Political Playground: Abstraction and Figuration Face Off in Jennifer Moses’ Rock, Paper, Scissors 

At Kingston Gallery, Jennifer Moses’ Rock, Paper, Scissors uses a playful visual language to convey the political frustrations of our time.  

Pow, flashe and ink on Yupo. Jennifer Moses, 2021. 

What kind of political art might suit our current climate? A new COVID-19 variant and its ensuing closures have once again returned; President Biden, who as a candidate called for a strong federal government response to the pandemic, has now seemingly flip-flopped. This nonsense can’t be contained in the adult world’s 24-hour news cycle alone; it is political child’s play, the stuff of cartoons. In Rock, Paper, Scissors, on view through January 16, Jennifer Moses takes us back to the playground for a playful and cynical view of this day and age.

The compositions of Rock, Paper, Scissors are flat yet full of movement. Moses works in ink and flashe, a medium which she loves in part because, as she says, “light doesn’t emanate from it, it kind of sucks up the light in an interesting way.” This combination of ink and flashe is a pleasant surprise to the eye. Inherent in flashe is a bold and colorful matte surface, which lends itself well to Moses’ combination of abstract and representational shapes. The black and white ink serves as a compelling textural counterpoint to the flat shapes, replacing the viewer’s expectation of a comic book landscape with something more ironic. Inspired by artists such as Phillip Guston, Stuart Davis, Matisse, and Jacob Lawrence, Moses’ results manage to strike the notoriously difficult balance of being both politically engaged and aesthetically interesting. 

Jennifer Moses, Rock paper scissors 2, gouache on paper. 2021. 

Despite how immediate these pieces look, their process is time-consuming and labor-intensive. The material of flashe itself is thick and can only be worked over so often before the surface becomes impossible to work with. Likewise, Moses’ cartoonish imagery is in fact the result of a long history of experimentation. She is influenced by Sienese medieval paintings, which she says struck her as “very abstract despite their nature of storytelling. Although they are composed of biblical figures and representational spaces, they’re flat and stylized.” In the early aughts, Moses grew tired of figuration, so she transitioned away from the figure, “lifting objects from art history” as she puts it. She zoomed into these compositions, painting the parts of the figure––the hairdos, robes, and other things––that inspired her. She’s been exploring the boundaries between figuration and abstraction ever since. At one point in her artistic evolution, Moses experimented with both painting and collage in the same pieces. Despite leaving collage behind, that influence is still evident in her work today. The disparate shapes she creates all seem to be at odds with each other, abstract and figurative facing off in a heated debate. 

Night, Kay Walkingstick. 1991.
Chase II and Onetwothreeshoot. Jennifer Moses, 2021.

One of the most compelling aspects of Rock, Paper, Scissors is in its pairing of paintings, several in diptych-like arrangements. Often used in religious art, diptychs typically present a narrative. Artists like Kay Walkingstick, however, have used the form to contrast two parts of a piece, emphasizing their emotional rather than visual connections. In Night (1991), Walkingstick used the diptych to show Ithaca’s gorges on one side and her “internal spiritual comprehension” in the other, creating a visual representation of grief after her husband’s death. At Kingston, Jennifer Moses has paired her paintings like diptychs, creating the sensation that these works are all bumping heads. The pairing of Chase II and Onetwothreeshoot extends each works’ combative effect past the canvas. The figures in Chase II almost seem to be running away from Onetwothreeshoot, whose clenched fists look menacing in comparison. This movement leads the viewer through the rest of the show, as if compelling them to turn the pages of a comic book. Later, the ghostly form from Onetwothreeshoot returns––as if having lost his battle.

Rock, paper. Ink on Yupo paper. Jennifer Moses, 2021. 

At this point in the pandemic, Americans are more frazzled than ever, yet political solutions have led to an endless stalemate. Perhaps by retreating to the straightforward logic of the comic book, we can escape this current reality, or even dream up more compelling solutions. Critical yet still playful, Rock, Paper, Scissors is a refreshing break from the mayhem. 

Linda Leslie Brown’s “Entangled” Imagines Survival in the Post-Anthropocene Era

This November, Brown’s sculptures harness ideas of genetic recombination and transmutation, bringing new life to discarded objects.

Entangled (installation view), 2021. Image courtesy of the artist. 

As I walked into the Kingston Gallery on November 5th, I felt as if I’d entered a scientific laboratory, a exotic animal mating ritual, and a taxidermy store all at once. These life-and-death contradictions are key to Linda Leslie Brown’s Entangled, on view through November 28. The exhibit presents a fascinating set of sculptures made from ceramic and found objects alike, reimagining Darwin’s ideas of sexual reproduction and genetic recombination for the anthropocene. Each piece has a surprising vitality, despite their composition from discarded objects.

The impressions these sculptures create are both exciting and disturbing. Upon first glance, the large square table in the center of the exhibit draws the eye. It’s clinical yet inviting, like some strange combination of an operating table and a dinner party. (Whether these creatures are at a singles event or being served for dinner, it’s hard to say.) On the table, there is a series of sculpture-creatures, all splayed out next to each other and attached—or entangled—to the others with a colorful plastic tube. Their interconnectedness is both a hopeful and an ominous sign. Brown’s ceramic pieces bend and curve, like toothpaste tubes or pieces of coral. Found objects, from birch branches to circuit boards, coexist in the sculptures’ hybrid forms. More works are affixed to the wall: Lively and colorful, they bear a striking resemblance to butterflies pinned to boards. 

Brown sees her sculptures not as living things, but as fossilized remains: “​​These are sort of after-lives,” she says. Despite this “fossilized” quality, there is something remarkably alive about her work. 

These dual life-like and cadaverous qualities are the result of both the process and the project of her work: making something beautiful from capitalist ruins, teasing something life-like out of decay and waste. 

