East City Art Reviews—Here Not Here at Brentwood Arts Exchange

By Eric Celarier on January 17, 2023
Image of Here Not Here at Brentwood Art Exchange Photo Credit: Eric Celarier
Here Not Here at Brentwood Art Exchange Photo Credit: Eric Celarier

Brentwood Arts Exchange is currently hosting Here Not Here, an exhibition that considers the paradox of how memories endure so concretely while taking no physical form. In the group’s own words, “These footprints, traces, and afterimages lack substance, yet occupy our minds and senses, taking up space in our thoughts and lives.” Such intimate and philosophical material would naturally lead to widely differing views on what that might look like, so the diversity of perspectives and myriad of ways that demonstrate those perspectives comes with no surprise. Evolving as a unified submission by the group, director Spencer Dormitzer says there was no curator in the traditional sense, adding that, “the artists were integral in the layout of the show and took part in all aspects of installation.” Given this, we should not think of Here Not Here as the product of a single organizer, but as the result of a group of artistic minds seeking ways to evoke deeply held understandings of how we recall and recast what has come before.

Image of Pixie Alexander, All my Mothers’ Mothers, Photo Credit: Eric Celarier
Pixie Alexander, All my Mothers’ Mothers, Photo Credit: Eric Celarier

Reflecting on the past in order to restore and learn from it is a theme that weaves its way through many of the works. Pixie Alexander’s installation, All my Mothers’ Mothers, in her own words, “presents a trio of dresses hung on armatures made of sticks foraged from the nearby woods, deer antlers, and flat plywood bases painted white and rimmed in a fluorescent acid green, alongside a video projection featuring the artist dancing in and out of several of the (over 25) dresses she made with female ancestors’ names and dates printed on them (some as far back as hundreds, even thousands, of years).” Alexander sees these objects as a means of making a more profound connection with important personas within her family tree. She adds, “It is a kind of healing ritual; a work of communion with a long line of women whose stories, like most women’s stories, are shrunken or absent from history entirely. It is an act of reclaiming with them, though them and for them as well as for me.”

Image of Shelley Picot, Oh Hi., Photo Courtesy of Shelley Picot, Photo Credit: Shelley Picot
Shelley Picot, Oh Hi., Photo Courtesy of Shelley Picot, Photo Credit: Shelley Picot

With a similar aim of illuminating the power of our personal history to shed light on the present, Shelley Picot’s video, Oh, Hi. reveals events and observations that were difficult for her to declare openly. By delegating her presentation to an avatar that is loosely based on a character from a video game from her youth, she is able to communicate these feelings more freely. Picot explains “when I made it [Oh, Hi.] I had been encountering incredibly confessional and personal thoughts shared by others online. I appreciated the ways they illuminated common experiences, but felt jealous that anyone could be so open in public. So, I created a talking dog, who could take private thoughts and feelings, most of which were related to memories of specific events, and release them to the world in a coded language.” Thus, Oh Hi., like other works in her oeuvre, uses “imagery from childhood to talk about the concerns of adulthood.

Image of Rebecca Perez, Waning Gibbous Heart, Photo Credit: Eric Celarier
Rebecca Perez, Waning Gibbous Heart, Photo Credit: Eric Celarier

Also dealing with difficult feelings, Rebecca Perez’s set of paintings from her Lunar Heart Series portray expressionist images of anatomically correct hearts. Using moon phases as a metaphor for stages of emotional and physical injury, paintings like Waning Gibbous Heart, composed of brightly colored chambers bounded by energetic brush strokes, emphasize recovery as less fixed as it often feels. Perez says, “As I paint I try to tap into certain moments, and feelings, from my life. I then hold on to those feelings and paint through an intuitive process. I also use other people’s memories that I find through my research on trauma and healing. Reading about trauma from a personal account, or even a clinical/medical perspective, greatly influences my mark making.”

Image of Louisa Neill, Collective, Photo Credit: Eric Celarier
Louisa Neill, Collective, Photo Credit: Eric Celarier

Trending toward the more episodic recording of memory, Louisa Neill’s wood lattice of photo transparencies called Collective recalls mundane moments. Gravitating away from more troublesome retrospection, her everyday instances assert the value of common experience. Like the jumble of thoughts that roll around in our heads, Neill presents juxtapositions of pedestrian existence that might bubble up from time to time from our unconscious. Neill says, “My work presents a collection of photographic snapshots of shadows. These snapshots document past moments and carry them into the present. Like memory, the images only preserve a part of past experiences while the transcribing of these images on the wall through illumination, changes, blurs, distorts the original scenario.”

