Repetition, Variation, Connection

Aaron Bielish

The group show Present Tense, curated by Sapphire Williams (Lawndale Art Center, January 25-March 2, 2013), revolves around the concepts of premeditated and restricted actions. These are works which craft multiple and successive images, creating recurring imagery to inform and strengthen the viewer's connection to the individual artist's process and narrative. Repetition grounds the exhibition, best exemplified by Williams's own work Standard Measure. The notion of variation, typified by Arnea Williams's signed anonymous and Emily Peacock's Pieta Series, is set in direct contrast to the works of both Rosine Kouamen and Shannon Duncan, whose pieces deal with pattern. Scream Queens by Britt Ragsdale is perhaps the most dynamic example of Sapphire Williams's curatorial statement: namely, that when the viewer is confronted with successive images, especially in video, the complexities of multiple events occurring independently create a compelling singular work.      Scream Queens and Standard Measure at the Lawndale Art Center. Kouamen's work--three large archival inkjet prints hanging on the southernmost wall of John M. O'Quinn Gallery--is initially the most visually compelling due to scale and presentation. The prints float, supported by clips suspended from tension wire frames above and below the paper. In each print there is a woman removed from her typical surroundings, set in a neutral grey background. The titles generate narrative for these seemingly isolated women:
Several hours after this picture was taken, she was almost strangled by her then boyfriend. As she attempted to file a complaint at the police station in Douala, the officers laughed at her. She finally resorted to documenting her bruises. No legal action was taken. She never saw him again.
Engendering the photograph into a vividly colorful and anguished setting, these titles are found within the exhibition program as opposed to a title card next to the work. In separating the lengthy title from the image, Kouamen creates a temporal distance between image and text, thereby allowing the viewer to search for context and meaning. Duncan's Resale consists of 24 digital inkjet prints and 27 articles of clothing relabeled with handmade silkscreen tags. The documentation of the clothing, the photographs, and the silkscreened tags provide links to the long and substantial process Duncan has created. Pieta Series and signed anonymous are more direct in their portrayal of experiences and memories. Peacock honors all of the sacrifices her family has made in allowing her to use them as backdrops and props for her photographs. She repeats the position of Michelangelo's Pietà (1499), then creates variations by restaging the scene again and again with different members of her family and environments. Her images are almost musical, referencing a sixteenth-century sensibility akin to ritornello form, contrasting the elements of twenty-first century people and their surrounding environment. Arnea Williams's work is less straightforward. A grid of twelve panels, the work shares Peacock's affinity for consistency. Unlike Pieta Series, however, signed anonymous chooses to provide only fragments. Presumably these are some of the "pieces that may have gotten lost, misunderstood, overshadowed, tossed aside, or even forgotten" that she refers to in her artist's statement. The presentation of the grid combined with fragmentary texts induces a strong need to reconnect those pieces--to provide the image with a longer narrative, possibly out of a need to see the fragments return whole. The text denies this possibility, though; only short connections can be made, giving the work an overwhelming sense of mystery.
Sapphire Williams's Standard Measure and Ragsdale's Scream Queens complete the show, and both are the most direct and straightforward examples of multiple images creating a unique narrative. The different media, however, produce radically different results. Sapphire Williams's use of repetition is bold and unrelenting. The image of a woman in spandex is stark; her eyes are covered with 10K gold leaf, and silkscreened onto the acrylic is the Pantone color average for a dollar bill. There is no variation, no additional layers of meaning. In order to provide the narrative one must look to her artist's statement in which she reveals her work is about the repetitive images found in high-end women's fashion magazines. Left without the artist's statement, the work itself provides little direction. Scream Queens provides the same unrelenting repetition as Standard Measure, but the medium--an eight-channel video presentation--lends much more direction. The stark black-and-white presentation of actresses lip-synching screams from a diverse range of horror movies is successful here, due in part to the richness of the accompanying soundtracks, but also due to the amount of information presented. The lip-synchers actively engage with the original film actresses, gesticulating to heighten the effect of their screams. After the act, however, comes detachment and calm. The eight channels provide a diverse display of engagement and detachment, and, while they share the repetition of Standard Measure, the additional complexities of content engage the viewer successfully. In the closing of her curatorial statement, Williams writes, "Present Tense aims to challenge the functional power of image as carrier of facts and time by presenting the disruption of linear visual progressions." The works Sapphire Williams has chosen do something slightly different; they do not disrupt so much as provide creative alternatives to a linear narrative. In doing so the viewer connects with narratives by six compelling artists.

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