Aerial Lavender, ceramic and mixed media. 2021. Image courtesy of the artist.

Brown has a nonlinear work process that matches this ethos. She doesn’t start with a strong conceptual controlling idea. Rather, she begins the process by intuitively creating a ceramic sculpture. This process is tactile; she lets the material of the piece guide her. Once the clay is fired, it’s ready for what she calls “assembly mode:” looking for objects that fit the shape and sensibility of the clay. Thanks to her husband, Ari Montford’s, tradition of long, scavenging walks in Boston, Linda now has a pile of found objects in her studio—a veritable treasure trove waiting to be explored and repurposed.

The look and feel of Brown’s work is reminiscent of the “exquisite corpses,” those collaborative drawing projects pioneered by the Surrealists. These “corpses”—which emerge by folding the drawing over, each artist concealing their part of the work from collaborators—are known for their dreamy and nightmarish qualities. Brown’s work shares the Surrealists’ whimsical-yet-grotesque sensibility. Her sculptures appear as though they’ve been worked on intuitively, following the whims of the material rather than a preconceived plan. Instead of collaborating with others, then, Brown collaborates with the variables and uncertainties of the found objects and clay. She never knows what she’ll find on the streets, or what textures and shapes will emerge from the kiln.

Variant Pink C, ceramic and mixed media, 2021. 

This exquisite corpse sensibility is perhaps best expressed in Variant Pink C. In it, a plastic tube flows through what looks to be the bust of a doll; a crop of fur is embedded in the back of the piece. Holes and bubbles make an equal appearance, showcasing the vulnerability of these materials. Is this all one organism? It’s hard to believe that this is the work of just one person. It looks like something out of Beetlejuice, or Trenton Doyle Hancock’s Mind of the Mound: Where the latter two were created entire fantasy worlds with their own logic, Brown summons fantastical creatures from everyday monotony. 

In this, she takes inspiration from Yuyi Agematsu, a sculptor whose media of choice include cigarette butts and other detritus. Brown loves the way Agematsu “builds these fantastic little sculptures, things that are totally cast off, and never in a million years would be considered art supplies. Rotted plastic bags, you both pull those out of a tree, and then take them and tease them into shapes that look completely alive.” 

Lavender Balance, ceramic and mixed media, 2021. Image courtesy of the artist. 

This sense of recombination and rebirth is integral to Brown’s work, as her practice is intricately tied to her surrounding environment. In a recent arts residency at Monson Arts Center, located close to the end of the Appalachian Trail, Brown achieved a sort of mental rebirth of her own. The location of the residency was remote, yet still occupied: In the intersection between the distant rural landscape and the presence of Appalachian Trail hikers, it seems she had an experience of aesthetic renewal. 

Especially now, as the current pandemic’s effects gradually lessen, Brown is ready to venture off into the world and continue this aesthetic exploration.  

“There’s not been a lot of outside influence happening. And I’m hungry for that,” Brown said. “Now, I really want to get out more, look at more work, and think about other artists’ work. I’d like to go to New York again, you know, and do all of those things that we didn’t do because of the pandemic. I’d like to stretch a little bit. It just felt very confined.”

As humanity comes out of the last species-threatening event (and, very likely,  into the next one), Brown’s work seems to hope for a second chance for life. In her artist statement, she refers to the possibility of sexual reproduction and transmutation to produce new possibilities for survival: “I imagine that such adaptations may be occurring even now: in the depths of mother ocean, among our gut bacteria, or nested in mycelium tendrils wrapped around the roots of trees.”

Linda Leslie Brown’s Entangled, on view through November 28, is an exhibition for a strange and hybrid future—though perhaps not a lifeless one. 

Matter Out of Place: Domestic and Wild Scenes from Joan Baldwin’s Inner World

In Baldwin’s October 2021 exhibition, the natural and the domestic world are at odds—and there are no human subjects in sight.

In our lingering climate (of) crisis, interruptions and inconveniences come as no surprise. In just the past month, we’ve seen persistent supply chain hiccups, a 6-hour Facebook outage in early October, and the further acceleration of the “Great Resignation,” with an unprecedented number of Americans quitting their jobs. Given the ongoing pandemic and climate crisis, “normality” seems silly to reach for at this point. There are so many disruptions at play these days that there is a slim chance of making sense of it all. Sometimes, the most we can do is sit with the strangeness.

Joan Baldwin’s October exhibition at the Kingston Gallery does just that. Her two exhibits “Above and Beyond” (Main Gallery) and “Uninvited Guests” (Center Gallery) are a meditation on ‘matter out of place,’ to borrow anthropologist Mary Douglas’ term. In the Main Gallery, “Above and Beyond” shows a series of figurative yet surreal landscapes with couches and crows vying for dominance. Meanwhile, “Uninvited Guests” in the Center Gallery promises a three-wall installation resembling the window views of Baldwin’s Cape Cod home, with moths and other odd creatures sneaking in. The two shows are quite different in form, yet both promise worlds where our expectations have been suspended in favor of something stranger. These are worlds that beg to be unraveled.

Throughout the show, there is a subject that keeps reappearing: furniture. This comes from Joan Baldwin’s own background as an illustrator. Before pursuing work as a full time artist, she made artwork for the furniture industry and for a newspaper. While she’s retired from commercial illustration now, Baldwin still finds herself drawn to painting furniture. Now, she has the creative freedom to put a surreal twist on it.

