Ordinary Escapes and Other Magic,
By Tegan Hale published in The Curatorial Inquisitorial, mid 2013.
Celeste Aldahn & Ray Harris
2 April – 10 May 2013
A confession seems the apt way to begin a review of this show. So here it is - the title makes me nervous. The cynic in me reads the elusion in the title ‘Ordinary Escapes and Other Magic’ to a genre of art-making best described as crafty cat-lady-meets-adolescent-fantasy. Celeste Aldahn and Ray Harris’ proximity to me as cultural subjects; in age, gender and socio-economic standing exacerbates my unease. Will their works showcase the sentimental bad-taste I too hide due to its unacceptability in the world of aesthetic judgement of which I choose to be a part? Audience discomfort is induced accordingly, but in retrospect I realise this sensation is cleverly appropriated as central to the viewing experience. Prescience and pathos are employed by the artists as they push what external scholar Juliette Peers describes as the nexus of woman/madness and creativity fostered in, and persisting beyond the Victorian era. They reference the hysterical, dramatic, and often unstable narratives’ associated with women and imagination.
Aldahn creates kitsch-inspired vanity objects with roots in folkloric traditions and naïve art. Her small scale pencil sketches on lined paper seem like personal daydreams torn from a diary or exercise book. The body of work (which includes numerous glitter encrusted handmade wands) establishes an aesthetic which could be described as childhood play meets ‘the Frankie effect’. Aldahn is an anti-heroine, contesting the bombastic male heroes of modern art. She is the anti-Judd.
In contrast to Aldahn’s highly unconventional oeuvre, Harris’ work more closely resembles that traditionally found in galleries of Contemporary Art. Her video and sculptural works convey the maturity of her art practice and the slightly surreal and fantastical scenarios fit effortlessly within the established literary and artistic genre of magical realism.
I had been told prior to seeing the show that there are two interactive works not indicated as such in the gallery space. Both works belong to Harris, Lay with me, and, Enter into the Darkness to see the Light. From the front of Enter into the Darkness to see the Light the viewer is met with the sight of an unremarkable wardrobe, save a mound of black weed mat protruding from the top. Having seen this material many times on fledgling gardens its use suggests a likeness between the wardrobe and a seed buried beneath the earth. From the rear a web of artificial flowers stretches in synthetic stasis between the wardrobe and the gallery wall. If the viewer summons the bravery required to take the seemingly illegal step inside and close the door they are met by the multi-coloured twinkling of strobing LED lights within an upright cocoon of the black, textural weed mat. The sensation of being alone, in this tightly enclosed space takes on a magical quality and is enhanced by the separation of the viewer from the cold, vast gallery. The experience is simultaneously introspective and expansive. The viewer is placed both physically and psychologically ‘inside’ the work revealing their active role as subject. This introversion is countered by the explosion of faux flowers growing on the outside of the wardrobe. A visual metaphor is created for Harris’ practice and perhaps, more generally, the creative process.
Across the gallery, Harris’ video works represent some of the strongest works in the show. The video-portraits ‘She Blows Blizzards’ and ‘She Splutters Darkness’ possess an endurance element which draws an obvious parallel between Harris’ practice and the work of Mike Parr. In the former, Harris’ delicately made up face spits a chalk-like substance from her mouth as she is blown by a fan positioned out of shot. In the latter, a dense, viscose, black liquid oozes from Harris’ mouth in glugs and dribbles. The artist is literally muted by the substances with which she struggles. Her communication with the audience is limited, but not removed.
In contrast Aldahn’s work is decorative kitsch. Obsessive clustering on walls and mantles prescribes an almost religious reverence to Aldahn’s mal-formed ornaments. These ‘false idols’ display the artists’ unabashed attachment to the sentimental and aesthetically awkward. Aldahn’s fascination is foreshadowed on approach, to the gallery. A window sill is dedicated to a collection of her trinkets; a small painted clay rainbow, several fake candles and some synthetic flowers. For those not familiar with Aldahn’s practice this arrangement would easily be put down to the work of an errant art student hoping to create an ironic incursion on the ‘serious’ gallery space. In Aldahn’s UV Flower Bed 99 pebbles have been painted crudely with fluorescent glow-in-the-dark flowers. The stones are arranged with painstaking attention to detail into a circle approximately one metre in diameter and constrained by a thin green rope. Two desk lamps are positioned over the arrangement to facilitate the glow of the paint. The cumulative effect of chintzy wands, crystals and other paraphernalia around the gallery result in an association with a pagan ceremonial circle, a space where positive energies and are generated and negative energies blocked. Throughout her practice the obsessive collection and arrangement of objects simulates both shrine and altar.
The focal point of the exhibition, Waxing and Waning is a collaboration between the two artists. The stamp of Harris’ practice on this work is evident; two video portraits are projected alongside each other, one of each of the women. Their faces appear and disappear next to each other as they submerge and re-emerge from an opaque black liquid. On each re-emergence the scene is literally cast in a different light as coloured gels are passed in front of the camera. Small reflective stars float in the liquid becoming stuck on the artists’ faces. The allusion is to the night sky and the moon’s power over the tides, a phenomena often associated with the feminine, emotion, sentiment, irrationality and even madness. This iconography ties in significantly with the overarching themes of the show. The action performed by the artists emulates an internalisation, where in hiding from the viewer they are forced to hold their breath. This is possible only for a limited time, before they must again expose their faces to the world.
The residual impression left by this show is that of introspection, an examination of the self; as artist, as audience member, as human being. We are asked to explore our secret fantasies and inner creativity. These two very different artists clearly share thematic interests, but I remain not entirely convinced that their respective bodies of work benefit from sharing a space together. I have the impression this is an exhibition born of common interest and friendship rather than aesthetic considerations, but as the artists so articulately point out: it is an imperfect world and we must endure discomfort, anxiety and uncertainty in order to find life’s rewards.