Alienation and Self-Portraiture in Personal Recordand Interpolation
by Brooks Turner
Hannah Brown’s aptly titled show, Personal Record, is filled with repeating figures, flora, fauna, and objects, but I always return to the figures. Even when two figures appear within one drawing, I read them as different versions of the same person. The exhibition thus takes shape through a kind of slanted self-portraiture, not imagistically mimetic but endowed with bodily intimacy and the expansive mystery of a mind. Through her invented compositions, Brown conjures a pantheon of demigods, a visual mythology at times enigmatic and opaque, while at others revealing a depth of emotion, contradiction, and power.
In Love is What It Takes to Dream, two figures lounge in confident comfort, staring out at the viewer, one from behind a blacked out mask with a large white C and the other through gaps in a thinly drawn spiral. Their stares are confident and cold, directed at the viewer with the kind of indifference a god might have for the world of mortals. It feels like an inversion of the male-gaze, a reversal that does not sexualize the gazing-viewer but rather strips him of the power he thinks he has.
Masks repeat elsewhere in the exhibition, most obviously in Our Bodies Know More Than We Do. The central figure’s face has been eradicated by Brown’s pen, leaving only the eyes as if staring through eye holes cut in a balaclava. This figure cradles a basket of white spheres while another figure in the background holds up a sheet of fabric with alternating white and black stripes. I can’t help but read this fabric as a flag, these figures as participants in the staging of a conspiratorial film set, where the central masked vigilante will make threats or demands formed by trauma and a fringe ideology. In Brown’s pantheon, I see this figure as the antagonist, a trickster, at times malevolent at others misunderstood—in either case, a reflection on self-alienation, an embodiment of the things we do that seem counter to who we are.
Girl and Dog explores masking through a different dimension. The figure’s face in the image appears warm and yet disconnected. The head occupies a different scale, as if cut and pasted onto the body below. Like the previous two works, the figure here, along with her accompanying dalmatian, stare out of the page at the viewer. The disciplined stillness of the dog counters the disjointed figure. It is human nature to be disjointed, composed of competing forces and contrasting identities.
Other works, such as Friend, Embrace,and Let Me Down Easy, have a delicate softness. Let Me Down Easyfeels vulnerable, the figure exposed in quiet contemplation, but still framed by an arch of sprigs, elevating its visual impression to that of an icon. The figure in Friendstares out at the viewer with a caring and loving expression, holding her leg close to her chest, but revealing vulnerability through her gesture. In all Brown’s works, animals, objects, and plants repeat along with figures, building a visual lexicon, but one to which I am unable to prescribe specific meanings or metaphors. But decoding doesn’t seem important; it doesn’t matter if each figure or object has a lexical or deictic meaning, we as viewers instead become readers of a mind memoir, submerged in a personal mythology, mysterious and powerful, an intersection with another world contained within Brown.
Despite the differences in material and visual manifestations, themes of alienation and even self-portraiture can be found in the work of Sophia Chai as well, currently on view in the basement. Her show, Interpolation, examines a relationship between space and lens. Here, instead of a figure, the repeating character is a corner of Chai’s studio, filtered through different spatial configurations and manipulations and captured by the photographic lens.
Chai toys with perspective: In every work on display, arrangements of tape and/or paint applied to the floor and walls of her studio corner appear flat when captured by the lens of the camera. And yet we are aware of their application to the architecture of the space. In Untitled (Green Tape), Chai creates the outline of a green square by applying tape to the floor and walls of her studio. The two sides of the square are split between the floor and the walls on either side of the inverted corner. The lines forming the top traverse the walls of the corner but stop before connecting where a rectangle protrusion creates a new vertical shape connecting floor to ceiling. The base of the green square lies flat along the ground, parallel to an unspooled and locked tape measure, which crosses the sides of the square. The simplicity of this minimalist shape created with provisional materials contrasts the complexity of navigating multiple spatial planes in order to produce the square-illusion, thus manipulating the fixed vanishing-point perspective and subverting the expectations of depicted space.
The origin of vanishing-point perspective dates to the 15th century. It was often used within Western renaissance paintings to convey grandiosity and gravitas. In historical poetics of perspective, “fixed” came to mean righteous, where a singular eye dictates the truth and limits of reality, a visual metaphor for Christian Imperialism. Through this historical lens, Chai’s work is doubly subversive: the grandiosity of vanishing perspective is subverted in producing minimalist shapes captured at a relatively small scale, and the singular authority of fixed perspective is shown to produce false realities, illusions. Perhaps hyperbolically, the square can deconstruct the church.
Chai’s work often uses simple, minimalist gestures to catch our eye before drawing us into a complex articulation of shapes, space, architecture, and color. This is especially true of her installation of multiple Untitled (Blue T-Square). The simply painted blue floor and walls, draw us immediately to the corner of the Hair and Nails basement. The blue floor becomes like a stage—I’m unsure if I should walk on it or view the photographs at a distance, which calls into question my body within the work, within perspective and space. As I look between each photograph, I begin to notice that the painted walls align with blue rectangles that appear along the bottom and left side of the frame. The painted wall is disjointed, but extends the space of the artwork beyond the photograph and into the architecture of Hair and Nails. In each photograph, the floor has been painted to create the blue geometric pattern, and at their centers blue tape creates the same square as the green one described above. The stage that questions my movement in space and the minimalist blue square that questions my perception of space alienates my mind from reality—if my perception is fallible and my body uncertain, how do I know reality as real? Perhaps it is in the minutia. In both of these works, measuring devices break the minimalist illusion, posing a question: does measurement produce a more accurate representation of reality than perception? Or is measurement just another illusion within the contradictory mess of reality?