“When I was doing the illustration for the trade shows,” Baldwin said in an interview, “I had to have it exactly the way [the object] looked. And so I was really kind of constrained.” In her current work, she allows herself to be more spontaneous. With this latest exhibit she has tried to emulate the process of Gustav Klimt, whom she admires for “letting the brush go where it wants to go without him planning the strokes.” In the bottom of Ruffles, we see this spontaneity in action. As if abandoning the figurative project mid-stroke, Joan’s brushstrokes dash off, escaping the confines of their literal origins and leaving the subject with a few metaphorical flourishes. These “ruffles” merge into the landscape surrounding the chair, and, like the show as a whole, the painting becomes a hybrid of literal and surreal impulse. 

Ruffles, oil on canvas, 2020.

One of Joan’s main inspirations is her Cape Cod house, which she appreciates for its untamed beauty: “you can go for a long walk and not even run into anybody,” she said of it. “It’s really beautiful and kind of wild.” 

Despite Baldwin’s clear soft spot for human-free landscapes, there’s still an element of humanity in her work. This human influence is most evident in Garden Toast. In the painting, a wine bottle spills out onto an empty pink chair, with a matching set of pink heels haphazardly parked in the grass. This landscape has touches of the human—the shoes, the wine—and the chair itself is a charming substitute for the human subject. According to Baldwin, when she first put the furniture into her landscapes, she was initially surprised that the chairs she painted “took on a personality of their own.” Presented with a landscape that was nonetheless full of human influence, I was free to invent a narrative for the painting. 

Garden Toast, oil on canvas, 2020.

While the absence of humans allows for narrative world-building in “Above and Beyond,” it also allows insects and creatures to sneak in in their place — something that Baldwin’s Artist Statement says can “make your life miserable.” We see this in “Uninvited Guests.” In the Center Gallery, a series of fantastical creatures sneak into a recreation of Baldwin’s Cape Cod Home, a setup she has described as “almost like a theater set.” Wild creatures, for Baldwin, are not compatible with the order and organization of the human world. Still, she asserts this wildlife is “worth studying, labeling, categorizing and mounting on boards with pins.” 

Uninvited Guests. Installation view.

This statement is worth unpacking: why the need to study these creatures scientifically? After the whimsical and magical “Above and Beyond,” it is unusual to introduce the scientific method. Despite the uninhibited boundary crossing between the domestic and the wild in “Above and Beyond,” this statement reveals a wish to keep the wilderness under control. It is an urge to scientifically understand, I think, what can only be intuitively and emotionally understood. It’s reminiscent of our cultural moment, where so much is inexplicable and out of place. (Note: these works were produced in 2020 at the height of the pandemic.) I see this scientific urge as a desire to understand and cope with the ever-present crises of this age. With some categorization and some science, Baldwin might hope (as do we) that we can solve or at least understand the disruptions we’ve gone through. 

Part of this scientific urge may come from aging and grief. In our interview, Baldwin shared that “As you get older, the older generation dies, and then you start accumulating other people’s things. It’s not like we pick them out. As you get older and you look around, you go, ‘wow, we have this strange combination of things we’ve gotten from other people.’” Thus, the familiar space of the home becomes increasingly filled with memorabilia from other’ past lives. Objects loaded with memories are stiltedly fit into someone else’s life. These objects are the true uninvited guests, and they haunt Baldwin’s work.“It brings back memories, you know? I know that they would want us to treasure what they’ve given us or put some value to it, not just give it away to somebody else,” she says. Although these objects are uninvited, that doesn’t mean they aren’t welcome. Baldwin’s show is an imaginative attempt to make sense of that which is so clearly out of place. 

A personal favorite is Morning Moth. If the rest of the show is mystifying in its balance between the domestic and wild, this work is a clear exception. Wild branches and leaves easily embrace the subject of the painting, a cozy cabin-like space—creating a frame-within-a-frame around the subject that is almost nest-like. In this snug frame, a larger-than-life moth, small bird, and miniscule chair coexist, oddly yet peaceably. Though this surreal sense of scale might have been puzzling, by the time I had reached this work I embraced its logic immediately. While most of the work in “Above and Beyond” elicited questions, this work presented a clear and friendly opportunity to admire. 

Morning Moth, oil on canvas. 2020.

In Baldwin’s show, certain questions seem to want to be asked: What are the rules of these strange mindscapes? Can we feel at home here? After a walk through the Kingston’s October exhibit, asking these questions becomes more important than answering them. Baldwin’s exhibition is fit for coping with a world that has stopped making sense. It is a pleasant and puzzling surprise. In this whimsical series, Baldwin has invited us all into a fantastically strange and refreshing world—and it is an invitation that I wholeheartedly recommend you accept.

Baldwin’s show is on view through October 31. Catch it before it’s gone!

Kledia Spiro: Too (un)Familiar?

by Margaret Goddard

“It’s a Family Practice” Video Still, 2021, Dimensions Variable

It can be hard, if not impossible, for someone born and raised in the U.S. to understand an immigrant’s struggle. In Kledia Spiro’s video performance It’s a Family Practice, she has the insider play outsider for once. The piece was part of her solo show Too (un)Familiar? at Boston’s Kingston Gallery this spring, along with installation art, photography, and augmented reality. The performance explores her family’s experience immigrating from Albania through the lens of weightlifting, a tool Kledia uses often in her art. The performance was filmed this past winter during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the family was living under the same roof for the first time since they moved to the U.S.

While Kledia was weightlifting one day last summer, she wrote in her journal, “When people judge art on what art is they look at two things: how familiar it is so they can relate, and how too familiar it is so they can disregard. It’s a fine line and the public is a harsh critic.” People who aren’t artists or art consumers sometimes find abstract art too familiar and thus devoid of meaning, saying, “How is that considered art? A child could do that.” On the other end of the spectrum, people can find art alienating: as if it is only meant to be understood by some elite class. Kledia’s mission in It’s a Family Practice was to straddle that line, allowing the viewer who is typically an insider feel like an outsider, and vice versa.

