Monday, June 8, 2015
"Epiphany Is Not a Blazing Light": Romy Aura Maloon at Beep Beep Gallery, Atlanta
Old habits die hard. Apart from the unrevised opening paragraphs, this non-review has been turning into more of a meandering, baffled draft every time I edit it—because it is hard to quit being a reviewer. The resonantly resolved universal statements, the descriptions reaching a convincing-sounding conclusion—we are simply not supposed to sound like we don't know what on earth we are doing here, and so we don't. But it is a literary strategy, and while I admire it in the essays of George Steiner, from whom I have actually learned much that I would not otherwise have known, I can now look up and see the points at which Steiner's grasp far exceeds his reach—where the flow of the rhetoric simply demands the conclusions to which he should not genuinely have come, when he should instead have been asking an unanswered question. Sometimes he writes an aphorism that is simply nonsensical, and more often states something that is a far deeper truth than he has earned from what he has actually stated in the preceding text, in both cases because he is George Steiner. And I, as in the shtick from the comedian's sketch, am not.
My non-reviews are about questions, my questions, not answers. My hope is that the readers will find their own questions and their own genuinely valid answers. This is not the same thing as saying that all answers are equally valid, a tactic that annoys me in artist's talks; it is a way of saying that some questions take longer to formulate than others, and no one person can even get the questions right, much less answer them; it is a collective endeavor in which the type of perceptiveness we bring to the enterprise determines the type of question we shall find most interesting, and hence find ourselves sufficiently committed to be able to answer if we work at it.
I have been struck with the regularity with which I encounter personal mythologies that I simply do not understand. W. B. Yeats, being a poet, at least provided a key to his mythology in A Vision but even that requires a literary critic to give us a paraphrase, or else a great deal of time such as I do not ever have to do the reading and interpreting myself. (Same problem with William Blake; deeply indebted to his visionary insights, I nevertheless am never quite sure who the Zoas are or who Enitharmon is or why those feet in ancient time till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.)
Hence my bewilderment with several recent art exhibitions in Atlanta, some of which provide keys to the mystery that don’t seem to fit the locks. (I have the same key-and-lock problem with my storage unit quite often, so I am prepared to believe it's just me.)
I am writing about three of the exhibitions (four, actually) for artsatl.com, and soon, so I’ll describe the only one that I am not reviewing. I feel less disturbed about not understanding it when I see from the review on burnaway.org that the reviewer makes no effort to explicate what it all means, either, though she offers clues as to how she extracts possible lessons from it. There is clearly an enigma here, one I didn’t even understand when the artist explained it.
Reading the description of Romy Aura Maloon’s earlier work, quite articulately discussed on her website, makes clear how little the work in “Epiphany Is Not a Blazing Light,” which closes on June 20, 2015 at Beep Beep Gallery, has to do with the questions of cultural displacement and traumatized social and political identities with which her earlier work deals. Even though it uses some of the same materials, the difference in symbolism makes clear that this is a less cultural/political approach to issues of life and death. There is something closer to biology and to individual psychology going on.
The proper response to this realization is “Well, duh,” because a look at the Martin Espada poem that begins with that phrase makes clear that the great issues of wartime trauma are irrelevant to the epiphanies that come with comic books on battlefronts and/or Walt Whitman’s poetry (provocatively written as Whit-man) devoted to honoring life in the midst of armed conflict. Epiphanies come from small acts of resistance to the iron laws of history and the vast collective forces that crush individual human destinies beneath the immense catastrophes they engender. So this exhibition is not completely unrelated to Maloon's earlier sociopolitical interests, after all.
We already know, from what the artist said to those of us who attended the opening, that much if not all of the work is a response to the death of someone near and dear to her, and it may be necessary to know the biographical details to untangle the allegory. Certainly there seem to be mysteries of image that, as is the case in poems from Tennyson's In Memoriam to Rumi's elegies for Shams to a host of other literary works (and, I'm sure, in a good many other bodies of visual art that I am not remembering at the moment), might be elucidated if we only knew the triggering circumstances. But the issues being symbolized seem deeper than the accidents of personal biography. Hence my frustration at my inability to prise out those issues from what is clearly a worked-out set of personal symbols (there is an artist's statement that I read at the time of the opening, but I found it difficult to relate the statement to specific works and specific symbols—again, my fault entirely).
Sitting spectacularly near the gallery entrance, the tree growing out of a handbuilt hospital bed comes closest to interpretable public, historically grounded symbolism. Knowing that the charred wood was easier to produce than other material alternatives does not change the potent symbolism of a bed of pain, perhaps a deathbed, pierced by a standard symbol of the persistent force of life that renews itself every season. It's a quiet (I meant to write "quite," but I believe in Freudian typing errors) brilliant beginning.
I suppose the adjacent animal skulls hidden behind white organza (? I am terrible at identifying fabrics, and I have lost the checklist—no, actually I didn't request a printout of the labels, now that I think of it) can be interpreted in several different ways…the hangings remind anyone with long acquaintance with hospitals of the curtains that sometimes surround hospital beds, especially when medical or nursing procedures need to be closed off to casual observers. The color is the color of mourning and funerals in Asia, but the color of weddings and bridal veils in Europe and America. For all of that, the visible bones make it clear this is meant to be funereal, even if it might or might not signify a funereal celebration of life, as implied by the red flowers piled in a heap beneath the hanging fabric—these flowers, a standard symbol in Maloon's earlier work, are the color of fresh blood, a shade of red that is also a standard symbol of life and/or joy in more than one culture. The heavy chains from which the bones are suspended suggest the weight of imprisonment in a diseased body, or perhaps do not suggest that at all.
I could flounder around in this manner, trying to make up stories that make sense of the human silhouette tied by similar chains to red-flower coyote sculptures, or the drawings of roses and snarling dogs and such, but I can’t. I have no idea what all this is supposed to mean. The visceral power of the images doesn’t communicate any conceptually clear thought to me. Again, if I had the time to reflect on the interconnections of the imagery, it might, but as it is, it doesn't.
The plates in the “Parasites” series also deliver a powerful feeling of queasiness without really communicating a message, in my case. The biting and sucking insects that are meticulously limned on these functional objects that are so frequently converted to wall decorations make this a series that defeats any memories of decorative plates on parental walls—the imagery is so exquisitely rendered as to be beautiful but simultaneously repellent. Each plate also has a blob of kiln-fired glass that evokes various associations, none of them pleasant. Combined with the equally unpleasant ceramic heads nestled amid decaying floral matter (or they were when I saw the show weeks ago, anyway—I think; I am forced to consult the photograph in the burnaway.org review to refresh my memory of these), this stuff gets down to the nitty-gritty of disease and bodily decay. The symbolic stench of mortality hangs heavy over this exhibition.
But the details defeat me. I couldn’t possibly write a review of this exhibition. I used to be good at finessing such problems. Now I am not.