe the size of these cannons that were produced. It’s a technological marvel. You see humans that are like this small,” she draws her fingers together, “next to these giant cannons.” The old photographs, now digitized in high resolution, were originally made using large format cameras. For A Work in Progress, Zakari reproduces and reorganizes these photographs to bring the story out of the conventions of time and space, and into a plane where her audience can connect emotionally. 

“I came across some portraits that were really beautiful. So that led me to think about the workers and who the workers were,” she explains. “I really zoomed into the workers so these are extreme details, about half the size of the original photograph.” She flips her camera and clicks through a few of the portraits that are part of the show. She adds soft commentary—“I mean look at this guy. Isn’t he so pensive and philosophical?”—thawing the edges of these frozen images. “These are some really psychological portraits,” she concludes. “But if you ask me what these machines are, I have no clue what they do.” She laughs, “I’m not really focused on that.” 

Detail from Chantal Zakari’s Labor series (2020). Image courtesy of the artist.

Despite her empathetic approach to the subjects of her show, one of Zakari’s major goals is to push back against a romanticization of the past. “The past was not great,” she acknowledges, “and the present is very complicated. I want the installation to reflect the complexity. This is not nostalgic at all.”

There is a particularly jarring element in one of the islands of layered photographs that Zakari hopes will drive this point home. “I have an image of a mule with his head blown up,” she says, pulling the image up on her screen. “He was used as part of one of the experiments. The photographer took the photo at the moment the head was blown off. It’s horrendous.”

“But, you know, life is very complex,” she adds. “That’s why I often stay away from political artwork. Sometimes I feel like it has a moral superiority to it. And I hate the idea that the artist comes to a project, knowing what’s right and wrong. There are times when things are right and wrong, it’s just that to me, those are not the interesting art pieces. In art, we’ve had a lot of this discussion about social practice. And to me, the most interesting social practice pieces are the ones that question issues, not the ones that come with a moral.”

Mule Decapitated by Dynamite Charge (1912), print, 20 x 25 cm. Courtesy of MA Digital Commonwealth.

“I am idealistic,” she explains, “but I just don’t have these illusions that we can get rid of all this.” She splays an excerpt from her Arsenal News 2020 publication, which accompanies the show, across the screen. “In this article here, it says that Home Depot actually took a cut to be able to give more money to their workers for their health insurance. I think life is a lot more complicated than black and white.”

Chantal Zakari, Newspaper: Arsenal News 2020 (2020). Image courtesy of the artist.

Zakari’s choice to traffic in sepia tones in order to debunk these same reductive or romanticized shades in our own understanding of society pays off. “I’m interested in connecting to communities and doing things that are very specific. But I’m not interested in, you know, having a message that can be spelled out. Once you’re in this complexity, it’s very difficult to think of war as bad or good. There are so many nuances.”

Ghosts peer from around the gallery’s corners; they press their noses up against the plexiglass that holds them. In some cases, viewers can even hear their voices. 

“I’ve always wanted to use the center gallery,” explains Zakari. “I thought that that would be an opportunity to project something. The idea was that I wanted to film at a place, you know, with this architecture, but I was thinking of ghosts of people appearing in this film. It’s based on movement that comes from, you know, human movement and labor and daily activity.”

Chantal Zakari, About the Past (2020), video still; performance by Em Papineau and Sofia Engelman. Image courtesy of the artist.

Another component of the installation features a layering of actual people, not just movement. “There was  this woman I heard on NPR a couple of years ago. She’s an opera singer. And her name is Ruth Harcovitz. And she has this amazing voice,” says Zakari. “I had a very specific song in mind that I had found out about the song called, ‘Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.’ It was written by a priest during the Pearl Harbor bombing.”

Chantal Zakari, About the Past (vocal performance by Ruth Harcovitz) (2020), still from a video installation, featuring Ruth Harcovitz singing Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B (Don Raye & Hughie Prince, 1941); camera: Leyla Mandel; boom mic: Lana Taffel; zoom recorder: Zoe Doyle; editing: Leyla Mandel.