It begins with a flock of geese following each other in a swoop across a split-channel screen. Kledia, her sister Erinda, her mother Linda, and her father Dion follow each other’s footsteps through the snow, carrying a welded barbell with seats on either end. Clips of Kledia weightlifting in different settings and times of year cut in and out to the beat of a heavy barbell’s clink. Her parents sit on each end of the barbell and make conversation while Kledia and Erinda help each other put on their weightlifting belts. The sisters squat, do jumping jacks and do push ups in sync.

As Linda and Dion talk, the sisters make coffee and serve it to their parents on a bumper plate. Her parents’ voices are soft and full of love to my ignorant ear, and I wanted to understand the Albanian words. I thought I heard English and Spanish words I knew like “No more snow,” “Ok, thank you,” “espinaca,” and “temperatura” but I couldn’t be sure. I continued to strain to pick up clues of what they were saying. They laughed at something with each other.

“It’s a family Practice” Video Still, 2021. Dimensions Variable.

A lively music takes over as the sisters try to lift their parents up. The two channels no longer form a single shot and go out of sync. Sometimes the screen is mirrored so it looks like the same person is on each end of the barbell, trying to lift it. Linda gets up from her seat to help her daughters lift their father. Finally, Dion puts his coffee down and gets up too, and all four are able to lift the barbell.

The music changes again and they grab each other’s hands and dance around the barbell. The snow makes it hard to dance, but they dance anyway. They dance on their own and then hold hands again. Finally they settle down, sitting in a row. Each channel shows a different take of this scene, where the family settles down in slightly different ways: on one side, they sit slightly apart from each other and on the other side they each have a hand on the other, forming a single mass. They look out at the frozen reservoir together as the sun sets. A car’s brake lights travel across the distant hill. Birds, crows, and a passing car are the last sounds we hear as the screen goes dark.

As the performance swung back and forth between the familiar and the unfamiliar, I resigned myself to ambiguity, as all good art encourages you to do. I experienced some familiarity when I thought I recognized words I knew and when I heard the sounds of geese, crows, and passing cars, sounds that I know like the back of my hand. I never realized how ingrained those sounds are in my memory. I also watched the Spiro family celebrate things they were familiar with, things I have never seen or heard and know nothing about. I felt like an outsider being invited in.

“Too (un)Familiar?” Installation View, 2021. Photo by Will Howcroft

Between You and Me

by Jane Lincoln

June – July 2021

A “Space Between” is the perfect metaphor for the moment. The COVID-19 pandemic has upended our habitual lives, and we are slowly moving into a post-pandemic world. Our foundation has been shaken by world and national events. We wait to see if heightened efforts to combat racism will yield a more just society and we hold our breath to see if our democracy will survive. Trust in one another is in short supply as society grows increasingly polarized. Yet, I can’t help but hope that this moment, shrouded in fear and confusion, will be transformative.  

At one of my art exhibits earlier this year, I had a chance encounter with Reverend Nina Barlow Schmid, Minister of the First Congregational Church of South Windsor CT. This led to an exchange about the concept of a “space between” and to the concern that covenants such as the one between Abraham and God in the Christian faith had lost their relevance. Reverend Schmid concluded one of her essays with this statement “Between you and me,” as God infers in the Bible, Genesis 17; “it’s the only way to go.” 

I borrowed that reference for one of my Color Zones in this show. Between You and Me invites you to consider the “space between us” – a centuries-old concept that calls us to surrender and embrace uncertainty. The theme “Space Between” prompted me to work panels that are connected but not touching. I want the viewer to consider the contrast of surface and space, paint and light, opaque and transparent.

Between You and Me, acrylic on paper/board, 12 ½ x 8 inches, 2021

My challenge in choosing colors for Between You and Me was to select ones that conveyed the hopes and fears that have dominated my emotions over the past year. But the painting is also an invitation to consider the current uncertainties of the many personal, global, political, and religious “spaces between.” Black and white portray polarization with the balanced neutral gray above them. The silver iridescent stripe across the gray and the rose glow show my optimism for the future. 

My Color Zones series also speaks to the show’s theme as they inherently intend to seek out color relationships that will influence emotions and create distinctive optical effects.  Colors interact with neighboring colors, edges create optical illusions, and interference pigments cause colors to shift as viewers walk by. 

Gregarious Green, acrylic on paper/board, 36 x 23 inches, 2021

Gregarious Green is a diptych featuring horizontal bands of green – one turquoise rises at the top while the three darker greens weight below. A thin stripe of orange crosses the top while the bottom panel has a slightly wider stripe of pink. These two stripes appear identical in color and reference the glow of orange between the panels and surrounding the painting. 

Versatile Violet, acrylic on paper/board, 18 x 43 inches, 2021

Versatile Violet is a triptych of various violets ranging from bluish to reddish which are enlivened by yellow-green between the panels and surrounding the painting. The surface repeats this yellow-green in the left panel, while both the middle and right panels contain different, more subtle greens.

David Salle in How to See describes my goal for these Color Zones: “A color is seldom experienced independently; we always see one color against another, and those two against another, and those two against a third, and so on. There are dozens of other factors that influence our perception of color, such as value and saturation but what counts most is the intervals between colors, precisely chosen.”