Image of Kanchan Balsé, Eddy, Photo Credit: Eric Celarier
Kanchan Balsé, Eddy, Photo Credit: Eric Celarier

Veering away from random thoughts, Kanchan Balsé calls our attention to premeditated racial imbalances that are not always easy to see. Using white paint as a symbol, Balsé covers much of her vibrant background with a pasty overlay, leaving glimpses of the full range of colors that lie behind it. In the context of this exhibit, the effect suggests that we often ignore much of the diversity of experience and knowledge within our melded culture, relying on dominant viewpoints at the expense of others. Bluntly stated, our collective memory is often misrepresentative, occluding the variety of perspectives that struggle to be heard. Balsé says, “Eddy is about individuals and communities of color being a part of and moving within the dominant culture while resisting and pushing against the strong tides of racism. It celebrates the survival of repressed and marginalized histories that counter whitewashed versions events, as well as spaces that feel protected from the dominant culture.”

Image of Maggie Gourlay, Growth Rings 2, Photo Credit: Eric Celarier
Maggie Gourlay, Growth Rings 2, Photo Credit: Eric Celarier

Shifting from the political to the ecological, Maggie Gourlay’s installation Growth Rings 2 reminds us that the objects that rotate in and out of our lives do not simply disappear. The artist writes, The repurposing of old (past) work into new (present) work, refers not only to the physical metamorphosis of the work in Growth Rings, but more expansively, to the idea that nothing goes away.” Consisting of plywood rounds, covered in colored paper from the waste products from previous print work, Gourlay’s act of grinding her screen prints into pulp and reconstituting them as new handmade paper parallels nature’s propensity to use its own detritus as building material. Regardless of how radical these ecological progressions might be, clues that lead back to what came before are always built into new matter. Just as reading cross sections of trees can show us the general health of the environment from year to year, Gourlay’s concentric patterns, made from recapitulated tissues of her earlier work, mirror the biosphere’s ability to rebuild itself while at the same time encoding any stresses that oppose those efforts. Given contemporary climate shifts, many of these stresses should be seen as the consequences of choices we make. By referring to natural cycles that accrue over time, Gourlay’s installation challenges us to think of memory as something more than what’s in our heads.

Image of Caroline MacKinnon, Pebbles: What’s Left Behind, Photo Credit: Eric Celarier
Caroline MacKinnon, Pebbles: What’s Left Behind, Photo Credit: Eric Celarier

Similarly recasting memory as something other than what people think, Caroline MacKinnon’s installation Pebbles: What’s Left Behind suggests that we are part of the landscape. By assembling an army of colorful, ceramic disks around one of the main architectural supports, MacKinnon’s composition appears to grow out of the building’s framework. Closer inspection reveals that she has stamped each of these stone shaped pieces with naturally occurring or artificially produced objects. “These impressions made in the clay are like present-day fossils, marking this specific time in terms of the flora and fauna – shells collected from the Chesapeake Bay, pinecones from a West Virginian Forest, acorns from the white oak in my backyard – as well as bits of human-made detritus – things like thumbtacks, safety pins, game pieces, soda, can tabs, and medicine,” says MacKinnon. While such open-ended practices could lead to many understandings, an obvious implication is that it might be easy to forget that the same petrification processes that bring us the relics that we use to piece together our prehistory also record the remnants of our own time. Thus, MacKinnon’s work emphasizes that we are part of this world and, as a result of that interaction, we are laying down ineradicable tracks that will memorialize our existence going forward.

Here Not Here describes how memory shapes us and the world. Presenting a diversity of visions on a topic that we all have some familiarity with encourages us to think more creatively about our assumptions.

Here Not Here runs through January 21st, with a curator talk January 7th, 2-4 PM, at Brentwood Arts Exchange, an art center of the M-NCPPC, 3901 Rhode Island Avenue, Brentwood, MD 20722, gallery hours: Monday-Friday: 10 AM – 7 PM, Saturday: 10 AM – 4 PM, for more information call: 301-277-2863 or write arts.pgparks.com.

N.B. All quotations were taken from direct communication with the artists for this article.