“As artists, we have a really important responsibility to open up these visual ideas to others,” she concludes. “In some sense, this connects to social practice, because I want to open it up out of the gallery. I really hate the fact that art has closed itself into a bubble. I love the white gallery cube, you know, that’s also a really nice place to experiment with ideas. But the reason I publish so many books is because those go to anybody who’s interested in that subject. That, to me, is exciting. I want to open up my art.”

Exhibition Review: Bonnie Donohue’s A THIN GREEN LINE: Borderlands

Emma Newbery

What is feral will never conform, but it does confess. When discussing her survey of the European Green Belt, Bonnie Donohue notes: “If you look at it from the drone, you might see a line of trees that are all the same size, which would indicate where a structure came down—all the trees started growing at the same time.” 

For the past five years, Donohue has focused on the Green Belt, a demilitarized strip of nature spanning the 12,000 km where the Iron Curtain used to be. This porous strip of green, the joint effort of 24 countries who formerly lay at the edge of the Iron Curtain, is at the center of Donohue’s exhibition A THIN GREEN LINE: Borderlands at Kingston Gallery this October. 

“There are clues on the ground,” she adds, “of what was there before.” 

Donohue’s work primarily features drone footage, Augmented Reality (AR), and archival documents from Cold War-era Berlin. While her manipulations of the line between past and present are more readily apparent, Donohue’s engagement with the boundary between the virtual and the tangible goes beyond AR to fundamentally question borders themselves. As figments of national (and often global) consciousness, they are as influential and constructive as they are entirely imagined.

Her take on A THIN GREEN LINE weaves in and out of temporal, physical, and emotional bounds, mapping the underbellies and charged spaces around the borders we have constructed throughout human history. 

“The precariousness of confidence, when relegating [anything] to a distant history, is fragile, as contemporary signs and signifiers constantly threaten the re-emergence of authoritarianism,” she explains. “My work is a form of vigilance and resistance.”

Bonnie Donohue, video still from Thin Green Line, (05:01 minutes) (2019), drone footage.

Over the past several decades, Donohue has embedded herself in such environments as South Africa, Northern Ireland, and Vieques Island in its efforts to rid itself of the vise grip of the U.S. Navy. This show is no different in its ambitious scope. Donohue makes sure to highlight our own national backdrop for this exploration: Donald Trump’s efforts to build a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. 

“There’s one piece in the show that is from the Mexican border, and that’s an AR piece that’s an homage to the butterfly sanctuary that’s threatened by the wall. They want to just go right through it.”

The European Green Belt is compelling as a living, growing monument to the bleak and inhospitable ground once demarcating the Iron Curtain. “What once divided, now joins,” explains the chair of the European Green Belt Association. “[The German state] Thuringia is affording complete protection to its section of the Green Belt,” he adds, “a positive move that will be noted far beyond Germany’s borders.”

In some sense, borders can be understood to be deeply emotional, fraught displays of human frailty. Whatever they consist of materially (or not), borders lay bare the force of human compulsion to delineate space and time. And the more fervently these lines are drawn, the more uncontainable the reality of the circumstances is revealed to be. Donohue’s exploration of an effort as dynamic as the Green Belt alongside her manipulation of imagery from 1960s-era Berlin emphasizes the fragility and arbitrary authority that borders can afford. 

In addition to using drone footage to document the size and scope of the belt—“it’s about as wide as a football field is long”—Donohue also interrogates the different valences and implications of the border by digging into Germany’s past. 

One of the most intriguing components of the show is the amplification and manipulation of various images from a German border guard training manual used in the 1960s. The manual features passport photos from individuals that either closely resemble one another, or the same person in photos taken ten years apart.  Donohue’s exploration of an effort as dynamic as the Green Belt alongside her manipulation of this imagery from 1960s-era Berlin emphasizes the fragility and arbitrary authority that borders can afford. 

