Spring Solos 2018 now on view at the Arlington Arts Center brings together the contemporary works of six artists from across the metro region. Staged as a series of vignettes spanning several galleries, the solo exhibitions cover a wide variety of both materials and formats that defy easy categorization. Rather than trying to identify specific commonalities, it is more helpful for viewers to approach the show as an investigation into the contemporary aesthetic concerns of artists more broadly. In this regard, various approaches to how artists conceptualize the relationship between humanity and the environment-both currently and in post-human contexts—begin to take shape.
While Jerry Truong’s drawings depict easily identifiable landscapes and human shapes, the works exude a certain haunting quality that suggest spiritual forms rather than specific locales or individuals. Here the American-born Truong ponders the emotional and physical experiences born by his parents, who fled Vietnam by boat during the conflict between north and south. With no immediate, personal knowledge or experience of the arduous trek, he can only imagine how such a voyage imprints on the psyche. The triptychs Từ Nước (To Be From Water/To Leave the Motherland) and Từ Nước (To Be from the Homeland/To Leave the Water) capture the ambiguity underscoring these emotions in seascapes that invoke hope and anxiety in equal measure. Displayed so that the horizons form a continuous line, Truong suggests the sea both provides a pathway to prosperity and a road to doom. Underscoring this duality are two sets of portraits that depict extended family members who were unable to reach American shores. Their ghostly forms are void of any facial or bodily characteristics, suggesting that Truong can only understand them through the hazy shadows of parental memories. This reverence is underscored by Truong’s mixing of incense ash from a Vietnamese ancestral alter into the charcoal medium, honoring the spirits of those who live only in memory. While inspired by personal circumstance, the installed works easily call to mind the contemporary migrant experience in seas throughout the world.
Adam Griffith presents more lighthearted scenes in his series of drawings and prints that inject a comical aesthetic into surrealistic environments. Spread across two galleries, the artist presents both finished works featuring fantastical backdrops alongside older black-and-white studies that elucidate how he conceptualizes the characters in his finished works. While perhaps more recognized for his graphic narrative work, here the artist presents less narrative pieces that focus more on the characters, with backgrounds often devoid of recognizable backgrounds. Subversive officer and Obedient officer, for example present men wearing military-style garb floating in white (blank) space. Purposefully removing such characters from any perceived environment intentionally upends our understanding of their situation and lends a sense of visual precariousness to the scene. Griffith carries that sense of precariousness into works that do incorporate background imagery as well. Mannequin Catacomb juxtaposes an Edenic, garden-like oasis with a murky, subterranean lair. The color combinations jar the eye and the lack of visual border between the two realms invokes biblical notions of heaven and hell. The fact that these environments are presented in a comical manner does little to dilute the sense of subtle unease that Griffith brings forth.
Phaan Howng also cloaks discomfort with swirls of vibrant pigment. Painted in lush tones, her landscapes conjure a future devoid of humanity with nature in ascendance. In the Twilight Glow I See Them displays a stand of tree-like forms with bases composed of rotating bands of blues, pinks and purples that rise vertically from the bottom of the image. Languid, ovular strokes in a verdant combination of yellows and greens with hints of red that forms a dense canopy at the top of the work. More muted patches of dark green and blue in the middle of the work give depth to the picture plane, suggesting the forest continues into the distance. The tightly-formed coils of acrylics and spray paint conjure a sense of vibrant energy animating the landscape, and that life-force jumps between the other two large-scale canvases that dominate the gallery. Hung from the ceiling at angles to the gallery walls, the works close in and create the sense that this futuristic forest is shape-shifting around the viewer in counterpoint to the modern world viewed just outside the gallery’s windows.
Sean Derry’s interest in post-human environment forgoes external landscapes and instead dives under our proverbial skin, conjuring a world where machine takes over flesh. Derry’s installation to borrow breath is composed of four motorized sculptural forms that mechanically breathe life into a fifth sculptural object placed between them. In the darkened gallery, the environment – the inner workings of the human body—is implied by the delicate vitrines that hold the objects as well as the hollow tubes snaking across the floor. As each motorized form cycles through a complete revolution, the “lung” laying in the center of the gallery rhythmically expands and contracts. While certainly contemplating the fragility of the human body, Derry’s work also brings up questions about what it is to be human in more generic terms. At a time when mechanical parts can take the place of flesh and bone and computers are on the cusp of self-learning, where does the line between human and machine lie? The artist doesn’t provide visual answers, but audible clues seem to lie in the metronomic hiss of air that permeates the work, suggesting that breath equals life.
Like Derry, Giulia Piera Livi is fascinated by environments we experience with senses other than strictly sight. In her room-sized installation Play Date, Livi creates structural, sometimes-abstract forms out of household materials whose purpose and use are devoid of context. This confusion is amplified by the surrounding environment in which these objects are arranged. The environment that Play Date conjures is one of mathematical form, with gold lines forming a grid-like space against pink walls and floor. Reminiscent of backdrops from the 1982 movie Tron, Livi’s world is one based on mathematical principles where order is asserted by kinetic and gravitational forces felt and understood rather than seen. In this world these various objects, with their curved lines and curious features, seem out of place. Perhaps the forces that lay behind this three-dimensional grid have torn larger sculptures into incomplete pieces. Livi is intentionally unclear in this regard, preferring the viewer to be drawn to the environment on their own terms. Unfortunately, not every viewer will understand this intent; more visual cues underscoring the objects’ domestic origins would have been helpful.
Nick Primo’s sculptures and associated prints reference ideas of Minimalism, yet bring an unorthodox twist to the spare aesthetic for which the movement is known. Black (and in one case white) bars of steel give weight and depth to lines drawn in space, their shadows forming bisecting grey lines that create the perception of ethereal, solid mass within the gallery space. Confounding this spare aesthetic are coiled, bent or warped solid forms which disrupt the smooth surfaces of the “lines” with countervailing forces of their own. Composed of plaster, these shapes reference common building materials such as PVC pipes and tubes. While their solidity acts as a counterbalance to the clean lines they intersect, they also act to disrupt the spare solemnity of the geometric forms. In this sense Primo too is toying with the viewer’s perception of their environment. Echoing Livi, his chosen environment is one more sensed then fully visualized.
Taken together, the six artists chosen for this season’s Solos create a disparate group works across a variety of media. While no one theme necessarily binds them together, the artists all seem to share a keen fascination with studying the world around them. Sometimes we create the environment, while at other times it moves and shapes us. In the end, these artists demonstrate the concept of an environment must consider more than what we see with the eyes and broaden beyond notions of strict geography.
Spring Solos 2018 runs through June 2, 2018 at the Arlington Arts Center. For more information, visit their website here.
Banner image: In the Twilight Glow I See Them (detail), Phaan Hawng.