My Color Zones are best seen in person as they expect to interact with viewers.  They may trigger a memory or may be a new experience, but all allow the viewer a moment to pause and observe the power of color. I trust we have learned from our collective pain over the past year and our isolation has shown us the quiet “space between.” If you have the opportunity to visit Kingston Gallery I encourage you to pause, step very close and experience each “space between”.

detail of Between You and Me, acrylic on paper/board, 12 ½ x 8 inches, 2021
detail of Gregarious Green, acrylic on paper/board, 36 x 23 inches, 2021
detail of Versatile Violet, acrylic on paper/board, 18 x 43 inches, 2021

On-Keong Seong: Graft

One day after Massachusetts rescinded all COVID-19 restrictions and effectively declared the pandemic “pretty much over,” Atlantic columnist Tim Kreider published an ode to the kind of emotional padding that a year in solitude has afforded the fortunate, and a blunt acknowledgment of the deep outrage felt by those who were hit the hardest.  

“The forces of money and power would certainly like us to forget all about this year and go back to exactly the way things were,” he writes. “But a lot of people went very far away over the course of this past year, deep into themselves, and not all of us are going to come all the way back.” He argues that confronting “normalcy” will look different for everyone, and it won’t always be pretty. He places us at arguably the grossest state of metamorphosis for a caterpillar. 

“Before caterpillars become butterflies, they first digest themselves, dissolving into an undifferentiated mush called ‘the pupal soup.’ People are at different stages of this transformation—some still unformed, some already opulently emergent. Some of us may wither on exposure to the air. Escape from the chrysalis is always a struggle.” 

I can’t think of a better artistic expression of the past year than On-Kyeong Seong’s exhibition Graft. Perhaps this is because I am clinging to arbitrary markers of time in my own life—Seong’s exhibition Embedment, which was on view last March, was my first real introduction to Kingston Gallery. Now, as I conclude my residency as the Emerging Arts Writer, her sprawling and chaotic approach to the natural world returns as a kind of checkpoint, a place to stop and evaluate how exactly we are stitching our world back together. 

On-Kyeong Seong, I will be a bird 1 (2021), collage and mixed media.

While Seong makes liberal use of all available media, from oil paint to cutouts to fabric, her style is unmistakable. In Graft, Seong explained the addition of a sewing machine to her repertoire. Likening it to the “automatic drawing” that was popular among spiritualist artists like Hilma af Klint in the early 20th century, Seong revels in the ability to be at once mechanical and entirely freeform.

“Machine stitchery is freed from rational control and may represent something of the pure sensation in the subconscious, residing in human nature and in nature itself.”

A joint drawing by Hilma af Klint and her spiritualist group “The Five”

“Observing nature under magnification is a discovery of something mystical and magical,” says Seong. “I often find the distinctive features of such shapes and forms resemble unusual and monstrous objects. I acknowledge that beauty and ugliness both exist side by side and together. Influenced by those contrasting figures, my works show distorted realities, which are transformed into abstractions to evoke both the beauty and ugliness of the natural world.”

The ugliness of the world is never too far from its surface. Though they pale in comparison to the glaring inequities across purportedly indiscriminate institutional efforts to keep Americans safe, the mental and emotional struggles that others of us have endured may have lasting effects. However, just as Seong pairs beauty with ugliness, this mentality can perhaps be seen as bringing forth a blatant rejection of social conventions that confine us. 

“A lot of [people] don’t want to return to wasting their days in purgatorial commutes, to the fluorescent lights and dress codes and middle-school politics of the office,” writes Kreider. He adds wryly: “service personnel are apparently ungrateful for the opportunity to get paid not enough to live on by employers who have demonstrated they don’t care whether their workers live or die.

“More and more people have noticed that some of the basic American axioms—that hard work is a virtue, productivity is an end in itself—are horseshit.”              

As the prospect of a “normal” summer approaches and the pupal soup is brought from its year-long simmer to a frenzied boil, a show like Seong’s is a welcome continuation of the kind of break from “rational control” we may want to hang onto.

On-Kyeong Seong, Summer Days 1 (2021), mixed media on canvas.
On-Kyeong Seong, Bluegrass (2021), mixed media on canvas.

A personal favorite in Seong’s show is Bluegrass. Wild sunflowers burst out from the pixelated chaos of virtual life, almost snarling their way towards freedom. Like Kreider said, clawing our way back to a semblance of normalcy is not always pretty. In Bluegrass, the juxtaposition between what Seong calls “controlled medi[a]”—oil and collage—and the frenetic thread lines is at its most evident. The thread, while adding undeniable dynamism to her work, is also functionless, superfluous. Where does it lead? What is it holding together? What is left to hold? Will we remember the tangles of this last year, where our collective thread snags? In embracing the ambiguity and ambivalence that an answerless reality might possess, Seong’s work is strangely comforting and alien at the same time.

Behind Closed Doors, Minds Burst Open: Zhong Lin’s Project 365

“Ever since I started, everyone around me has been giving me ideas for the last day,” writes Zhong Lin on April 22nd, 2021. This day marks the end of Project 365, her photography series depicting a daily portrait in her signature, warped, surrealist style. Lin, of Malaysian and Chinese heritage, has taken the internet by storm with her captivating depiction of an inner world of life in quarantine. “It wasn’t easy,” she admits, “other projects, 365 and life happening concurrently. […] I wouldn’t have made it without all the encouragements and kind words.” Lin joins a chorus of admissions that has characterized a year of struggles for many. A daily, regimented project is certainly ambitious, and at the level that Lin executes her work, even daunting. However, it is through her process, not only her products, that Lin’s shared strangeness has found its way into the hearts of the masses on instagram. 

Zhong Lin, #001 (2020) from Project 365.

Above is Lin’s first photograph from the then-unnamed series, #001. “I want to rediscover what it means to start from nothing,” she captioned it. “No Limits, No Boundaries and No Definition.”

“I have learnt that there is no right or wrong in creativity and with this vision I invite you to take on this journey with me to title what is yet to be named. Throughout this project I will be stretching beyond borders, posting different angles […] Since all possibilities are mine to find out and yours to relate, I will be laying my work in your hands and hoping my perspective would become yours / ours.”