Bonnie Donohue, Die blauen Augen (Blue Eyes) (2019), digital photograph on acrylic. Image courtesy of the artist.

The manual purports to break down the human form into digestible pieces. Inevitably, generalizations are made, stereotypes invoked, and the racial implications are impossible to ignore. What’s more, the goal of this training was to successfully identify permissible individuals—Germany’s past efforts to examine and quantify human attributes come to mind almost immediately. 

Donohue manipulated these sets of photos in Photoshop, and incorporated various drawings and labels from the manual. “I built up layers of amounts of blur to make them more ephemeral,” she explains. “Then some details were added back in, superimposed drawings from the manuals in some cases.”

Bonnie Donohue, Die Lippen (Lips) (2019), digital photograph on acrylic. Image courtesy of the artist.

The layered, spectral photos Donohue uses recall the many instances of dehumanization a governing body can inflict once it has identified “the other.” In 1987, President Ronald Regan visited West Germany to advocate for an end to the border wall and promote an ethos of freedom. Many know his famous line: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

When Regan made this speech, it had only been two years since he had broken his own barrier of silence, publicly acknowledging the AIDS crisis for the first time. In the three years following the official identification of AIDS by the CDC, individuals who were suffering from the disease and watching it ravage their communities were largely kept out of the national spotlight. Regan deliberately avoided codifying AIDS in the national consciousness, building a barrier of politics and morals around AIDS victims and activists. 

Donohue’s blurred layers crowd with shadows of the past, and are meant to make us turn towards the borders we create, both literal and metaphorical, in the present. Donohue’s show warns of allowing geopolitical maneuvers of the last several years—from the U.S.-Mexico border wall initiative to the decision to move the U.S. embassy, arbiter of legitimacy, from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem—to fade into the safe uncertainty of near-distant history. The lines we draw, both geographic or personal, over mountains and amongst ourselves, strain at the prospect of keeping the past separate from the present. Borders can be understood as deeply emotional, fraught displays of human frailty. Whatever they consist of materially (or not), borders lay bare the force of human compulsion to delineate space and time. And the more fervently these lines are drawn, the more uncontainable the reality of the circumstances is revealed to be.

On her choice of the Green Belt as the heart of her show, Donohue explains: “I look at it as a place of hope. The word ‘utopia’ is unfair, because utopias can never last. But, I look at it as a fragile, free space. Anybody who wants to can be part of it.”

Jinwoo Hwon Lee 이훤 //Tell Them I Said Hello// at Aviary Gallery

Emma Newbery

Jinwoo Hwon Lee, Unanimously American II (2018), Pigment, 12”x18”.

In any viewing experience, one can’t help but notice the conceptual jump from artist to audience—there is a kind of translation that occurs, shaped by a viewer’s reference points, experiences, and mood, just as the work itself is a product of the emotional/political/cultural environment the artist finds themselves in. In Jinwoo Hwon Lee’s exhibition //Tell Them I Said Hello//, a collection of 23 black and white pigment prints, these experiential layers build so indelibly that even the starkest of aesthetic contrasts crackle with a kind of charge that requires the “/.” It’s an energy which necessitates alternatives, additions, piling feelings until the print is humming with them. I can’t touch them, but if I could, a small part of me thinks that my body might jolt.

While the stylized marks around exhibition titles are common for Aviary’s online shows, the double slashes are imbued with new meaning in the case of //Tell Them I Said Hello//. In the coding language Python (and perhaps in others, I am already out of my depth), the double-slash, “//”, functions somewhat like parentheses do in other written text. It allows the coder to add in a kind of private, personalized note, either to other coders, or to themselves, reacting to certain lines. The “//”, from what I understand, tells the computer to ignore what follows it. That is, the human element is isolated, emotion at once included and also encrypted in the lines of code.

