Navigating ourselves in a networked, hyperconnected world, where our bodies are attached and yet disassociated from each other and everything around us, how do we remain vulnerable to our surroundings and each other? At the opening reception of “Strained States,” the radical pairing of subjectivities by Cameron Clayborn, Elena Ailes, Rami George, April Martin, Máire Witt O’Neill and Derrick Woods-Morrow made one think of the vulnerability of flesh, the violence of gender, the search for love, abandonment, but mostly about how the shattering of the self can be embraced as a form of emancipation. The artists curated by Jameson Paige seem to present their innermost processes in the form of materially seductive art works, in some form of catharsis, playing with the vulnerabilities and affective limits of their chosen materials. While they individually concoct intricate recipes to acknowledge states of war, intimacy, pain, dependency, isolation and pleasure, each work whether sculptural, photographic, film or text, serve as tools that have been repurposed to embrace and repair a fractured self.
I spoke with Jameson Paige to unpack the strategies used by the artists and the curator to understand the collective gesture being made. I wanted to get as close to a firsthand experience of being with the show in order to understand how it self-organizes, what it needed and what it presents us with—as opposed to critiquing the artworks within the show as they intuitively fall in line with one another, straining to reach in agreement with themes that are at times contradictory, and at times lovingly shared.
Can you tell me how you came about curating the framework for “Strained States”?
The pairings for this show and how [the] artists were brought together was super-intuitive from the onset. Because the artists included in “Strained States” work so differently, the show has stayed somewhat nebulous, which I like. I like how loose it is. However, there are also really strong relationships between things as well, they just develop more between specific objects rather than the show as a whole.
Even though you say it’s loose, I see so much structure. The way the pieces have come together and are speaking to one another are not necessarily by placement but through meeting in the exhibition. When you started developing this, I’m curious about materiality and range of media included. Is this something you prompted the artists to be aware of or did it emerge in conversation?
All of the above. That’s where intuition came into play, once the conversations started to happen. When I initially proposed the exhibition before I knew exactly what the artists were going to show, the curatorial framework was always thinking through the three axes of form, material and identity. Those three fall in and out of complex constellations throughout the exhibition and pull toward different intensities between the artists’ works. For example, Cameron Clayborn’s pieces “Coagulate” and “Shedding” are very much a material conversation, but slyly broach notions of identity as well.
The range of materiality in this show is wide. You’ve got textures and wetness in Elena’s “Notations” series, dripping wax at the opening from April Martin’s tiny chandelier titled “Portable Romance,” and then tightly bound leather and denim on phallic metal wall works—Cameron Clayborn’s “Roompiercer” series.
Yes, and even though it’s metal it has a softness to it because it’s been finished so smoothly. A lot of the works straddle a soft/hard spectrum yet manage to be both. Another word I’ve been using to describe much of the work is “squishy.” Squishy not just in material terms, but what does squishy feel like? How can feelings be thought of as squishy, meaning really malleable and flexible, and how do we allow material conversations to bring us to a dialogue about affect? So that’s how the works that are more narrative in form come into focus. They are treating narrative as something that is super conditional, flexible and prone to swaying in different directions even though the plot may not change. In Máire Witt O’Neill’s work, for instance, the plush and colorful rug superimposes the word “truce” over “truth.” This notion of truth also being a truce acknowledges that there are multiple truths—the only way to recognize one is to compromise on others, though we typically meet in the middle. The work is actually autobiographical and is about having parents you love, but whom you know are dealing with a lot of issues. She learned truth was a truce through experiencing life with her father.
Rami’s work is footage composed from ten different people’s accounts of Beirut, Lebanon. He assembled the footage in a way that makes sense to him and wrote the script. However, he asked someone whose mother tongue is Arabic to be the narrator. This adds multiple cultural layers that are specific to the Arab world. but at the same time feel very fractured.
There’s a distinct material aspect of the film in the way he’s treated the edit. Some of the video is fullscreen while other parts maintain the portrait orientation of phone video. Even the textures from the debris of war, to the sea, to fabric blowing in the wind makes the viewer very aware of the material quality of video, something I haven’t felt in a long time.
I’d love to talk about Máire’s work, because it’s a lot more complex than it appears.