“Much like every visual emerges from nothing, this project may become something limitless for everything that we hope for.”

By mid-April of 2020, the cumulative number of confirmed COVID-19 cases hovered around 430 in Taiwan, where Lin is based. The cases have been steadily climbing, with 1,090 recorded on April 22nd, 2021. As of that date, 42,523 people in Taiwan have been vaccinated. While the hope that Lin evoked on Day 1 of Project 365 has certainly begun to creep into the realm of reality, much of the world, along with Lin’s photographs, remains firmly in the surreal experience of isolation. 

Lin’s photographs pull from many personal references, and also echo a historical approach to feelings of loneliness and containment. Her closest companion in this pursuit may be Ana Mendieta (1948-1985), a Cuban-American artist known primarily for her Silueta series, who Lin mirrors in both style and tone. Both women establish an almost playful take on the desperation of entrapment, and blur the lines of social constructions of beauty and femininity by quite literally pressing the female form to its limit. 

Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints) (1972), chromogenic print. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Mendieta, who is thought to have been murdered in a domestic dispute by her former partner, artist Carl Andre, established a profound connection between her body and the earth in her short career. “My art is the way I reestablish the bonds that tie me to the universe,” she said. Her friend Mariana Gaston described her work this way: “art was a biologic need … her way to save her soul.” 

Lin certainly seems spurred on by this same ethos, even if she isn’t coming from the exact same perspective. While her work typically allows her to travel the world, to meet different people and constantly shift her subjects, her perspectives, and her artistic goals, Lin, like the rest of us, has been all but stuck for the past year. Cut off from the bustling fashion industry, where much of her work occurs, Lin has explored the limits of the self and of the mind. In her bewitching and at times unsettling portraits, she has put words and images to the feelings that have grown, gnarled and unnamed, in many of our hearts as we watch the pandemic unfold from behind closed doors. 

Zhong Lin, #265 Typhoon (2021), from Project 365. 

“I am not stopping here, I will continue creating beautiful images, there are more to come,” writes Lin in closing. “No matter which stage of my 365 you have joined, be it day 1, day 183 or today, you are part of the journey, and I welcome you. Now, if you excuse me, I am going to take my first 24 hours of sleep in a year.”

In Conversation: Zanele Muholi and Rhonda Smith

Rhonda Smith’s installation at Kingston Gallery was named after a term coined by professor and author Glenn Albrecht: solastalgia. A hybrid of the Latin sōlācium, meaning comfort, and the greek root –algia, denoting pain, solastalgia is “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault (physical desolation). It is manifest in an attack on one’s sense of place, in the erosion of the sense of belonging (identity) to a particular place and a feeling of distress (psychological desolation) about its transformation.” Using earthen materials, Smith plumbs the emotional depths of our environment. Intimacy with our place of residence is what bonds sōlācium and -algia; they are a package deal. 

While Albrecht and Smith are most closely focused on the natural environment, a backdrop for the body, there is an undeniably human element. “Our destructive behaviors towards other species and one another disturb profoundly,” wrote Smith in her artist’s statement, “What is missing?” We have all lived through a year of COVID-19 in bodies under immediate assault, whether physical, medical, or emotional in nature. What does it look like when the self is bombarded with, or isolated from, the many factors of our natural environment? 

Rhonda Smith, Solastalgia (2020), clay, cork, glue, papier mache, pigment, silk, rock, twine, wire.

Smith’s work gains further perspective when placed in conversation with the recent talk given by South African artist and activist Zanele Muholi as part of ICA Boston’s virtual programming. In The Artist’s Voice: Zanele Muholi, Muholi detailed the political, anthropological, and historical layers to their work, highlighting the black, queer body as a site of continued tension between comfort and pain. 

“I just needed to produce these beautiful black images, to use my own body, not as somebody [else]’s subject,” explained Muholi about their series Somnyama Ngonyama: Hail the Dark Lioness. “Instead, a new dialogue: what is the politics of self presentation? What is the meaning of self in all of this mess?” The photographic series, available via virtual tour through Harvard’s Cooper Gallery, confronts the natural, social, and political environments that have shaped Muholi’s own understanding of their body and its resonance for other black creatives. Muholi uses the term “visual activism” to describe their work, calling it a process of ‘consciously creating to bring about change in people’s lives and surroundings.”

“Somnyama Ngonyama is translated as ‘Hail the Dark Lioness,’” explained Muholi. For them, the Zulu term indicates the way that one can “give presence to oneself, and to all those who are important to you.”

Zanele Muholi, Somnyama Ngonyama II, Oslo (2015).

As Smith said in her artist’s statement: “Imagine yourself the last of the species. Yet, we see a glimmer of hope.” Both Smith and Muholi hold this tension in their work, pulling it taught and presenting it to their viewers to confront directly. 

The two also recall geographies of the past. Where Smith’s is environmental, Muholi’s work is a candid engagement with the body largely focused on the LGBTQ+ community in South Africa, giving presence to those who have been forced to hide for too long. Their long term project, Faces and Phases, foregrounds black lesbians who have been continued targets of discrimination despite the legalization of same-sex marraige in South Africa in 2006. The passage of this act, and the start of Muholi’s project, coincided with the ten-year anniversary of South Africa’s constitution.

Faces and Phases began when I worked for the Forum for Empowerment of Women (FEW), which is an organization that I founded,” said Muholi. “It’s hard to celebrate the lives of those people who were brave enough to come out and say that they were, or that they are [LGBTQ+]. To thank them for even speaking out in a period where violence was rife in South Africa, especially for those [LGBTQ+] bodies that were out there in the open.” 

