THE GREAT ASSEMBLAGE – SWELL EXHIBITION REVIEW
By Valerie Thompson
The Great Assemblage, a show spanning the works of nine artists, is nothing short of a visual feast. Upon entering the gallery, interminglings of color and texture assault the eyes; it is no longer a gallery in the traditional sense, because the art is crawling off the walls. There is a distinct weight to the curation of the artworks in the space, starting light with smaller, daintier, pieces as you enter the gallery, then building into a crescendo of wall-mounted installation cacophony as one moves to the back of the space. A certain tactile appeal generates in me the most childish compulsion to touch and pick up, shuffle and re-arrange the works among one another; I almost feel inclined to close my eyes and simply navigate the show as if it were braille, for one turn of the room, seeking to absorb the thoughts, feelings and knowledges of the artists. It seems as though, in assembling the works in this space, the artists have, themselves, given into the purest of tactile impulses. For a group show of such magnitude in a relatively small space, a logical cohesion has bridged the range and scope of work, in terms of curation. The collaborative aesthetic and arrangement of the work combined with a relative absence of wall text leaves the task of identifying individual artworks and artists up to the viewer.
The collage works of Devon Lach and Lauren Shaw sit on either sides of the gallery entrance, conversing with one another. Lach’s grid of nine collages depicts spreads taken from vintage Playboy magazines and interrupted by the artist’s hand, driven by a witty commentary. In her woven and layered collaged interventions, appendages become severed from their indigenous bodies and pasted upon others. Erogenous icons of the sexualized female body, such as nipples and vaginas, are replaced with eyes, or removed entirely, and in the lower centermost piece, a fully clothed man is given breasts, a vagina, and female thighs in an act of feminizing both the metaphorical patriarchy, and they symbolic physical male figure. The acts of removing and supplanting, weaving and obscuring, universalize the hyper-sexualized female body in a way that mirrors society, and draws attention to feminist critique. The dysmorphic bodies with missing sexual signifiers become ironic; they represent the sexually postured female body void of its defining sexual faculties.
In Shaw’s collages there is a much more playful timbre. A total of 45 pieces amass on the wall, working in dialog with each other. Comprised of found imagery, Shaw’s works take figures, shapes and textures, and amalgamates them on an isolated background; the results are individual bite-sized glimpses with language akin to a short phrase or saying. Like in Lach’s collages, eyes are concealed – but in a less overtly loaded manner. The masked pupils are deftly dotted over by one or two miniscule globs of paint, giving the impression of either un-seeing, or laser eyes. For me, there is humor implicit in Shaw’s works – both tongue-in-cheek, and more overt comedy; however, beneath the veneer of lighthearted banter is perhaps a deeper social inquiry awaiting discovery.
In a similar way to Shaw’s interacting collages, the large, transiently arranged piece, “Lost Dogs” by Neil Enggist comprises a symphony on the right-hand wall of the gallery. Modular panels of work are woven together much like the notes in a song, with each individual piece acting as a container for an isolated memory or phrase, or a stanza in a piece of music. In “Wheel I,” Enggist speaks to charting moments in life that at one time or another become intertwined, in order to talk about universal connectedness. With restricted temporality built into the process of these works, Enggist uses the ocean and objects to “paint” disappearing artworks on a sheet of metal. The result is an oxidized, time and element-worn tableau, its surface etched with the residue of ephemeral marks, denying its own objecthood by virtue of its own recurrent effacement and re-inscription.
In relative captivity from the rest of the show, the works of Ryan Van Runkle crowd the small, dark-walled installation room. A large box-like object rigged with lighting and various transparencies and images takes over the center of the room, encircled by wall-mounted paintings depicting amorphous collage, and what reads as photograph stills from a performance. Somewhat physically closed off from the rest of the show, the works cause the viewer to navigate the crowded room with care – bringing attention to the relationship of body to space, and provoking a sense of one’s own corporeal confinement. Just as the figure in Van Runkle’s photographs struggles to break free from his enclosure, I, too, end up feeling claustrophobically inclined.
