Welcome to the land of Nod.
Flashpoint Gallery’s current show Saturated with the Subconscious is anything but a sleeper, but it initially strikes a somnolent pose. Walk through the gallery’s doors and you will spy a precise grid of 24 pillows hung with invisible fasteners along a long wall. The creamy color scheme is monotone with just a few jolts of color from four pillows whose pillowcases are slightly askew. While minimalist in display, the three rows of forms are immediately curious, seemingly beckoning the viewer to pull one off the wall for a quick power nap. You come closer, thinking about which pillow might have the correct level of firmness for your weary head and suddenly – shockingly – Minimalism is the farthest thing from your mind. Erik Thor Sandberg’s and Megan Van Wagoner’s works are anything but minimalist art.
Those pillowcases are just the tip of the kaleidoscopic iceburg, hiding a subterranean world composed of whimsy, anxiety and sorrow in equal measure. Drawn and painted upon the edges of those pillows are vivid snippets of dreams – perhaps the dreams of brave souls who napped upon those very pillows just before your arrival. The austere grid is thrown askew as you soak in the images, each in turn more fantastical than the last as they peek into our subconscious.
While known primarily as painter (Sandberg) and ceramist (Van Wagoner), both artists have worked together in this project to create works that defy easy categorization. Van Wagoner’s ceramic and glass pillows set the stage by providing a support for our weary head. Her craftsmanship is obvious–while each pillow is unique (individual creases and dimples show the heftiness of the plumped-up down inside the cloth) the pillowcases themselves each display two vertical lines of stitching, as if machine-manufactured. Rather than glaze her objects with a fine sheen, Van Wagoner finishes her work in a matte-like, almost utilitarian manner, which all the better emulates the fibers within the fictitious cotton fabric. The effect is rather austere but also soothing; the artist admirably sets the stage for impending, nocturnal journeys.
And what head trips they are! Sandberg’s dream sequences reach right down into the bowels of our subconscious, flitting across the tripwires of our psyche. Each image is unique, yet together they weave a complex narrative by identifying the myriad of ways our egos attempt to make sense of the world around us. Sex, death and transmogrification abound, interspersed with moments bordering on the humorously absurd. Blood and guts are delicately intertwined with pain and pleasure, all working in service to help us make sense of (or perhaps merely accept) our small existence within a giant universe. The various states of undress exhibited by the figures underscore this sense of emotional vulnerability; for the most part the nakedness evinces a feeling of awkwardness rather than titillation.
Van Wagoner and Sandberg have chosen to leave these works untitled. It’s a purposeful decision, as it forces the viewer to wade through a multiplicity of meanings and outcomes. It is not unlike waking up in the morning, recalling a moment of dream and wondering what unresolved issue(s) your brain was attempting to process. What to make for example, of a human composed of leaves being slowly eating by a goat? Is she a totem, with arms spread wide to embrace her fate or an ecological stand-in, attempting to shoo the goat away? Does her gaze indicate serenity or painful awareness of her situation? Or what to make of the old man with a homophone beard? Does hair shifting to hare indicate a nostalgia for youth or excitement for a later stage of life?
Just as our subconscious minds use objects and animals as emotional or symbolic proxies, so too does Sandberg liberally intersperse such figures to convey his story. Along with the goat and hare, you’ll also find man-eating flowers, dancing pigs and terriers, a sedate lion and two ravenous dragons. Their inclusion adds levity to several of the images while at the same time creating more complexity to the work as we struggle to make sense of absurdity.
Ultimately, this struggle to understand the nonsensical is a losing proposition. The rational side of our consciousness rebels against the absurdity, but Van Wagoner and Sandberg mean for us to embrace it. One overlooked component of the exhibit gives us a clue to their intent. Standing apart from the wall of pillows in a small nook is Muffled Dreams, a mixed-media work featuring a pillowcase casually strewn across an ironing board waiting to be stretched taut over a pillow. That it has a title seems to lend it a sense of importance. Without a pillow and the concomitant dreams it helps to produce we are stifled rather than freed. In this sense, the artists’ works exhort us to embrace the Dada-inspired nonsense of our subconscious minds. Only by accepting the foibles of our subconscious – letting that rich stew of absurdities and contradictions wash over us – will be begin to reach a deeper conscious understanding of the world around us.
Saturated With the Subconscious runs through August 8, 2015 at the Flashpoint Gallery. For more information, visit the gallery’s website here.