One Gallery. Two Exhibitions. Multiple Perspectives on Pain.
Maggie Carson Romano and Julia Freeman
Maggie Carson Romano and Julia Freeman
by Jen Graves
Maggie Carson Romano photographed a tree growing in the ocean and her injury the day after, which happened in that same ocean. She saw the tree while being rushed by boat to the hospital, and took the photo because otherwise she’d have thought she hallucinated it.
I didn't know what had happened. Later I found out that one part of the show is a (beautiful) prose poem that explains it all, but all 40 copies had already been taken that night, so I didn't read it until later. As I walked through the show, instead, my body instinctively formed its own association, of how I tore during childbirth.
When I saw the artist, I didn't ask her what happened, and she assumed I knew. I told her my association, and she told me that for her, this body of work, and the wound itself, felt related to her injuries when she was raped in college.
At first, she'd thought the cut to her face was just an injury. But as she continued to rip open her stitches with any slight gesture of emoting, and as she learned she'd need to cope with not being able to hide the injury (while also not being able to see it with her own eyes), she realized the trauma went further. Her title, Well, refers sarcastically to the trendy concept of wellness, yes, but also to a dark, deep well containing present and past pain, fear, and anger.
I experienced one caveat in the work's ability to be a universalizing metaphor: the artist's status and privilege as a slender, young, beautiful white woman. Her injury might steal some of that status, but she also had more of it to spare than any other woman in this culture. I asked her about this. She was considering it herself.
The prose poem that explains the accident is a work in the show just like all the others, to be read alongside the self-portraits, photographs of forlorn trees and fragments of memories since the day of the accident, and fragile sculptures of coral, wax, and shattered white plaster. What I learned from reading it was that the accident happened when a longboard fin cut the artist's face while she was surfing on her honeymoon in Fiji.
With that context, I felt something shift in the way I saw the other works. Were all of those earlier resonances invalid? There is a real way that a vacationing white woman's surfing accident is not a metaphor for violence against women.
I often hear from
people that they don't want art to be interrupted by context, that they want art to "speak for itself." It seems to me, on the contrary, that artists and viewers include and exclude context as it suits them. The complexity in the context Carson Romano provided gave me a chance to think twice, and twice again.
Julia Freeman's exhibition Quiet Alter is on the ground floor of Glass Box Gallery right underneath Well, and they play off each other beautifully. (They were guest-curated by Vignettes.)
Freeman's work demonstrates her immense research. Quiet Alter is a portrait of how the free-market drug industry manipulates those most vulnerable, carrying out colonialist, capitalist violence without any need for malicious intent. It's just the system. In Freeman's board game Pharmakon, made with Steven Miller, the playing cards are multiple-choice questions about drug history, politics, and economics; "Chance" cards typically reward the CEO player with billions. "Chance" cards are based on horrifying actual events. I googled, did a little self-education that I won't soon forget.
Quiet Alter includes an essay, coincidentally, just like Well. This one's not poetic, it's a polemic against the evils of the drug industry, written by Seattle therapist Cristien Storm. It references data, and in data, there is no scar, no photo opportunity. Which is how tragedy hides—in numbers, unrelatable masses so big they seem normal, and also so big they fail to inspire empathy or connection.
How can concerned artists best represent pain—so that we intimately feel its effects, or that we come to comprehend the shape and dimension of its causes? At Glass Box I found myself drawn to the works of art that embody both approaches even when they seem to conflict. The beautiful, scarred artist's self-portraits and candid prose poem, more than her sculptural symbols of fragility. Collages of drug-company CEOs based on their corporate headshots that are meant to be monstrous and multiplying—but are painted with searching, innocent eyes under the masks of their faces. It's almost as if Freeman painted the CEO eyes that way in spite of herself. "You see those as innocent?" she asked me. But they are. You'll see. She told me those collages were the work she almost left out of the show, and I'm so glad she didn't. JEN GRAVES