Lee makes explicit an insidious kind of coding in his own experience of immigrating to the United States—a furious scramble to type new commands in a language you’ve never used in order to execute tasks to which you have no cultural anchor. It is to employ, his work suggests, a kind of encryption of the self, a compartmentalization. In his artist’s statement, Lee describes his personal experience moving to the U.S. from Korea, writing:

“I did not speak what everyone spoke.”

Rather than confining this description to denote language, Lee, a poet as well as a visual artist, leaves open the concept of a larger sense of alienation.

Lee, who came to the U.S. once as a toddler, and then immigrated by himself at 19, speaks to the experience of having his internal complexity abstracted, all observation and connection rendered external. “I knew no one,” he adds. “People in the small town noticed me by my color.” One might imagine him having to flag his inner thoughts and feelings with that same //ignore// signal. Lee’s chosen title for the show is piercingly intimate, and made more so by this addition. It’s as if you were eavesdropping on a conversation you weren’t meant to hear:

//Tell them I said hello//

“The eclectic black and white photographs in the series reflect the never resolved physical and emotional distance between two homes,” explains Lee. “The images hardly show a full face of a person. This signifies the scattered and undermined identity as a liminal. Oscillating between a citizen and an immigrant, I never felt fully understood or wholeheartedly considered. Some nuances were always dismissed.”

Jinwoo Hwon Lee, A Border (2019), Pigment, 12”x 20”.

When I came upon the print Non-protective Colors, I immediately closed my eyes. I didn’t even realize I had shut them until I noticed I had to open them again in order to continue looking. I have observed this same kind of stupor in the European hornets that stagger onto our front porch in the mornings. At night they make me flinch when they beat their bodies against the glass doors, drawn in by the porch light. In daylight, they seem drunk, almost. A kind of involuntary downgrading of executive functioning. Worker hornets, females (I think, anyway). They’re starting to die off as the sun cuts through colder and colder temperatures.

A few seconds into this moment of sudden and utter disorientation, I was able to start blinking back the glare of sun on snow that leaps from the photograph. Lee’s show invokes a discordant meshing of selfhood and socially-constructed reality. The prints themselves, though awash in soft grays and rich blacks, ignite the edges of the border between the present and the past, what is real and what isn’t.

I let my body recalibrate, feeling like a bit of an idiot. Even as my eyes adjusted to the print’s softness, the aftershock of my immediate, physical reaction reverberated under their lids.

Jinwoo Hwon Lee, Non-protective Colors (2019) – Pigment, 12”x18”.

In the wild, protective colors enable prey to camouflage themselves, or become otherwise unattractive to potential predators. Poison Dart Frogs, most notably found in The Amazon, are multicolored, often in dizzying, neon hues. Though this makes them stand out against the vegetation, this coloration acts as a warning to predators to stay away.

Where his other prints feature more greyscale, Lee leans into the harshness of a more definitive black and white palette in Non-protective Colors. The print evokes some feelings that viewers can share—the rawness of winter air on skin, the glare of light refracting off of snow banks. However, in keeping with his exploration of the forced reduction of nuance in the “[oscillation] between citizen and immigrant,” Lee also implicates the viewer in their consumption of the fractured, black-and-white narrative. The vulnerability embedded in the title of the print forces an acknowledgment of the power dynamics between those who are “in” and those who are “out.” Perhaps, even, between a predator and its prey.

Jinwoo Hwon Lee, Intruded and Unapologetic (2020), Pigment, 18”x12”.

“In a greater context,” concludes Lee, “the seemingly disjointed objects and people photographed in the series portray the alienated under different settings. The loose strings among the images are metaphors of many individuals’ firsthand testimonies. Joining this personal confession, viewers are invited to imagine their own version of alienation.”

//Tell Them I Said Hello// is featured on the Aviary website as part of their online exhibitions. You can explore more of Jinwoo Hwon Lee’s work here, and follow him here.


Emma Newbery

I was born with one eye open, how dolphins sleep.

even in rest, keeping watch

through the night water, 

surveying their young.

