Annie Farrar sees creative potential in the most prosaic objects. In the artist’s hands an old running shoe, used hairbrush, kitchen utensils and a human skull take on totemic value, bound together in swirls of implied motion with a visual impact greater than the sum of their individual components. Haunted by Quiet Places, her latest solo exhibition on view at Northern Virginia Community College’s Fisher Art Gallery, presents a variety of small sculptures that look like the product of some cyclonic force. With these, the artist aims at injecting a contemporary spirit into a centuries-old artistic idea.
The twelve works displayed, mainly from her 2016 Singularities series, sit in stark contrast to the white walls that surround them, their energies contained by the plinths on which they stand. Uniformly cast in deep black, the constructions’ peculiar shapes confound the gaze, begging for closer inspection. Step forward and a certain intimacy develops between the work and the viewer as Farrar’s found objects make themselves known. The shapes of the individual components are tempered by a thick coating of matte black paint, which in turn takes on a form of its own. Slowly, those forms begin to coalesce into structure, and before your eyes a still life comes into view.
The still life genre is most keenly evident (and visually accessible) in Still Life with Flowers and Vase, one of the larger works on display from the artist’s 2015 Vanitas series. Setting the stage for the works to come, Still Life with Flowers and Vase presents the visual elements of a still life in three dimensional form, with individual, identifiable components situated throughout the circular base. The botanical elements rising into the air stand out, but closer inspection displays a variety of contemporary materials, including a metal doorknob, plastic eye goggles and a stray paint tube. Skulls, centipedes and an unexpected beetle nestled in a chalice suggest corporeal life forms, hinting at the symbolism that preoccupies Farrar’s compositional decisions.
Works in the Singularities series disrupt traditional still life compositions by pulling the visual forms up off a steadying base into a whirlwind of jumbled materials barely contained by the sisal binding them together. Exquisite Corpse, for example, presents a much more vertically-oriented form whose running shoe, hairbrush, champagne flute and kitchen utensils rise seemingly pell-mell from the base of the sculpture, tenuously pieced together and ready to tumble apart. Similarly, Loaves and Fishes displays an hourglass and skull precariously situated atop a heap of material—a fish head and kitchen whisk among them. The use of materials endowed with symbolism relating to the transitory nature of humanity coupled with the significance of the series’ title Vanitas clearly displays Farrar’s interest in 17th-Century Dutch still life. Yet rather than restage this familiar trope, she strategically uses color and form to reinvigorate the idea of a still life with a modern sensibility.
For Farrar, paint is material. Paint makes itself felt; it binds objects together, sometimes literally when it flows like a slick ooze over the individual components and also figuratively as it cloaks the entirety of the work in thick shrouds of black. Her color choice has powerful implications—not just for the fact that her palette is comprised of a single hue. Black has been described as:
…associated with darkness, and if darkness [is] the origin of all mysteries, fears and insecurities, it may also be considered a starting-point, the preparatory moment necessary for birth, growth [and] entry into the daylight.
While not the artist’s own words, they echo her sentiments as she contemplates the creation of her art. Farrar has a BFA in painting which underscores her particular attention paid to the selection of paint and its application within the work. When coupled with the symbolism of the individual components (discussed below), the inky blackness becomes a commentary on the passage of time and the fragility of nature. Black shadows and obscures reality when it drips down the mirror in Reflections: The Aleph and the photo frame in Forgotten Dreams while freezing time itself when it coats the flowers in Memories of Oscar. Whereas traditional Dutch still life used a varied color palette to highlight the fragility and decay of the components pictured, Farrar seems more interested in setting an overall mood while at the same time forcing the viewer to hunt for the individual sculptural elements to glean a greater understanding of her intentions.
Those individual elements range from deeply personal (the stuffed animal in Memories of Oscar) to the downright amusing (the hairdryer in Pieces of Hambidge). Woven throughout the series are repetitive elements such as flowers, skulls, chalices, and clothesline clips, each of which are symbolic in their own right. While skulls and flowers are traditionally symbols of the fragile, transitory nature of life and chalices represent the abundance of a life force, other elements are less obvious and open to individual interpretation. Small statuettes in works like Trophies and American Dreams seem to reference youth and the unbridled potential that exists on the cusp of adulthood, while more prosaic elements like the aforementioned hairdryer and kitchen whisk hint at a certain rapidly moving pace of adulthood.
Also repeated throughout the series is the use of sisal or other wiry materials (such as phone cords). While perhaps not historically symbolic in and of themselves, the material serves two complementary purposes. First, the sisal itself—its texture and thickness—form ersatz brushstrokes, giving Farrar’s work an almost painterly quality. Secondly, the sisal serves to visually bind the elements, allowing them to rise up off the plinth with a suggestion of spiraling momentum. In this regard, the artist tempers and contrasts the solemnity of the still life genre with a sense of the baroque. Baroque art, with its emphasis on creating a sense of grandeur and exuberance, is in some ways the visual antithesis of the still life, yet in Farrar’s hands the sisal works to both suggest and reign in the swirling movement. The juxtaposition works to create an elegant harmony.
In presenting a fresh, engaging interpretation of a historical style in three-dimensional form, Farrar compellingly states the ideas embedded in the still life genre continue to have relevance in a modern, fast-paced world. Yet to dwell on the surface is to overlook Farrar’s point: behind the freneticism are guideposts for contemplation waiting to be discovered. The dichotomy of visual excess and quiet reflection is palpable and it seems Farrar doesn’t want the viewer to be too settled with either. That visual and thematic tension, above all else, seems to capture the state of our frenzied lives.
 Stefano Zuffi, Color In Art (New York, NY: Abrams, 2012), 268.
Haunted by Quiet Places is on view through November 5, 2017 at the Margaret W. & Joseph L. Fisher Art Gallery at the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center at Northern Virginia Community College’s Alexandria Campus. For more information, visit the gallery’s website here.