The multi-media triad of artworks by Jeff Johnston reveals truths embedded in the human condition in three acts. In Act I, “This is When I turn to Liquid,” a sculptural piece consisting of a suit jacket oozing on the dark wall in white paint, Johnston invokes contesting symbols of control and disarray. The suit, a symbol of adulthood and responsibility, communicates the idea of having one’s affairs in order, and a certain adherence to the corporate lifestyle. On the other end of the spectrum, the suit is nullified by its frenzied baptism in white paint. In Act II, “We took a leap together and then we fell apart,” we see a progression of works on paper depicting the uncoupling and dissolving of two indiscriminate figures. In Johnston’s third act, “I know what I’m doing,” I am guided to think cyclically back to the first piece in which the suit, to me, symbolically functions as a referent to the order and chaos of living one’s life. In his recent body of work “Mistakitunities,” Johnston points to happenstance, relationships, and the sort of “and so it goes” habitude of daily life. Perhaps these works are a continuation along the same vein of thought – ultimately a coming to terms and making peace with life’s inevitable swells and pitfalls.
Kevin Corbett Hill’s works on paper and installed creations are pieced together on the wall as individual elements that seem to function as parts of a greater whole. In spite of his quite distinctive aesthetic, I struggled to distinguish Hill’s work from his neighbor’s because of the way his pieces spread themselves liberally across the wall and became skillfully intermingled with some sculptural companions made by Caitlin Peterson. Whether Hill’s pieces are stand-ins for memories, feelings, responses, or thoughts, it seems like there is a certain continuation from self to work, and vice versa, in a way that seems almost as if his work is his constant stream of thoughts and his thoughts pour directly, unmediated, into his work. His works on paper embody a curious amalgamation of image and text. In many of his collages, short sentences and remarks are coupled with clippings of imagery and globs of paint that, to me, seem immediately indicative of specific moments in the artist’s life.
Blending cleverly – and almost imperceptibly – into some of Hill’s works on the gallery wall, the sculptural offerings of Caitlin Petersen speak to me of play, childhood, and innocence, with perhaps a larger commentary on gender or sexuality. With Peterson’s artworks particularly, I am increasingly aware of my desire to pick up and touch, which is conceivably part of Peterson’s strategy. Many of her pieces are reminiscent of trinkets or maybe even toys – fully aware of their objecthood, and put on display on shelves or platforms to be looked at, treasured, to contain narratives and possibly to be played with – although I am admittedly unsure of the artist’s intention on the latter. One of the most engaging parts of Peterson’s work is her use of color – found color. For what wide array of mostly primary colors are represented in her pieces, all the items she has used appear to exist in their original found color states. Knowing Peterson as a person, it is hard to imagine her works being the product of any other artist; her found object creations seem to speak with distinct personalities not too unlike her own.
Another curious example of color and object is the work of Sebastian Cabrera. In fire engine red and contrasting aqua, an installed space – either fictitious or based on reality, the artist leaves this up to the viewer – manifests, commanding one corner of the gallery. Cabrera’s blindingly tropical color palette stands on its own as a metaphor for opposing, yet complementary, elements. The physical objects that comprise the installation seem to have been sourced separately and made to work cohesively in the space, in keeping with the assemblage spirit of the show. My eyes immediately go to the recognizable components like the workbench and vertical shelving unit housing more predictable objects, yet on my second sweep of the scene, I see a dustpan and broom hung on the wall in display, but not in use; a rug covers part of the floor but is left haphazardly rolled up; a dead bird hangs delicately from a string nailed into the wall, and a large pole of indeterminate utility bisects the entire scene. These objects seemingly stripped of their individual use-values forge relationships with one another, leading the overall installation to represent paradoxes and harmonies, juxtapositions of mystery and of the familiar.
Dana Morrison’s meticulously constructed art objects and collages fill the remaining wall within the gallery. In her sculptural wall-mounted pieces, Morrison addresses the relationship of the bodily self to space and material with a distinctly minimalist approach. While using a majority of traditionally masculine materials, Morrison’s artworks still retain a sense of delicacy and vulnerability. In “Repurposing Memories III,” Morrison has arranged a collection of objects – themselves, containers for individual memories and moments – to abstractly re-create perhaps a larger personal narrative. In her collaborative piece entitled “The Blue Cabin,” a grouping of nine collages made collectively by herself, Lauren Shaw, Kevin Corbett Hill and Eric Sorenson, I am once again given the impression of memory and the act of re-visiting specific memories; the marks made harmoniously by the four artists read as references to collective experiences and the commonly held memories and emotions that are held among friends.
For more information and pictures from the opening, head to the Swell Gallery’s website:
or Facebook page: