Zoe Chressanthis’ Utopian World

Kimi Hanauer explores the subtle familiarity in the sculptural worlds of Zoe Chressanthis.

Part I: A Place To Rest

"Excerpts from Swamp Island Cave with Albino Gator" 2017, Plasticine, Acrylic Paint 4 x 6 inches

“Excerpts from Swamp Island Cave with Albino Gator”
2017, Plasticine, Acrylic Paint
4 x 6 inches

The exhibition YET, UNKNOWN proposes that knowledge is dependent on an understanding of the unknown that is based on our own experience of the world. Humans are motivated to understand, and attempt to control, the contexts in which they inhabit. We use common sense to determine our own behavior, language, and understanding of our surroundings as we navigate different environments. In the text Outline of a Theory of Practice, Pierre Bourdieu, a French theorist, defines the term doxa as a commonsense knowledge that is tied to the specific cultural identity of a place and defines social norms that are often left unspoken, or taken for granted. Doxa is a kind of commonsense that certain ‘natural’ inhabitants of a place are indoctrinated into, and others, visitors for example, are not able to easily pick up on.

The idea of doxa came to mind while investigating Zoe Chressanthis’ body of work and wondering what type of logic or commonsense defines the creation and navigation of her constructed environments. Chressanthis’ style embraces a naivety while remaining assertive, building miniature worlds out of plasticine clay accompanied by dramatic colorful lighting that pushes each scene to appear as a dreamscape. Made up of seemingly ‘natural’ occurrences, organisms, plant life—generally uninterrupted by human behavior—these environments linger between known and unknown realities. Her spaces feel quiet and empty of human touch, with the lone animal-like presence of a small snake crawling up a rock, for example. In this tranquility, agency is held by the artist’s characters such as metallic palm trees, gravel, starfish, cactuses, and other plant-like organisms that are less recognizable. While typically presenting her work through films, animations, and images, in this exhibition Chressanthis moves her practice into the realm of sculpture, presenting the worlds themselves. For YET, UNKNOWN, she is creating a new ecosystem for our minds to find rest and ease within, a space we have probably unconsciously desired to escape to at one point in time.

"Still from Mers Springs: Shell Bed" 2017, Clay, Acrylic, Paper Mache, Plasticine (animation 1:08)

“Still from Mers Springs: Shell Bed”
2017, Clay, Acrylic, Paper Mache, Plasticine
(animation 1:08)

Chressanthis transports the viewer into an environment where the existing landscape and logic isn’t immediately identifiable, uniquely positioning them to experience a mismatch of internal and external doxa. This position, between the known and unknown, initiates our own subjectivity, thus allowing the acknowledgment that our understanding of the world is based on personal, emotional, and experiential factors. In other words, through these works, the artist asks us to identify the place from which our knowledge comes from—the subjective lens through which we see and understand the world around us. Through producing these utopian environments within a paradoxical frame, Chressanthis is asserting a type of authority over our society’s relationship to the natural world, reminding us of our emotional and physical ties to that which gives us life. These environments, seemingly thriving, subsequently ask us to reflect on exactly what it is we are escaping during a time where society is readily on its way to destroying our natural world.

Chressanthis’ ability to connect us with our place of ‘escape’ is a powerful questioning of the viewer. What makes the viewer feel free, safe, comfortable, and calm in these spaces? What are the conditions and variables the viewer is escaping from? What limits the conditions of safety and freedom the viewer experiences within the work from existing in reality? This questioning reinforces work being created by many other artists, cultural producers, and activists today, working to shift and expand our understandings of the world around us, in the hopes of transforming society. For cultural change to take form, we need artists who guide us to recognize our biases and prejudices, who ask us to acknowledge the experiences of others, and who are finding and facilitating moments of empathy. Chressanthis’ work and the experiences she creates is a necessary complement to other modes of cultural work happening today. This work is a call for empathy: when you accept your own subjectivity, you must also  accept the subjectivity of others. This positioning is a fundamental and powerful shift away from dominant dichotomies of ‘right and wrong’ or ‘truth and false,’ that often violently structure our co-existence.

"Still from Mers Springs: Sea Floor and Reef" 2017, Clay, Acrylic, Paper Mache, Plaster, Plasticine (animation 1:08)

“Still from Mers Springs: Sea Floor and Reef”
2017, Clay, Acrylic, Paper Mache, Plaster, Plasticine
(animation 1:08)

Part II: Speaking with Chressanthis

What motivates your work? Powerful and sometimes merciless parts of nature: the desert, the sea, mountains, volcanoes, and glaciers. Also forming a space in which people do not reside, or maybe they have been taken by the land itself.

How would you describe the relationship between the different, yet related, landscapes you are building? Destinations like, Dune Valley, Pink Desert Clouds, Lagoon Falls, Mers Springs and now Palm Lake appear to exist alone, but really they are different environments with varying climates that reside within the same world and universe. As of now, I do not know the name of this world, or planet but I intend to form an atlas of sorts that fully describes the terrain of each location and what falls in between.

You talk about your environments as being transformative for the viewer. Can you expand on what experience you hope to create? Until recently, my environments have been viewed through animation or in photographs and paintings. “View of Palm Lake,” is an immersive environment, and like my films, it is simply an observation of a habitat, currently vacant of any inhabitants. I intend for it to be a destination that you can place yourself in while experiencing not only its visual details but also its sounds, and scents. This full sensory experience may give the illusion this place is possible, when in our reality it is implausible. A fully imagined land, presented without a perspective through film or 2D format.


“Still from Dune Valley: Palms” 2015, Plasticine, Composite Images (animation 1:45)

This exhibition circulates around the idea of knowledge and the unknown. Do you feel like you’ve learned more about our reality through the creation of your environments? Yes definitely. This piece in particular is more tropical than others before, yet it lies in a cave, on an island, somehow still thriving. While my work often combines opposing vegetation and characteristics, it isn’t intended to be proven, I prefer it to remain mysterious. Much like certain aspects of our own reality, whether in nature or in society.

What is something that makes you feel free? Visiting my hometown, Topanga in Southern California. It is nestled in a canyon and if you drive only 15 minutes down a winding road you will find the ocean. Ironically I am afraid of water.

This essay is part of a series commissioned, in collaboration with Informality Blog, for the exhibition YET, UNKNOWN at Paragraph Gallery (23 E 12th St, Kansas City, MO 64106) open from July 27 through August 26, 2017. These pieces, co-edited by Melaney Mitchell (Founder & Senior Editor of Informality Blog) and Lynnette Miranda (Curator-in-Residence at Charlotte Street Foundation) focus on a shared goal of bringing the eyes of national writers to the work of Kansas City-based artists. 

Tactile Rituals and Feminine Power in The Work of Shelby Burchett

Anna Harsanyi reflects on Shelby Burchett’s use of magick and ritual as Goo-Witch.  


Thesis Exhibition install. Image Courtesy of the Artist

Being in touch means understanding the people and the ideas that surround us. By touching things we form a deeper connection with the physicality of our immediate world. Touch is an intimate part of Shelby Burchett’s work, simultaneously both ritual and experimentation. Through  a tactile experiments and ritualistic installations, the artist conveys a sense of desire and mystery that prompts the audience to interact playfully with the materials at hand.  

Burchett’s installations invite the viewer to engross themselves in her experiments with materials like goo, organic fabrics, and fur. These are assembled in immersive environments, often seeping through surfaces or oozing out of multiple structures, daring the audience to touch them. Embodying the persona of Goo-Witch, a maker who works with symbolic objects in order to conjure sacred qualities into a space, Burchett presents installations that change over time based in large part on how the audience participates in their evolutions. Tactile experiments draw attention to the importance of hands in the making of magic, with its array of crafted rituals. Spaces are restructured manually, organic materials are mixed together so as to cast spells that aim to alter both the physical and the spiritual realm.


Goo Witch performance as a part of Flesh Crisis 2017 at the Drugstore. Image Courtesy of the Artist

When experiencing Burchett’s installations, the viewer is called on to alter their own perception. In a recent performance, Cord Spinning, Burchett spun cord for 3 hours, inviting others to add herbs and organic materials to the circular space she created. The herbs and colors of the spun fabric held symbolic value and were part of a spell, though the audience was not necessarily aware of their direct participation in a ritual. The process of adding to and entering parts of the piece formed a point of collective access that allowed the participants to encounter moments of magic through touch and physical creation.

In Burchett’s work, magic is experienced in the form of mystery or the unknown, a collective wondering that brings the audience together through their shared desire to both participate in and further explore the tactile experiments they are engaging in. This experiential quality empowers the audience, who is given an agency in their desire to touch and to feel, and drawn into the creative process.

Goo Harvest from the exhibition Future Human at PLUG Projects. Image Courtesy of the Artist

Goo Harvest from the exhibition Future Human at PLUG Projects. Image Courtesy of the Artist

Using this approach to play and experience, Burchett further conceptualizes power and collectivity as inherently feminine qualities. In many magic practices, deities and spirits are female, holding symbolic and metaphysical importance as embodiments of power and wisdom. The spells that invoke them seek to produce empowerment in their execution. In Burchett’s work, the feminine is an essence, an object, a feeling, or an unnamed sensation—related to a concept that can be accessed by anyone, and is not necessarily gendered. Feminine in her practice signifies power, propelling this notion to a spiritual place where such qualities represent multiple aspects of our world, and are not tied to contemporary conventional social structures. This subverts the concept of femininity as female-oriented, rather allowing for it to be integrated into a universal sense of experience.

Through play, touch, and collective experience, the audience grows more “in touch” with their physical surroundings which allows for an agency in shifting and evolving the practical and the magical within a shared space or collective identity.

This essay is part of a series commissioned, in collaboration with Informality Blog, for the exhibition YET, UNKNOWN at Paragraph Gallery (23 E 12th St, Kansas City, MO 64106) open from July 27 through August 26, 2017. These pieces, co-edited by Melaney Mitchell (Founder & Senior Editor of Informality Blog) and Lynnette Miranda (Curator-in-Residence at Charlotte Street Foundation) focus on a shared goal of bringing the eyes of national writers to the work of Kansas City-based artists. 

Hidden Metaphors of the (Clay) Body in the work of Kimberly LaVonne

Kimberly LaVonne’s conversation with Gisela Morales centers around the metaphysical history and presumptions placed on the bodies of women and considered through clay.

Kimberly LaVonne Feast Your Eyes, 2017

Kimberly LaVonne
Feast Your Eyes, 2017

Kimberly LaVonne’s work is an examination of the unseen body through ceramic object. Employing organic bodies both in concept and medium produces work with flesh and organ-like qualities punctuated with Illustrations of saint-like female figures, which denote a need for self discovery and introspection. Fluctuating as specimens and relics, her sculptures deconstruct the human form into physical parts of divine abstraction, revealing what is not real into distorted and faintly familiar anatomy. In so doing, LaVonne awakens a new sense of wonder surrounding the investigation of the body. One that acknowledges the human body’s tension between scientific endeavor and religious belief, and underscores the use of women in building western anatomical knowledge.

Kimberly LaVonne_Sadness Is A Blessing, 2017

Kimberly LaVonne Sadness Is A Blessing, 2017

Motivated by the dichotomies present in the study of the body, LaVonne combines forms and shapes culled from anatomy books, medical collections, and gothic curiosities with illustrated references to the narratives of saints and holy women whose internal organs were mythologized as religious relics. Knowledge of the organs and their functions has been driven by myth, wonder, taboo and stigma. Human dissection throughout much of western history was considered sacrosanct. In this way, LaVonne is drawing a direct lineage to modern science and the taboos that placed limits on it. Human dissection was normalized as medical and scientific inquiry by the Greeks in the third century but then saw its decline with the introduction of Christianity. The advent of Roman law prohibited the dissection and autopsy of the human body in much of Europe. Instead, Christian culture, predominantly in its Catholic strain, has consolidated its anatomical understanding around the cult of saints. In their bodies, saints are thought to be present even after death,, making their corpses a source of protection and magical power. This created a fascination with saint relics and funerary practices involving the body’s  mutilation and disembowelment. It was not until the 14th century that the study of dissection remerged as a valid pursuit. This is the moment in history from which LaVonne’s iconography emerges. Much like the earliest folios of Fasciculus medicine or da Vinci’s studies on the human form, there is something inherently romantic in they way she molds form with illustration. Using a high fire clay body, her work yields rich terracotta forms that transform this history and iconography into intriguing tactile objects, resulting in a collection of fragmented parts made whole by the female bodies they represent.

LaVonne’s sculptures appear as perfectly sliced specimens whose flat surfaces provide the canvas on which organ forms are personified by women. The illustrated figures illuminate how the objectification of women has been a conduit to systems of knowledge regarding human physiology. During the time period LaVonne references, european women, and holy women in particular, appeared not as agents of knowledge, but rather as the objects of knowledge itself. This dispossession of knowledge has created persisting power structures in which women are relegated to role of vessels and unwitting participants. By working in ceramics, the vessel of the work itself is a metaphor for this societal predisposition While male bodies have become proxies for universality, the sole significance of female bodies has traditionally resided in the uterus. In the service men’s need to uncover the mystery of human generation, the uterus became the prefered object of Medieval dissection. As a result, internal anatomy became intrinsic to the the female body. Female corporal obsession combined with religious belief collided in the bodies of holy women. Accounts of holy women’s hearts being mummified, framed, and transformed into relics are the type of curiosities permeating through LaVonne’s imagination. Within this context, LaVonne’s figures express a certain level of self awareness, At times the physiological expressions are serene, self empowered and inviting, while at others they appear introspective, uneasy and distressed. The juxtaposition of these images onto three dimensional objects provides a holistic point of view into the forces that continue to shape self perceptions of the body that oscillate between the physical, functional, abstract, and spiritual.

Kimberly LaVonne We Together Make A Limb, 2017

Kimberly LaVonne
We Together Make A Limb, 2017

This essay is part of a series commissioned, in collaboration with Informality Blog, for the exhibition YET, UNKNOWN at Paragraph Gallery (23 E 12th St, Kansas City, MO 64106) open from July 27 through August 26, 2017. These pieces, co-edited by Melaney Mitchell (Founder & Senior Editor of Informality Blog) and Lynnette Miranda (Curator-in-Residence at Charlotte Street Foundation) focus on a shared goal of bringing the eyes of national writers to the work of Kansas City-based artists. 

Planning For A Future That We’ve Already Seen: Mark Raymer Constructs Dystopian D.I.Y. Narratives

Katie Hargraves discovers hopefully timeless cultural cues and science fiction as a potential site for renewed communication in her analysis of the work of Mark Raymer

In 1992, a report was commissioned by the Sandia National Laboratories and the Department of Energy (DOE) in the United States. This report has a particular challenge: the DOE was developing a Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), a location deep below the surface of the earth that would store the radioactive waste leftover from developing nuclear weapons for the cold war. Their challenge, and the reason for the report, was to highlight the danger of the site for 200,000 years into the future—the amount of time it would take the nuclear waste to become inert. They were planning for the fall of our civilization.

Mark Alister Raymer Hoopla, 2017 Textile, printmaking, drawing 7 ft x 5 ft

Mark Alister Raymer
Hoopla, 2017
Textile, printmaking, drawing
7 ft x 5 ft


Although less than 250 years old, the United States government constructed and continues to uphold a narrative that this country is an enduring institution. In commissioning this report, the DOE was acknowledging an inevitable fall. They brought together an impressive interdisciplinary team that included linguists, anthropologists, architects, geologists, and engineers to answer the question: How do we communicate meaning in a time when language cannot be deciphered, when the Rosetta Stone of our era has yet to be discovered? We are curious beings. Even the curse of the pharaohs inscribed on the entrance of a tomb was not enough to keep explorers from opening it thousands of years later. How then could the DOE develop an appropriate marker for WIPP that could be read 200,000 years from now?

I wonder often about the motives of science fiction. Why is it that people wanted to escape into a fictitious future when there is so much to work through in the present. While we must plan for reality rather than envision a dystopian future, sometimes that reality requires us to imagine beyond what we know.

Mark Alister Raymer Untitled, 2017 Textile, printmaking 8 ft x 7 ft

Mark Alister Raymer
Untitled, 2017
Textile, printmaking
8 ft x 7 ft

Mark Raymer’s artworks create a fantastical science-fiction future where “wildlings” (as the artist refers to them) scavenge the middens of a long gone society, one we might recognize as our own. These post-apocalyptic, intersexed humanoids have evolved as the children of men; their naked creativity is well suited to surviving in our wasteland, reusing satellites as indiscriminately as beer cans. His mountainscapes depicted in the pieced together fabric wall hangings are reminiscent of the concept art created for the WIPP report by architect Michael Brill: sharp stalagmite formations that protrude from the landscape with people wandering through them. The caption to one of Brill’s images: “We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture…. This place is not a place of honor…nothing is valued here.” What would these post-apocalyptic humanoids think of our world? With Raymer’s work, we get a glimpse into how they might react, what they might value, and the potential danger therein.

In exploring Raymer’s artworks, I begin to understand science fiction. Science fiction is a dark metaphor for our times, not escapism. His sculptural installations, prints, and fiber works explore the act of translation: both the translation from printmaker to fiber artist, and the translation of late-capitalist society to science-fiction future humanoids. Raymer’s work is ultimately about narrative, each piece building upon the next. The same fabrics and imagery are repeated, a detailed illustration of a beer can is used as a collage element in a wall hanging and developed into a larger than life soft sculpture made of cast off scraps of fabric.

Mark Alister Raymer Burlap Beer Can Landscape (group), 2017 Textile, printmaking 12 in x 5 in x 3 in (each)

Mark Alister Raymer
Burlap Beer Can Landscape (group), 2017
Textile, printmaking
12 in x 5 in x 3 in (each)

Raymer’s materiality performs the worldview of the narratives he has created, attempting to forget the meaning of found material he uses to construct the work. A burlap sack is used for its tactile qualities, but stripped of its class and labor material histories. Quilts are cut apart and collaged for their color palettes while attempting to ignore their gendered history. Detritus, and the cultural baggage that comes along with his chosen material, is decontextualized and expected to be experienced right alongside the preciousness of the printed image. The material construction of the works play out this desire: the prints are meticulous and detailed, where the fiber works are hacked together, appearing to be made with urgency. Yet, Raymer’s work misses a richness by not engaging with the cultural meaning of materials and their context. We only have to look to history to know there is risk in decontextualizing material—the risk of the pharaoh’s curse and the risk of WIPP.

This essay is part of a series commissioned, in collaboration with Informality Blog, for the exhibition YET, UNKNOWN at Paragraph Gallery (23 E 12th St, Kansas City, MO 64106) open from July 27 through August 26, 2017. These pieces, co-edited by Melaney Mitchell (Founder & Senior Editor of Informality Blog) and Lynnette Miranda (Curator-in-Residence at Charlotte Street Foundation) focus on a shared goal of bringing the eyes of national writers to the work of Kansas City-based artists. 

Uncanny Chaos Under Control at Postmasters Gallery

Our current political climate has brought us to state of deliriousness. We resist these forces of political immorality while becoming passive to its effect or otherwise exhausted from the effort. Conversely, there are artists acknowledging and responding to our collective feelings by taking their work to a place of darkness, that surprisingly shines a light on these conditions.  Two ideas such conditions bring forward were recently shown in the dual exhibition at Postmasters Gallery NYC entitled In G.O.D. We Trust and CON-Figuration (March 18 – April 22, 2017).

The timing is right; these shows were deliberate and crisp as they prod what it means to be making work right now, while also collectively showcasing our media cycle’s lust after violence, absurdity, and darkness. These exhibitions posed some worthwhile questions: do we stay and wade in this grim shade we have surrounded ourselves with? This work offers the means to absorb the reality, giving stark imagery of the history of political disruptions, and although absurd, it is seriously no joke.

image 1

Installation of  In G.O.D. We Trust. Image courtesy of Postmasters Gallery NYC

In G.O.D. We Trust  — G.O.D. standing for Global Obama Devotion—  is the title of a video and accompanying stills stretched on canvas by Chinese-American new media artist Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung. The room was filled with video game noises you’d hear in an on-screen battle. The sound activated the stills hung around the first room of the gallery, mimicking the motion of the viewer’s eyes as they bounce from one icon to the next in this vivid cut-and-pasted world. These icons included images of former Presidents Obama, Clinton and George W. Bush, along with seven religious prophets that Obama morphs into throughout the course of the video. This created a narrative that outlines the various global and domestic problems the Obama administration faced early on, characterizing one president’s specific struggles out of many others.

Image 2

Video Still from In G.O.D. We Trust by Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung. Image courtesy of Postmasters Gallery NYC

The work is loud; the frames were filled with tumultuous images, which had a hypnotizing effect, making one incapable of pulling away from this hyperbolized political reality. Moreover, the comparisons of Obama to seven prophets hyperbolizes him as an idealized savior, placing on the role of the president the duty to somehow save the people. This reliance we the people have on our president to be our “Messiah” is highlighted through this portion of the video, where he morphs into the figure of Jesus Christ and carries the weight of the country’s debt like a cross. To go along with the analogy, if we as believers continually place faith in one with the bigger plan, or a higher power with knowledge unknown to us, we will serve no purpose nor make any changes in this world if we do not act ourselves. Furthermore, in this world of people looking for change, we must be wary of creating and following false prophets, especially ones as human as the president.

In the neighboring room, CON-Figuration features five artists: painters Canyon Castator and Christian Rex Van Minnen, sculptor Agathe Snow, fiber artist Erin M. Riley, and digital media artist Shamus Clisset.

image 3

Installation shot of CON-Figuration. Image courtesy of Postmasters Gallery NYC

While less politically direct, this room was filled to the brim with even more iterations of a deformed reality. At the room’s center, Agathe Snow’s sculptures balanced between the two pillars that cut through the center of the gallery. Insouciant (top hanging figure), Don’t Stress over the Turkey Daddy… (bottom figure in mangled chair structure) and Dad is always stressing about his job (figure on stilts) are uniquely positioned. These bodies reflect their titles of both indifference and stress, every figure weighed down by themselves, barely supported by the structures they lean on, exemplifying the potential apathy that rises out of the effect of stress or anxiety. These long limbed figures mimicked the positions the bodies hold in the paintings sharing the space, all sharing a similar body language that is paused in tension, even in a pose.

image 4        image 5

Canyon Castator’s Tipping Point & Christian Rex Van Minnen’s Selfie In Casmate Beneath the Bridge to Better Days I Image courtesy of Postmasters Gallery NYC

Canyon Castator’s Tipping Point (left) contains distorted figures that echo the form of the ghastly figure in Christian Rex Van Minnen’s Selfie In Casmate Beneath the Bridge to Better Days I (right) just across the room. Both painters’ works are redolent of historical paintings which have been twisted into contemporary turmoil. Surreality and skewed perspective within the paintings enthrall me and deliver a space aberrant of typical depictions of the body’s anatomy.

image 6    image 7

Installation shot of CON-Figuration. Image courtesy of Postmasters Gallery NYC

All of the works which surrounded Agathe Snow’s in-between space created an environment even more overwhelming; the walls of these bodies showcased as physical manifestations of the potential effects that a polluted world has on the mental and psychological states of a person. The stress is real. Erin M. Riley’s soft, pornographic weavings and Shamus Clisset’s 3D digital renderings of cyborg-looking figures are iterations of digital worlds that remain entirely different from each other. However, in each work I see an element of strength personified in the stances, positions and scale the bodies fill in their frames. The dominance of these figures potentially act a figures of indestructible resistance, although they are still under an affect of the twisting hypocrisy and dimness prevalent; all of the images participated in creating a setting submerged in surreality where the states of the figures became surprisingly real.

The materials and figures in both of these exhibitions twisted and turned in their frameworks; they carried weight. They highlight the dichotomy that exists in American media that can fetishize and normalize violence and demonize sexuality and intimacy. These works have been brought into this dark world, as these artists are perceptive of this reality. We are collectively enamoured with this dark side of reality that effectively transfixes humans into a place that may frighten us to a point where we want to escape this place, even if we have just dipped our toes in a little. When we leave, that is when we have the chance to respond to and resist these responses of darkness, and turn it into light.

These shows, in clear conversation with each other, very successfully iterate a world that has been soaked in social media and its proliferations from “fake news” to virtual reality that are so enticing we can’t tear ourselves away from them. Creating and becoming a part of a community that makes and embraces artwork under the hand of the leader that is taking away important resources, whom I would never consider a prophet, is a way to raise awareness, resistance, and the need for action.

E S S A Y 2 / 6 : Who Should Play the Flute, or, Who Should Play the Flute?

I know you like to line dance
Everything so democratic and cool
But baby there’s no guidance
When the random rules

– The Silver Jews, from the American Water LP


Do you know the one about Aristotle and the flute? More or less, it goes like this:

Aristotle stands on a low flat rock, a horseshoe of students sit on the ground around him. The students wear holly wreaths on their heads and togas the color of their school, held closed by safety pins decorated with carved abalone rainbow trout. It is the first day of mild weather on the tail end of a long winter and the decision has been made to hold class outside on the banks of a bay. Aristotle holds a flute at his side and fingers it in a light breeze coming off the water. He clears his throat, calls attendance, everyone pledges allegiance, and class begins.



“Who should play the flute?” begins Aristotle. He holds the flute out for the students to examine. There is a pause. They narrow their eyes at the flute and turn inwards to consider their options as a group: The well-bred? The rich? A slave? A landowner? A soldier? No single option seems best. The students are a modern, forward thinking bunch. They are concerned with what is equitable and fair to their fellow citizens. There is much discussion among the wreaths. The  shadow of a rogue cloud meanders from the new Springtime grass to the sand and out in the water, where it is overtaken by the shadows of the waves in the bay, marching together in a crowded and never-diminishing harmony.






An answer finally comes back from the students, who speak sing-song and in unison; “Anyone who wants to play the flute should play the flute.” They cross their arms. “Sure, sure,” Aristotle says, “It is a sensible answer.”  The students smile and clap. Aristotle continues: “ Sure, sure — it’s even-steven. If anyone is allowed to play the flute then no one is left out. But your answer is an answer without a choice. It’s marshmallows in the mashed potatoes.” The students begin to frown, Aristotle continues. “This would be the same answer you would give if we were standing here talking about growing corn or fishing for trout. Your answer sidesteps the virtue of the flute itself. It does not consider the flute-ness of the flute: the thing that makes it it, the verso of the thing that makes not it not-it. Now, if the virtue of the flute is to just make noise, then the wind coming off this bay has just as much a stake in the playing of this flute as you or as me or as the most learned flautist, yes?”

There is another pause, longer this time. The students stand still, facing neither inward nor outward, each one alone in thought. Some finger their safety pins, some adjust their wreaths. The breeze whistles a bar of Morricone through Aristotle’s flute.





Aristotle gestures to the horizon above the bay.  “At the end of your appeal to democracy today is a world of coddled dilettantes playing flutes badly all day long. Are you happy with that?” Aristotle goes on to remind his class about the horse the committee voted on, and points out that tepid water is neither refreshing to drink nor serviceable for cooking. He speaks quickly, his drawl comes out. Finally he asks again: “This time for all the marbles kids, who should play the flute?”

Class ends in great confusion as a sudden gust of wind whips the wreaths from the heads of the students and carries them up, up, up and out over the water, where they join the shadows of waves in the bay, still marching together in a crowded and never-diminishing harmony.

The End.





What an argument. Linear, righteous, fascistic, elegant as a swung claw hammer. “Come on people, “ Aristotle says, “let’s take this seriously. Let’s think about the virtue of this thing, set a standard, adhere to it, and ask others to do the same.” It is an argument of resource distribution according to the virtue of the resource first, the happiness of the consumer second. However it is an argument which assumes a limited supply of the resource, and so it is ultimately it is an argument of politics; who gets what, when, and how much of it do they get. Thankfully art is limited only by a person’s ability to respond to stimuli and so considerations of politics need not apply.

If there is a reason to view the making of Art with judgement and skepticism–and there is reason enough–it is not to safeguard resources. It is to uphold respect for the human facilities of empathy, curiosity, imagination, and creation, of which Art is one of the fulminated exhausts. It is a record we will leave behind and a gesture of goodwill to our future. So, who should make Art? Who knows. Folks will keep on making what they make, for good reasons and bad. It is the case instead that adherents of Art should be muscular in the naming of things and in the practice of making things; to use both sides of the claw hammer and to walk while chewing gum; to sometimes call things Art, to sometimes call things hobby, to sometimes call things dissatisfaction with more popular forms of distraction like sports and shopping; to celebrate the hearty, open-ended nature of Art but to care for it as though it may get all used up and leave in the breeze.






NEXT TIME: Essay 3/6: The Distance and the Manicure.




A Material Memoir: Gerry Trilling’s Narrative Atlas

Installation, Gerry Trilling 2016, Dimensions Variable. Image courtesy of the artist.

Installation, Gerry Trilling 2016, Dimensions Variable. Image courtesy of the artist.

When I first encountered Gerry Trilling’s artwork in her studio at Studios, Inc., I came face to face with a fuzzy pink rug that you would expect to find in the dorm of an art student, the proper setting for this material is definitely not in an art gallery. Or is it? Trilling’s work exemplifies her fascination with piecing together narratives through material culture. Her newest show, “Narrative Atlas,” presented viewers with the personal story of her family’s struggle assimilating into American culture after fleeing the Holocaust, winding up in St. Louis by way of Vienna. Using individual covered panels, she created large, multifaceted fabric paintings of unlike materials. Her investigation of people through looking at interiors from their personal spaces created a conversation about the role of material in personal identity.

Upon entering the show, the presentation caught my attention. Beside each installation, a snippet of Gerry’s personal family memories gave viewers insight into each of her relatives’ personalities. As I walked through the space, it felt as though I knew her relatives personally through both the stories being presented and the materials being incorporated.  From the story of Aunt Erna’s food hoarding habits to the broken wind up clock her parents has received as a wedding gift, I felt as though I was at my own family get-together overhearing my relatives talk about their own experiences growing up. I grew to understand the narrative through the presented materials, assigning personalities to them the same as I do people. The fuzzy pink rug began to become more than just a rug, it became my crazy Aunt Kathy who loves drinking copious amounts of wine and playing Battle of the Sexes at family gatherings, and materials such as wire act as a stand in for my grandpa who was in the Vietnam war.

Activated Shelter, Gerry Trilling, 2017, 58x48. Image Courtesy of the Artist

Activated Shelter, Gerry Trilling, 2017, 58×48. Image Courtesy of the Artist

I started to treat the gaps between artwork as a pause to process the story and the roles of the artwork that Trilling set them up to perform. Her use of multiple square and rectangular panels carefully placed in relation to each other function as visual poetry through the use of pauses and moments of reflection, while Trilling takes on a curator’s role through her specific arrangement of the panels.  Taking on both of these positions, what she leaves for viewers to decipher is a complex, personal conversation between her artwork and the text.  She questions how materials function as stand-ins for memories and draws connections between the life that the used material once had, while considering the aesthetic function it is serving in her artwork.

From these relationships, each one of the works can be thought about as a portrait of a person in Trilling’s life, or rather, a self portrait of a facet of her life.  As I think about the characters from the text on the walls, I feel Gerry’s artwork manifesting into a portrait of every family member mentioned.  I start to decipher the embellishment to her narrative the further and further I get through the show, providing comedic comments which give insight into her journey of establishing a life in America and giving an account of her assimilation into American culture.  The psychological link she has created between her life and the gaudy materials she chooses becomes fetishized as she takes into consideration the purpose of the materials outside her personal associations.  Using materials that would more than likely be found in the clearance section of Boca Bargoons, she chooses one-of-a-kind elements that people don’t normally go out of their way to pick out. Instead of curating groups of panels that already fit together due to their color palettes or textures, she chooses to rework them into a separate piece of artwork that incorporates multiple aesthetics from uncommon fabrics.  Choosing the materials carefully, she is rewriting her family’s history through her own eyes, using textiles to be reminiscent of her own family biases.  Like a family, none of the materials Trilling picks out are meant to fit together perfectly, making for a relatable view of family through the histories of the textiles used.

Installation image from Gerry Trilling's Narrative Atlas. Photo Courtesy of the Artist.

Installation image from Gerry Trilling’s Narrative Atlas. Photo Courtesy of the Artist.

Questioning Signs of Authority With Oli Watt

Modern day Dadaist Oli Watt is known for his comments on the current questioning many millennials have regarding the value of a college education by creating sculptural and 2D rendered parodies that criticize the establishment. In the exhibition Sensible Disobedience at Charlotte Street’s La Esquina Gallery (March 10th – April 22nd), Watt took a cynical stance on how accreditation and credentials are viewed in present day society by creating a facade that questions the contemporary system of academia.


Degree, 2006, Oli Watt. Woodcut print of college degree 21 in. x 25 in. Image by E.G. Schempf

Watts’ cynicism is proven by the large number of millennials who come out of high school confused about their next decision. In 2017, we’re placing college graduates on a fictional pedestal, valuing them more than people in traditional work fields, such as manual labor.  With the diploma creating a class-based barrier, it makes it harder for people of lower economic status to obtain a degree, making it harder for them to obtain higher-paying jobs. According to the Idaho Department of Labor, the average cost of a bachelor’s degree in the United States is $127,000.  With a large number of people in the workforce having degrees, employers start looking past the degree for validation.  In making a fictitious diploma, Watt comments on the function of the authoritative document, making the viewer aware of its’ objective purpose, as well as the task given to this paper by society’s pre-conceived notion of importance.        

Watts’ cartoon-like drawing used in Degree blurs the line between levity and seriousness. He recreates widely recognized forms of success and pokes fun at them, making audiences question why they are even considered measurable forms of success to begin with.  Dear Prudence is a series of traffic signs displayed throughout the gallery. Their unusual placement calls attention to their sheer quantity, starting a conversation about why we obey them in one setting and not another.  Watts shows interest in making people question whether or not they are handling his content as fictitious or subliminal in this work by using a common object such as a traffic barricade but shrinking it down to an unrealistic level where it doesn’t carry out its intended purpose, and instead functions as a guide for the viewers to move through the gallery.  The small replicas serve as a reminder of one instance where we face subordination to material objects on an everyday basis, and how objects possess a different kind of authority in their numbers.  The traffic signs shift viewers’ mindset from believing they are freely moving, independent beings before they come into the gallery into realizing that they have limitations imposed on them on a daily basis which had before been unknown to them.  

Oli Watt, Dear Prudence, 2001 Acrylic ink on polystyrene Dimensions Variable & Business Cards, 1998-present Offset prints 9 in. x 12 in. Photo by E.G. Schempf

Oli Watt, Dear Prudence, 2001 Acrylic ink on polystyrene Dimensions Variable & Business Cards, 1998-present Offset prints 9 in. x 12 in. Photo by E.G. Schempf

Watt’s work calls upon viewers to recognize that symbols that command us and present a layer of control over us in every aspect of society, but calls specific attention to education. His work questions the nature of why we choose to obey and honor material things for their symbolic aspects. Oli Watt draws out purpose from common objects and makes a viewer question why we choose to revolve our lives around something as ordinary as a piece of paper or an orange traffic barrier, and makes audiences question the authority that inanimate objects seem to possess over society.  A piece of paper should not dictate your success or function to further the wage gap between classes, as assigning this authority to a mundane object takes the power away from the recipient.  Placing this level of value in education creates distinct barriers between potential employers and people of lower classes who cannot afford a higher level education, despite their capacity for hard work and dedication.  Societal barriers are starting to become unnecessary due to the pace at which our culture is spiraling downwards. Because of this freefall, all that these barriers accomplish is further dividing the socio-economic classes, instead of being used to create friendly standards for competition in the work force.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

E S S A Y 1 / 6 : Line in Muck.