There is so much in this piece, and I think initially it comes off as very lighthearted. The colors she’s using in the rug are bright pinks, reds and oranges, and the song playing in a short loop is quite romantic and saccharine. However, the work is titled “There’s an urn in my studio and the person I made it for is still living.” This piece is largely about her strained relationship with her father and grappling with codependency. The song playing was written and sung by her mother, and recorded by her father. Through Máire’s reflection on her own codependency, she now hears her mother’s singing the words “And I’ll serenade you, I’ll serenade you…” to her husband as an early sign of codependent behavior—as she promises to always comfort her man despite the presence of severe alcoholism in their lives. There’s a moment when the video glitches and the urn displaces itself, but it’s in sync with her father’s voice interrupting the recording by saying “okay,” as if telling her mother to re-do the chorus. The work is about Máire looking at her parents’ marriage from the outside while still implicated in its tribulations, and having to reconcile her relationship to her father as his health deteriorates with age. She has to call a truce.
I’m interested in you expanding some of these ideas about emotions as material.
In the literal sense, Elena’s “Notations” series is attempting to materialize feelings of in-betweenness, mapping the intensities between other artworks and architecture in the show. They remind me of Robert Smithson’s non-site works, but Elena’s are more accurately non-objects. They are both indifferent to things in the gallery, and marking how things touch. Much like affects, they exist in their own ontology and gather in certain places. We were thinking a lot about how certain works by different artists pull toward one another either affectively or materially. For instance, what is the relationship between Rami’s video piece to Cameron’s adjacent “Roompiercer,” and how can we determine the shape of that in-betweenness? The goopiness of each “Notation” proposes what a feeling could look like as an object.
It’s interesting because they punctuate the room in different tones and variations, almost like scoring. You have called things squishy multiple times. What does squishy feel like to you?
It’s comfortable but also groundless. It doesn’t allow you to stand on solid ground, because there’s a certain inherent instability.
I think of squishy as wet, or even moist. It’s always being pressed up against a surface that causes it to squish. This is a bit different than saying something is amorphous and floating. When you describe things as squishy I feel a bodily impulse toward malleability—everything seems to be leaning or pressing.
That’s a great way to describe it. Even though there is this very soft, flexible and adaptable aspect to the works, it’s because they are responding to something in the world that’s volatile. It’s essentially being pressed, which contributes to the notion of being “strained.”
Can you talk about April Martin’s works?
April has always been interested in a mystical feminine energy, which I think is what brought her to the eggs. For a long time she has been making work about processes involving fluids. She has used milk, cyanotype fluid and miracle grow to create substantial effects on sculptural works such as staining or eroding. In the ceramic candelabra titled “She’ll,” the eggs have been soaked in vinegar until the shell dissolves so the golden yolk glows through, functioning like a candle. She typically experiments with everyday materials but pushes them to do unexpected things. Lately, the processes for creating these works have become more foregrounded, and she is beginning to frame them as spells or incantations. Bobby Gonzales’ writing on her work in the publication runs along this thread. I think this folds back into the mystical femme energy, which like witchcraft, is thought of as threatening and constantly fights against suppression. The sculptures she’s made almost become ritual objects.
It seems like there’s been a push from you as a curator to balance an in-between way of working–between materials and identity formation. It is hard to have that kind of range in a show of this scale.
I’m not trying to draw narrative lines between artists’ identities. Given each is so specific and contingent, I find that methodology to be reductive and rooted in a simple orientation toward identity politics. However, I am extremely interested in how artists treat identity through form or material in their work. I think the show is focused on the tactical methods the artists are using to tease out that complexity and the feelings that go into shaping ourselves. It’s looking at the process of subject formation along the familiar lines of race, gender, sexuality, etcetera, while paying equal attention to the less noticed and more conditional aspects of becoming—family life, the distance between lovers and the materiality of feeling itself. Pulling all these components together hopefully allows for a more complex, yet quite squishy attitude toward living and being in the world.
I think the show is masterfully curated on the axes of gender, materiality and form, as there’s a palpable push and pull between trans, masculine, feminine as well as the visceral presence of materials that reach out to the viewer, opening outwards to create attachments at one moment and detaching at another. The intimacy of Martin, O’Neill and George’s works help us gaze into a void that may be shared. On the other hand Woods-Morrow and Clayborn’s propositions may point to being seen or exposed in the contemporary world. For me, it seems like a room full of complex conversations, shadowed at the edges and deep like water in the center, leaning, swirling and swishing—performing acts of becoming. (Pia Singh)
The closing reception for “Strained States,” with “Tangential Readings,” is at 1pm, June 22 at Heaven Gallery, 1550 North Milwaukee, second floor.