Sometimes I think about the Russian peasants wading deep in my gene pool, 

about their snow and their thaw. 

what they might make of me or 

what I have made from them. 

I feel for the edges, pushing my mind back 

beyond the peasants and their Russian peasant parents

to the pre-pangaeic skitterings of life, dark globules 

that propelled themselves forth from the spires and deep caves of early earth.

I can give myself up to this, if I want.

drop in deep enough 

behind the open eye, 

past dolphin sleep.

But the sounds of the human body will always run deeper. 

blood pumping and draining from my feet 

to my belly and heart—the sound of my body working 

to protect the softest parts of me.

Accompanies curated virtual show Pangaea and Panthalassa on Artsy.

Variations on a Theme: Drawn to Film

Satyr moths

Emma Newbery

soft-edged, jaundiced eyes

can pierce the night.

up from over the wing’s edge

they lead satyr moths—

lushes, like their namesake—

into the domed and honeyed glow,

pressing the air where those noses might be

and fogging up the glass.

carolina flits, short and erratic:

source of light STOP still unknown STOP

in triplets, she conveys

urgency, ignorance, or both.

at 1 1/4 inches,

she has to STOP

make it in STOP


mitchell’s catches the updraft:

it’s a tricky one STOP

marvel to the eyes STOP

murder on the wings STOP

1 3/4 inches. his wings beat

out storied warnings

in little blips

of five.

Variations on a Theme: Drawn to Film


Emma Newbery

I am usually afraid

to write what is true,

to make the past

shiny in

that way.

to give it a gloss it doesn’t

deserve, because it

was just the time

we all went


But try as I do to ground it,

keep it, I still re—

member it as

though through a


glittering out on the rocks like

a dream I once had.

We used the new

flies that time,


jumpers my uncle had sewn. We

waited and watched and

kept by the rocks,

low and crouched,


We caught a bass. Well, our uncle

caught a bass, we ate.

Through the bend in

my glass, I

see it.

Exhibition Review: Repeat As Needed

Emma Newbery

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.

Variations on a Theme: Repeat As Needed

Tusk Fish

Emma Newbery

Tusk fish remember, return

to the rounds and ridges of loved coral

where they dash what is meant

to break open.

sifting through silt, they swim to the edge

alone, under dappled sea light.

in the passage from reef to ring they reach

a speed of thrumming stillness.

I can hope to pass under the same beams

to cut through the water dark,

and return through some fin-felt remembrance

each day

to what’s most important.

Repeat As Needed Promo

Inside Look: Rose Olson’s Rain and Sunshine

Emma Newbery

The maxim that Rose repeats throughout our interview is: “the person you don’t want to bore is yourself.”

I spoke to Rose ahead of her upcoming show Rain and Sunshine, set to open on June 24th in Kingston’s main gallery. We discussed newer elements of her work, especially in the context of her long tenure as a painter.

“I’ve always painted all my life,” she explains. “I can’t change. No matter what my job was, how many hours of teaching I did or whatever I did, I would have to come home and do some work sometime during the evening before I went to bed.”

Over the course of her career, Rose has honed a distinct aesthetic. Using acrylic wash to play with light, movement, and opacity, Rose brings depth to the surface of her seemingly simple works. “When I was younger, I worked on everything: paper, it might be charcoal drawings. It might be anything because I had to work. Now, I work strictly with paint and wood and nothing else because that’s what interests me right now.”

Her upcoming show at Kingston signals a new dimension of this familiar medium. Perhaps reflecting the mercurial social environment, Olson’s show includes works like Red Intrusion, below. The notion of intrusion is something Rose explores deeply in her more recent work. The push and pull that results from the integrity of Rose’s natural canvas meeting the piercing strip of red that truncates its base is a relationship she relishes.

Rose Olson, Red Intrusion, acrylic on wood, 20”x 30”x 2”, 2019.

“I love what I’m doing right now,” adds Rose. “A lot of it is new because of blocks of colors. And the color is quite heavy. But it doesn’t eliminate the grain of the wood, which is very important to me when I’m painting.” 