Y’tulip, y’tulip, y’pea brained earwig
Y’punk, y’silver tongued snake
I’d rather make furniture than go to midnight mass

 – Wire, from the Snakedrill EP


The characteristics of good Art and bad Art are apparent to each of us when we are alone and don’t gain anything by our judgements. Good Art has something to do with truth and earnestness and satisfaction, and so bad Art that has something to do with the opposite of those things; to be disingenuous, to be callow, to submit to being unsatisfied. Surely there is enough of this floating around under the sun for everyone to have their fill and take leftovers to work tomorrow. What then is to account for all this bad Art? The qualities of Art, the focus of this essay and the five to follow, is a wild geometry. Readable in an instant, as fast as looking.



Good Art doesn’t make it rain more in dry weather. Bad Art doesn’t run over my foot or overcook my egg. A weak piece does not diminish a regionalism, or stunt a movement, or muddy the entire project of Art. So why all the hay-making about good-Art-bad-Art ? For the vast majority of Art’s adherents and practitioners, Art does not keep the lights on at home or pay the studio rent. This is beside the point though; Art is what makes the lights worth turning on, makes the rent worth paying.




Here is an image of Art; here is a busy bay on a warm holiday weekend. I have been at the bay all morning long, just dog paddling, and I hope to stay until after the sun goes down. I feel a blissful and deliberate joy in negotiating the water as it moves around me. I am wary of the fanciest strokes and the shiniest innertubes as they cut through the chop or float above it. Ease and habit sometimes share an inflatable raft shaped like an ear of corn. There is a quagmire down below — as wide and deep as consciousness, as dense as thought, and woven through with currents of judgement and veins of taste. The act of making Art is to plumb the muck of the quagmire, to locate a resonance, to pursue it, and to return with some piece of what is there. Whatever else we have in our pockets when we come back is probably just pocket lint.




Art looms large in my life and stands close to me, and I cannot see its edges on some days. However I am not a zealot or a Pollyanna about the importance of Art, and I do not maintain a standardless appreciation of it. Rather, I am proprietary of Art and offended to see it dealt with callously. Here, it’s like this: some Art is better than other Art, and most Art is not very good. So much of it is truly and deeply lazy in its execution and cynical in its conception. So much of it doesn’t attempt anything. So much of it is devised as social capital, or it is overly burdened with the prescriptions of the day, or else the relationship between artist and material is conservative and transactional where it ought to be curious and slutty, or else there is too much shame given and received in retreading old ground in the pursuit of finding new territory, or else the work takes itself too seriously, or else it is an execution of fashion without regard for the flow of time, or the work is too greedy for attention and space, or the work is only descriptive where it ought to be transformative, or it is a branding exercise, or it is too much given over to commerce, or it is too timid, or it is too blustery, or it is fetishized beyond vitality, or it is happy without being introspective, or it is joyless without being redemptive, or it condescends, or there is all this damned context, or the work conflates shiftlessness with pursuit, or it is just a game of inside baseball, or it is just a game of throwing pocket knives, or it is too much the opposite of any of these, or else it has been tailored to be the size and shape and weight and aura of Art which is called Fine.




Back in the bay, left hand right hand, a note about discussing Art before I go. Art calls for acts of intellectual and emotional exploration where literal and functional considerations are jettisoned in favor of timelessness and play and evasion. Discussion calls for a common, descriptive, restless tongue–a dumb muscle. This being the case, discussions of Art are slippery and too often reliant on the dry ground of precedent and terminology for footing. Precedent is difficult; to describe one thing by describing another is to sometimes describe neither. Terminology is difficult; to describe a thing with a five dollar word when plainspokenness would do is wasteful at least, cowardly maybe, and alienating. It is good to have standards, and to speak to them. It is good to be available to Art, to be available to each other to discuss Art, to give no cover to Art that is bad, and to recognize the qualities of Art that is good. Whatever else we have in our throats when we talk about Art is probably just pocket lint.




Next time — E S S A Y 2 / 6 : Who Should Play the Flute.

Inside iamuslima: An Interview with Baseera Khan

Baseera Khan just had her first solo show in New York City, iamuslima. Khan presented work that packages her social and personal identities with familiar spiritual objects and family archives. Her anxiety of deep rooted historical trauma matches her concerns with the politics of immigration in America. Khan’s method to create sculptural endurance performance works, all in relation to her body, attempt to manage and think through, “what’s next?”


iamuslima NikeID sneaker by Baseera Khan. Image Courtesy of the artist.

The first piece seen at the forefront of the exhibition was a pair of Nike Air Force One Mid-Top sneakers designed by Khan through the NIKEiD project. After hearing of a lawsuit against Nike for not allowing the word “Muslim” to be embroidered on these customized shoes, Khan sidestepped the blockade by altering the word. She calls this strategy “misspelling on purpose”, and had iamuslima inscribed onto the shoes instead, this manipulated word directly referencing Khan’s identity as both a Muslim and a woman. These shoes were also a document from her performance during the opening night of the exhibition where she walked around the space in the shoes, and then placed them atop the stack of acrylic boxes also seen at the forefront. These boxes were meant to function as an invitation for others to take their shoes off too.


Images courtesy of the artist.

She then proceeded to perform ablution with a bowl of black chalk nearby, readying herself to climb a synthetic rock wall installed at the opposite end of the gallery entitled Braidrage, leaving chalk dust footsteps behind. The rocks were made from resin molds of the corners of her body with chains and locks of hair embedded into them like DNA. Traversing vertically a white wall, via the corners,  Khan climbed as high as she could until utter fatigue, leaving yet another residue of black chalk against the wall. Traces of her presence remained throughout the entire run of the installation.