“We have a clause enshrined in our constitution that says: you are protected as a human being in your country of origin,” said Muholi. “So, 2006 then became that period in which I wanted to do something to contribute, to create an archive that could live beyond us.” Life and land are intimately connected, and in a country torn apart by apartheid just years before the constitution was ratified, this relationship is even more fraught.

The series is dedicated to Muholi’s friend, who passed away from HIV. 

“She wrote a piece that was called Please Remember Me When I’m Gone,” Muholi recounted. “It became the opening piece of Faces and Phases because she was speaking with that very same voice of wanting to be remembered, not to be forgotten for the work that we did.”

“There were many others who came before us whose lives and whose voices were never written in any books. [Their] voices were so strong, but because of silence and exclusion, they ended up not being documented or being counted in a visual history of this country.” The aim of Faces and Phases is to rectify this erasure of the black, queer experience from South African history.

“It’s a celebration, it’s a commemoration of somebody and many others—those who were once here, or those who come after us who will have that reference point, looking back at what existed before them.”

 Teekay Khumalo, BB Section, Umlazi, Durban, 2012.
Yonela Nyumbeka, Makhaza, Khayelitsha, Cape Town, 2011.

Smith’s installation probed this same absence of intimacy, of engagement with others in our community and in our world. It is unnatural to make our nurturing instincts selective; to withhold. “Our destructive behaviors towards other species and one another disturb profoundly,” writes Smith. “What is missing?”  

From left to right: Rhonda Smith, Before Mothers and Fathers One (2019), epoxy clay, oil paint, and wire on board. Before Mothers and Fathers Two (2019),  Epoxy clay, oil paint, and wire on board.      

Muholi’s work draws Smith’s question into a sharper critique of our current time. “We’re speaking at a period where racism is rife, where homophobia, transphobia, and all the ‘-isms’ are rife,” they said. “So when we produce work, we are saying no to all that cripples or violates the next person.”

While their work may seem bleak and stylistically stark, both Muholi and Smith advocate a message of connection: “[I want my work] to say to people: let’s come together, let’s do something, let’s heal together,” said Muholi. “Let’s produce something and share with the world. I’m talking to creatives here. I’m not talking to a young person or to an older person, but to human beings who care about others. Let’s keep going on, let’s care for each other.”

Exhibition Review: Vaughn Sills’ Inside Outside

by Emma Newbery

For Vaughn Sills, the pull of aesthetic appeal and the eventual tug of personal meaning is a familiar territory. “I begin making photographs because I am drawn to the beauty of something or because I care about a subject,” she explains. “Then, over time, I begin to understand the deeper meaning. And that conscious understanding of my work influences me as I continue to make more images.” Sills’ show Inside Outside, on view through the end of February at Kingston Gallery, inhabits this dynamic space, exemplifying it with touching clarity and depth. 

The gentle arcs of stems and petals against the strict borders of Sills’ chosen photographic scenes cleave to reveal a set of processes, each one seeping into the next. As she notes, her work lays bare a deep, personal grief for her own mother, as well as a larger sense of urgency and disjuncture between the cultivated reality in each installation and the peril of the natural world it references. 

Vaughn Sills, Dogwood, Northumberland Straight (2020), archival pigment print.

Sills’ work combines photographs of her ancestral home of Prince Edward Island, Canada with the immediate, aesthetic appeal of seeing a bouquet of flowers. “It was mid-winter, such beauty was much coveted,” explains Sills. “I succumbed to buying more flowers and culled through my photographs looking for possible ‘backgrounds.’ I soon found I had created a set of parameters for these quietly surreal photographs.” Indeed, the emotional layering, with a literal “background” of nostalgia for a time long past and a foregrounded appeal to the senses of the present, brings Sills’ work to a deeply surreal place. All the more surreal, she acknowledges, is the virtual engagement that COVID has forced upon her show this year. 

“It crept in unannounced, unwanted: the pandemic and its isolation seemed to show up in what I would say are the more mournful images,” explains Sills, referencing Hydrangea, Carraher’s Pond and Ranunculus, Wright’s Pond, among others. “In fact,” she adds, “most of the photographs done in 2020 seem to me to reflect my sense of the fragility of life, the sorrow of this time.”

Vaughn Sills, Hydrangea, Carraher’s Pond (2020), archival pigment print.

She echoes my own sentiments about having my experience of the work relegated to the screen: “Seeing the actual prints is very different from seeing the images online.  But compared to what is happening in the world, my disappointment is nothing. And there is something helpful about seeing one’s work on exhibit,  seeing relationships between photographs I hadn’t quite noticed before.”

“Having a show sometimes feels like it might be the end of a book; I’m hoping this one is just the end of a chapter. Or, a better analogy: I hope this show may be just one set of poems in a longer book of poems yet to be written.”

Vaughn Sills, Ranunculus, Wright’s Pond (2020), archival pigment print.

Another layer of Inside Outside finds itself in the small installation in the Center Gallery, where several of the photos that set the scene in the Main Gallery exhibition are shown by themselves in a small selection from Sills’ True Poems Flee series. Seeing these nine by themselves not only allows them to come to the fore in their own right, but, as Sills explains, allows the viewer to see how “the mood and ideas of those images also strongly affected (or amplified) the meaning of the flowers.” We have all been forced into solitary, often uncomfortable positions in light of COVID, and allowing the works to shift between contexts allows a sense of release for the viewer, freed from the bounds of signification with “alone” and “together” meaning such different things for each of us. 

Sills further explores the nature of isolation by amplifying her grief for her late mother throughout her work. Aside from the more traditional understanding of flowers—“being short-lived, they are often a symbol of the brevity of life, a hint at mortality”— Sills protracts the process of grief, drawing out the natural, acceptable elements, and those that are harder for the self to reconcile. The disconnect that comes with a dramatic shift in what was a constant in one’s life. “The landscapes and seascapes from True Poems Flee were in large part about my mother and my grieving for her,” she explains. “My choice of using my photographs from that series was an unconscious bringing together of the two elements, the flowers and the past series of images. 