Rose goes on to explain the importance of maintaining the integrity of the surface on which she paints. It’s as much a part of the painting as the materials that cover it: “The grain of the wood is something that I respect. So I try to make it clear. I try to make it available for the viewer to see no matter what color is over it.”

“A grain is unique,” she says. “They’re like our fingerprints, so no two are alike.”

Rose Olson, Violet Calm, acrylic on wood, 2020.

Within this medium, Rose’s work retains its fluidity. “Sometimes I’ll look at a painting that I had done and it bores me, so I will go back and work on it. So I guess they never end,” she muses. Five minutes before our interview, she made a final adjustment to a recent work titled Violet Calm, left. “I just finished a painting now that I had started earlier and it needed something desperately and I wasn’t sure what it needed. And I just discovered that it needed a golden band. So I put it in. It’s just a slim band and it enhances the grain as it goes up.”

Once she has finished a piece, Rose strives to keep the viewer’s experience of her work dynamic. “The colors keep changing continually, which is important to me. Also, when the work is on the wall, there’s the light going from one end of the room to the other that continually changes the colors, because there are so many layers of color and the light will pick up one layer after another.”

Rose did not cultivate this dynamic approach alone. She credits a shared workspace and creative process with her interest in the ongoing nature of her work. “My husband was a writer. He wrote poetry. We would very often stop our work and I would show him my work.”

Creating side-by-side elevated both of their processes. “When he would start reading his poetry, I would say, you know, it’s not quite there yet,” Rose recalls. “Then, all of the sudden, he would do it. It would be right there and I would get the goosebumps and I would say, stop. This is it. You’ve made it. You know, you don’t want it any different than this.”

While her husband passed recently, she continues to find motivation through these memories of collaboration: “My husband died suddenly three years ago, and that is a blow to me. It’s overwhelming,” says Rose.

“But,” she maintains, “it doesn’t stop me from painting.”

Rose Olson, Swirl, acrylic on wood, 12”x 12”x 1”, 2019.

Swirl is shot through with two, thick lines of red, lending the work a different feel than Red Intrusion possesses. The color pushes against the grain of the wood, and the whorls through which it slices seem to bend in protest, or perhaps in welcoming. The paler, nearly iridescent wide stroke of violet below lends a tactile element to the piece. Beneath the lines, straight and firm, it almost serves as the memory of a hand has followed their course, leaving behind an imprint. The work, like its maker, is pushing at the boundaries, suggesting a sense of continuance, and of potential chaos.

In addition to her career as a painter, Rose also taught for many years, spurring on her students in the same way she pushed her husband and continues to push herself.

“I don’t think there was anything that I didn’t like, and I don’t think there was a student that I didn’t like,” she recalls. “I pushed them very hard. I wanted them to create something uniquely theirs, and I think they understood that because we would both get excited.”

Rose encouraged her students to trust their unique perspective on shared, human experiences rather than attempting to break away from artists who inspired them. “Sometimes you can try to copy something, just so you understand what, what colors that person is using,” she explains, “but they’ll never come out the way that person uses them. They’ll come out the way you use them. You find yourself doing it in such a unique way.”

“That is, it becomes exciting to you because we are all different from each other,” she adds. “That quality within each person is very important to me.”

Rose Olson, triptych. From left to right: Canals of Mars, Martian Sky, Martian Water, all acrylic on wood, 20”x 20” X 1.5”, 2020.

Ultimately, Rose views painting as a deeply personal, emotional experience that turns one’s internal experience outwards to face the world. “Whatever you are, whatever your passion is at the moment, whatever you see out there comes through in the work.”

“Whether you’re a painter or you put it into poetry and words, the way my husband used to, when it hits just right, that’s it. You get the goosebumps and that’s when you know.”

In any creative pursuit, Rose concludes: “When something is real, it’s it. It just affects you completely.”