Wednesday, February 20, 2013

In the High Seat

Robert Boyd

Kathryn Kelley's show at at Art League, The uncontrollable nature of grief and forgiveness (or lack of), consists of very tall chairs, green wooden squares that look like picture frames, some attached to droopy black rubber structures, and a series of slats hung by fishing line from the ceiling of the gallery. The chairs are 13 feet high, but the ceiling of the gallery is only 11 feet high, so they are leaning.

These leaning chairs don't look particularly functional in this space. On the other hand, who needs 13 foot high chairs? They seem completely fanciful--except when you remember that lifeguards regularly sit in elevated chairs.

Outside the main gallery, the ceiling is higher and it is possible for one of the chairs to be displayed standing up straight. When you look closely at the chairs, you see that they have door-knobs attached.

Nothing in the exhibit looks polished or new. It all feels aged, dusty. It feels like stuff you might find in a basement or a barn or a rural storage shed. If you're a city slicker like me, sometimes you'll come across old farm equipment in an antique store, and the purpose of the equipment will be completely baffling. That is the feeling that pervades this installation. These chairs, these frames are something that has a purpose--or had a purpose--that is as completely clear to Kelley as the old mysterious piece of farm equipment was completely unmysterious to the farmer who once owned it.

Kelley provides some clues for the viewers who are seeking meaning (or at least an explanation). There are three poems written on the wall. In her blog, she calls them the source writings. For instance, one is titled "I dissolve my fabricated seatings," and the chairs and table (the free-floating slats) are inspired by it.

I have this table
bare laid built of soul
one where I repeatedly
in my recesses
draw those I love

I have them here
against their spoken wills
as I awaken I latch on to their stay
naked in heart speaking pleading
I hear my own whines

they pushed back a bit ago
not righting their chairs
nor to draw up again
yet their memory flattened
I strap upon these seatings not their own

this morning with usual effort
i dissolve these fabricated chair seatings
with straps of intimate mind musings

i set afresh the table
spilling it with sun risen scents
of just turned soils
i glide my hands
furrowing rich long runners
where water from spilled crystal
seeps still and the sun's glance
splinters gracefully

i flare my nostrils
with the fertile ripeness
await in acceptance of unacceptance
listening even now again
for the ever drifting scents
of the emergent

i dissolve these fabricated chair seatings
with my hands deep amid turned soil

The poetry seems to reflect an emotional struggle in Kelley's own life, one seemingly without resolution. She writes of forgiveness (without specifying whether she is the one who needs to forgive or to be forgiven), and she writes about how difficult forgiveness is. So it suggests that there is something between Kelley and someone else (or some group of people) that needs to be forgiven but can't be. That's as much detail as she gives in the blog.

And that's interesting, because except for occasional melancholy posts like that one, the blog is--for me at least--quite a positive reading experience. I read it in real time--as she writes it. She documented the fabrication of this show, from getting the rubber to building the frames. Other posts feature photos of her beloved dog and others have to do with teaching at Sam Houston State University. (The "WASH" she is referring to in this post is the Workshop in Art Studio and History.) The posts colored my impression of the show before I ever even saw it. Because I had seen Kelley's process of getting the materials, assembling, checking out the space, etc. (along with photos of her dirty hands--that rubber rubs off!--and smiling face), I had nothing but positive feelings about the show. So even though it apparently comes out of a personal crisis for Kelley, it feels like the end-result of a joyful, labor-intensive process.

The "bellows" are sewn rubber tubing that ends in small green frames. I admit I find these structures a bit disturbing. Frames to me symbolize portals, and these are portals into long black tunnels. They're pictures that seem likely to suck the viewer into a void (or an "abyss," which Kelley describes as beckoning to her in one of her poems). The way they droop implies exhaustion or impotence. And the fact that there are many of them suggests tentacles. They're spooky--if you encountered them in a haunted house (say the house in Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves), they wouldn't seem out of place.

If you've followed Kelley's work, then you have probably seen this "bellows" structure before. It strikes me as a highly original replicable structure, and I can see why she'd want to continue exploring it just from a formal point of view. It combines hard with soft, curves with right angles, surface with an empty opening. But there is more to it. A bellows is an ancient simple machine, but it is a machine and machines have a purpose. While we can't know that purpose--we can make some guesses based on the source poems--I believe these bellows have a specific purpose for Kelley.

The table, which is flying apart, strikes me as not quite right. The way it has been installed, it's as if we are seeing it in one instance of a process of disassembling itself. (In other words, this is the moment when she "dissolve[s] her fabricated seatings") By capturing this motion in a still installation, it has the feeling of a high-speed photograph. The stillness of the rest of the exhibit is disturbed by its implied motion--especially as that motion appears to be quite elegant and choreographed. The table is not exploding, after all. Nonetheless, it does represent the idea of a table coming apart, and since a table with chairs is where people come together, having a table come apart is a loaded, powerful image. (And it makes me want to see the chairs not as leaning but as falling over.)

I think the installation as a whole is quite beautiful, and because I saw it after reading about its construction for so many weeks, I felt a kind of joy at seeing it. But the black bellows and disassembling table ultimately express something darker than joy (as do the poems). So I end up pulled in two directions by the piece. And that's two more directions than most art pulls me--The uncontrollable nature of grief and forgiveness (or lack of) is an affecting exhibit.


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