“Photographs are always about the past. These photographs contain two past moments, both of which connect and change how we see both moments.”

Vaughn Sills, Ranunculus, Northumberland Straight (2017), archival pigment print.

The contemplative, almost moor-like quality of the backgrounds certainly represents a kind of melancholy, but there is an undeniable peace that also blankets Sills’ show. Her description of the feelings her work draws to the surface as “quiet” belies the almost unsettling emotional response that her photographs evoke. Their ethereal quality, the almost preternatural stillness that is magnified in seeing the work virtually connects each of us in our own sensations of solitude. Removed or not, this is not a show to miss. 

“Without COVID,” she muses, “I wouldn’t have made the same photographs that I have in the past year, and my show therefore wouldn’t look at all the way it does now.”

“There’s a quote from Mary Oliver,” says Sills in closing: “‘Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness, it took me years to realize this too was a gift.’”

Exhibition Review: Judith Brassard-Brown’s On the Rise and the Fall v.2

“The work has always been about struggle, about healing trauma,” explains Judith Brassard-Brown. “The new work speaks to our ability to persevere and even find joy through these more extreme [times].” Brown’s show, On the Rise and the Fall v.2, is a reimagination of her earlier, traveling project On the Rise and the Fall, most recently shown in the Art Center Gallery at Anna Maria College in Paxton, MA. The opening reception for that first incarnation of the exhibition occurred in late February of 2020, as mentions of COVID-19 in the U.S. were still murmurings. Brown’s descriptions of her work are almost haunting in their prescience: “These landscape paintings […] do not create a specific location or event,” she said of her work. “Rather, they provide connections across boundaries of time or captured moments; contrast what we see with what we sense in the air or below the surface.”

Judith Brassard-Brown, Where There’s Smoke (2018), oil, collage, and wax.

If the year 2020 can be characterized by any particular force, it could arguably be the power of the unseen—that which hides “in the air or below the surface”—to separate us from each other. “The intensity of life in COVID was very much a factor in this exhibition,” explains Brown of the show at Kingston Gallery. While the current environment spurred some newer works, each of her pieces adds a cathartic warp to the reflections of the natural world carrying on around us. I first encountered Brown’s work back in August, as I was planning an online show through Artsy, intent on capturing the otherworldly feeling of landscapes before and after our time here on earth. Her earlier works recall Anselm Kiefer’s smoldering, inhospitable scenes, which similarly act as “a microcosm of collective memory.”

Anselm Kiefer, Die Meistersinger (detail), (1981-82), oil, emulsion, sand and collage elements on canvas.

Now, as her show has evolved in both breadth and depth under the current circumstances, the impulse to view her work as alien fades away. Instead, we are presented with the world as we understand it now, even if it is not how it appears to the naked eye. Brown intends for her work to “activate our capacity to connect to our own stories and others.” While the ground is grim, it is also a common one. Standing together amidst the roiling landscapes of Brown’s work is the closest approximation to the emotional experience many have been feeling during this time, especially as traditions and memories have cleaved in COVID’s wake. 

Judith Brassard-Brown, Running Red (2019), oil on cavas.

Following the February opening at Anna Maria College, Lauren Szumita of the Worcester Art Museum wrote an update to her catalog essay that had originally accompanied On the Rise and the Fall. 

“Since the original publication of the essay in February, 2020, Brown has produced a new group of figurative paintings worth considering with respect to her larger body of work,” writes Szumita. “The warmth, vibrancy and intimacy of her landscapes is evident in her expanding repertoire of portraiture.”

Seeing Brown’s technique used to dig deep into the crags of the human form adds a new dimension to her landscape work. Her work SelfPortraitSomewhereBetween, seems to denote the kind of ambivalence with which we have all been developing towards our own company during these isolating times. The work draws the viewer’s eye to its intentional raw edges, with Brown’s own gaze leading us to what is unsaid and unshown off of the canvas. 

Judith Brassard-Brown, SelfPortraitSomewhereBetween (2020), oil, collage and cold wax.

One of Brown’s most striking new works is her collaboration with Natasha Ginyard. Brown renders Ginyard’s piercing gaze in oil, collage, and wax. Next to the portrait is a poem by Ginyard. “Pairing my painting of her with Natasha’s words was an opportunity to connect to the personal impact of racism as we are held by her gaze,” explains Brown. 

Szumita agrees: “This unique juxtaposition of Brown’s portrait with the words of her sitter, Natasha Ginyard, demonstrates that while Brown’s interpersonal relationships are uniquely hers, they exist among a complex network of friendship, love, and nods to passing strangers, which we understand collectively as the human experience.”

Judith Brassard-Brown, Natasha (collaborative piece with Natasha Ginyard), (2020), oil, collage and wax (painting); vinyl wall installation (poem).

Brown characterizes her work by its “harshness, beauty, and abstraction,” all three of which serve vital roles in her show. “The portrait, in art, embodies the psychological search for meaning among the silent cues of communication – expressions, the gaze, and appearance,” writes Szumita. “Brown’s portraits of those who inhabit her world – as well as herself – represent a search for identity, whether formed through interactions with others or through self-reflection.”

Her landscapes convulse with human impulses, and her portraits alternatively deflect and defy expectation. Each of us has experienced a total shattering of normalcy during these times. Brown’s show, which expands and contracts in scope as well as in form, reflects more than just upheaval. As she herself emphasizes, the continued motion, movement, and connection that her work invites, even prescribes, to its viewers, is vital for our perspective as we wade through the end of this year.