The Acoustic Sound Blankets placed in the exhibition were worn by Khan in several prior performances that speak about safe spaces and intimacy. Individuals were invited to come under the blankets with her, offering protection against assaulting sounds. There are Psychedelic Prayer Rugs — created collaboratively — colorfully designed by Khan and fabricated by people residing in Kashmir, India. After visiting the exhibition for an artist talk, I wanted to probe the artist further about the context of her practice.

Khan expresses the importance of community when making her work. I asked, with her work primarily exploring themes her own identity, being a Muslim queer woman of color, how then does she engage or build a community in the process of making work? How does this community then support the practice of understanding one’s own identity?

“There was a large group of people that came together to help me with this exhibition.” As a teacher at Parsons, many former students came together to help Khan with her exhibition. In return she would plug them into jobs or they were given school credit for their assistance. All of these students were also queer people of color,  which was important for Khan. “It gave me an opportunity to create an environment of people where, while we were making the work, we could have an ongoing conversation about our feelings and topics that extended beyond the classroom discourse.”


Psychedelic Prayer Rugs by Baseera Khan. Image Courtesy of the artist.

A longer arc of conversation took place when producing the Psychedelic Prayer Rugs. This idea, to travel to India and collaborate there, conjured when Khan’s father passed away and her mother came to live with her for some time. “I was trying to find a way for her to enter into my world,” continuing to practice engaging the community with her work. She took her mother to Parsons, toured the design classrooms together, and while Khan taught class her mother actually helped embroider designs for the Acoustic Sound Blankets. At some point they came to realize this task was not something they could do alone by hand. Thus, they traveled to India and were able to connect with artisans to help produce some of the embroidery in Khan’s show. This is when they discovered the ideas behind the Psychedelic Prayer Rugs.

Khan comes from a lineage of people that have always worked in pedagogy and textile construction. Teaching is what she wants to sustain her livelihood along side her studio practice. Her engagement in this way is most important, and if the work she continues to make sells, then she would be even more able to provide resources for the community she is surrounding herself with. “You start to learn about how to be a leader or how to truly be in a community, and how to form your own family.” Khan, as a teacher and a leader, is a strong example for students and artists to form more empathetic environments for people with religious differences, or differences at all, as she builds and engages her own community.


Acoustic Sound Blankets by Baseera Khan. Image by Maxim Ryazansky and courtesy of the artist.

Many of the materials used reference the body, and are re-used and employed in different ways. The Acoustic Sound Blankets, for example, have many iterations, engaging a community and creating safe spaces. I asked Khan, how do the materials evolve and continue to reference your body and other bodies?

Khan feels very assaulted by sound, admitting to having an astute sense of hearing which makes her sensitive to it. The acoustic blankets are a soft space that minimize the sound coming at you. They were “A micro geography you could slip underneath, to have reprieve from sound violations, from sound terror you hear everyday– you know, the city is crying and vibrating constantly.” Her interest in understanding military architecture led her away from the exploration of physical architecture of a space and instead brought her focus to how sound controls populations of people, like the call to prayer. “Sound is a way we are controlled; it is a cue to do certain things; it is very pavlovian. I wanted to repool myself and find my own affinity groups. Instinctually, the way to do that was to create a vacuum” for these sounds.

She would invite people underneath an Acoustic Sound Blanket in these performances, activating a space of intimacy. She would gauge interactions based on their comfortability, offering to sing to them, mostly. The acts would continue as well as the two people engage by looking at each other and hugging, turning the micro geography into an intimate environment. She even wore one of these during the women’s marches that occurred in New York around the time of the inauguration.


Images of Khan wearing an Acoustic Sound Blanket at the Women’s March in NYC. Images courtesy of the artist.

Along with these performances is an aspect of a “social construction of how we have expectations of each other, in regards to all the chaos happening in response to class and race.” Khan told me, “I wanted to do something and be present, but I didn’t want my body to be present. To mask myself in this kind of acoustic geography was a way for me to be present, you can hear my voice, but you cannot see my body.”


Braidrage by Baseera Khan. Image by Maxim Ryazansky and courtesy of the artist.

In regards to the rockwall, Braidrage, there was an idea formulated here about performance and endurance with exercise wielding a way to combat the anxiety from deep rooted historical trauma. I asked Khan, how is exercise a part of the your daily practice and your artistic practice?

Khan asked herself “How can I sustain myself making work that gives me something in return? I want to have fun, I want to be social, I want to be healthy.” This spawned from an unhealthy relationship she was having with her art practice. She was interviewed for the 2010 Whitney biennial, but she realized the work did not build a community and that the paintings she was making at the time left her hands, were misinterpreted and she felt had become instruments for neo-liberalism. She decided to go to graduate school at Cornell to study, and while she still made a lot of work, she did not engage like before, leaving the fourth wall up. “Exercise became the thing I learned was what I needed 2014 as I watched my father and brother and mother’s health devolve. Toxicity is not a normative narrative, I think it is linked to colonization and displacement and the patriarchy and I wanted to do something about that and control that narrative in my work. And if I wasn’t doing that I didn’t want to make work.” In this way, she explains in her bio, strategies for decolonial practices.

Khan attended the Skowhegan residency soon after this realization which played a large role in pushing this idea. The residency facilities had a sound booth which led her to the creating of the Acoustic Sound Blankets as well as other performances during the residency. The environment of the school in general promoted exercise. “I was so healthy…I started to employ exercise in artistic ways as a way to manage trauma…and I do projects based on exercise as a medium.” The gym became the studio, where Baseera could use running as a medium and then used climbing in Braidrage; the performances becoming about endurance. Presenting the artist’s body in two forms in Braidrage exemplifies a colored body traversing a vertical plane, pressed up against a white background. “I wanted to see what a woman of color looked like pushed up against a white wall, and see how far she could go.”


Baseera Khan in front of Braidrage. Image courtesy of the artist.