The recent holidays were a reminder of all the ways family relationships engender strong feelings: joy and pride, of course, but also exasperation, heartache, even disgust.
Stepping inside Bobbi Meier’s exhibit, “Imperfect Rituals,” at the Riverside Arts Center arouses equally potent emotions.
Installed in two compact, connected rooms, the exhibit, curated by Judith Mullen, features thirty-five ceramic pieces, textiles and drawings along with a sound component. The works span six years of this prolific Chicago artist’s expansive practice. During this time period, Meier completed a formative residency at the Kohler Arts/Industry program. She also navigated loss, the chaos of the Trump years and fallout from the ongoing pandemic.
Meier approaches the challenges the way many artists do: she reflects unflinchingly on her personal narratives, exploring the ways we cull meaning from our relationships and routines, then gets busy creating artwork from her observations.
Meier’s works are sensuous and grotesque, merging intestinal forms and intimations of bondage with household items such as furniture. Although they descend from traditional sculpture and portraiture, there are no recognizable figures or faces here. Rather, Meier is interested in the psychology of her subjects, in making visible the complexities of their inner lives.
Oval frames in the “Sunday Dinners” series teem with repurposed materials: stuffed pantyhose, tapestry fragments, lace, toys, beads, costume jewelry and other trinkets—the detritus of life. Similarly, the slip-cast glazed porcelain works in the “Family Portraits” series display framed, bulbous growths. Some of the distended shapes have openings that expose flesh-colored interiors. Others appear to be volvating like a poked pill bug, as if trying to protect themselves or their secrets.
As Meier stitches, stuffs, layers and casts the bric-a-brac, she pulls divergent character traits together in tight proximity, creating coherence, even beauty, from the clutter.
The artwork in the exhibit’s first room is presented salon-style, like family photos that hang above a sofa. The second room is arranged in the manner of a formal dining room. In the center sits a sculpture made from a vintage table wrapped with engorged spandex and pantyhose. On top are two wading pool sinks filled with ceramic forms resembling digestive organs. The expression “spill your guts” comes to mind, along with its meaning: to divulge your problems and secrets to someone.
The sculpture, “Centerpieces for Matriarchs,” pays homage to the artist’s grandmothers who lived at a time when women’s roles were circumscribed and mental health issues were suppressed. Two large, faintly melancholy drawings of floating candles hang just beyond the table, along with several porcelain portraits and a metal serving dish engulfed by stuffed pantyhose.
A sound work consisting of overlapping voices and laughter adds an aural dimension to the room. The voices are muted, as if we’re eavesdropping on a leisurely gathering of extended family taking place on the other side of the wall. The soft, casual chatter positions gallery visitors as active observers, nudging us to examine our own family dynamics and rituals from a more neutral vantage point—to see them as the raw material from which it’s possible to derive meaning and purpose.
I recently learned a curious phrase: kärt besvär. A Swedish expression, it combines two contrasting words, kärt, meaning cherished or beloved, with besvär, which translates as sorrow and pain and that which is a burden. Meier’s exhibition is a manifestation of that phrase, an invitation to reframe our relationships however fraught they may be, and a call to cherish that which is imperfect.
“Bobbi Meier: Imperfect Rituals” at Riverside Arts Center, 32 East Quincy Street, Riverside. Through February 18.