I suggested that Chai’s exhibition also has an element of self-portraiture, despite the complete absence of the figure. To me, I cannot see the minutiae of the photograph—the frayed edges of tape, a splotch of grey on the floor left unpainted, the placement of tools around the room— without imagining Chai navigating this space. Even in experiencing the minimalist illusions, I want to find the truth of space, I want to see past the limits of the photographic lens. That truth is in her space, her movements, and her traces, thus offering each photograph as a kind of portrait through absence.
Brooks Turner is an artist, writer, and educator, whose recent work engages the history of fascism in Minnesota. He is a 2020 Artist-in-Residence in the Weisman’s Collaboration Incubator and teaches at St. Cloud State University. His work has been exhibited nationally, including recently at Soo Visual Arts Center, St. Mary’s University, Steve Turner Contemporary, and College of the Redwoods. In 2017, he published A Guide to Charles Ray Sleeping Mime with Paperleaf Press and continues to write essays for Hair and Nails Gallery and Temp/reviews.
Arwen Wilder writes about
Hannah E. Brown’s Personal Record and Sophia Chai’s Interpolation
I am sad for Hannah E. Brown and Sophia Chai that so few people got to see this show in-person. I try to view the show for itself and its own intentions, and yet, the context is…the context.
Upstairs is Hannah’s show Personal Record, two rooms of mostly big black and white drawings of large breasted figures with patterns and vines, fruit and dogs. They were made with ballpoint pen I am told, though I doubt I would have guessed it given their largeness. I try to understand this information. How many pens? How many hours? What insane commitment to precision and office supplies compels someone to draw things this large with ballpoint pens? It seems like quarantine behavior before quarantine.
A room full of drawings of naked women, genitals out. A bold move to hang these in the upstairs part of the gallery in ordinary circumstances, usually visible through the windows in this pedestrian-filled neighborhood. I know that at least one printing company refused to print the flyers with these images. Now, the gallery is shuttered. And the women, maybe all the same woman? maybe all the artist? stare across the room seen only by each other. Like we all do, sheltered in our own homes, seeing only ourselves day after day.
These women have enormous hands. They would otherwise look docile, pretty white girls, in repose, with straight tamed hair. At first, given the title and the content, I dismissed Hannah’s work as “therapeutic self-expression with little sense of humor and easy gender-play” — the shrouded faces, the huge hands. But then, when I chose to look again, more closely, I found a beauty and care and detail that was compelling.
The pieces together make pattern and thus more sense than any of them alone. The spirals drawn over one face repeat in many of the drawings. There are mysterious spidery forms both on the people and floating around them. Plant? Animal? Virus? To me they are the most interesting evocative part of the drawings. They are verdant or alarming depending on my mood.
I’m going to tangent here… skip it if you want to stick with the artwork. I was once doing bodywork on someone who had been repeatedly and violently sexually abused by her father as a child. Her father is now dead. I was releasing a muscle near the top of her hip bone. I am a small person with particularly small hands. I looked down and, to my eyes, my hands were suddenly very large and male and old. They didn’t look like they connected to my arms. And they were reaching to my client’s pelvis. I don’t believe in any phenomenon that would explain this intrusion so I am left with no explanation. I remember it with nausea when I look at these drawings.
And then, surprisingly, on my favorite, sunny wall in the gallery, a painting, the only painting, the only color, of a clothed person, holding a spray of white flowers. She has shadowed eyes, and just the hint of facial features. This person’s face and their clothes uneven rust colored filled in with quick scribbly strokes with a color I associate with white people skin tone crayons, a little peachy. There is a line, like a cord from her nipple, like she is plugged into something. She is clothed, and has no hands defined at all. This piece is without the lines and spider forms of the others. Why is it here? Hannah says in her artist talk that it doesn’t belong. Sometimes the inclusion of something that doesn’t belong is political and sometimes it is sentimental. I can’t tell which this is.
The Hair + Nails Gallery, when split like this, 2 artists, one upstairs and one down, cannot escape some dualities. Upstairs is light and up and visible from the street and has an obvious keystone spot for the title piece or the largest, most important work. The basement is necessarily subterranean, utilitarian, mechanical, and the different walls are more even in their power and light.
I love how Sophia uses the basement. She and I seem to share somefavorite compositional juxtapositions, the straight line and the jagged line, some precision and some unfinished mess. This show is a series of photographs of a white/grey room — mostly empty except a few tools left lying around – with frames around parts of the room, made of blue painters tape. There is a corner, part wall, part floor of the Hair + Nails basement painted blue, pretty much the same blue as the tape. The show is called Interpolationswhich means “something injected among other unlike things, as in a conversation”. But what is ironic about this title is how resident these pieces are to this space. I had to look closely to know that they weren’t taken there in the Hair + Nails basement. The blue in the corner frames the photos in which the blue frames the wall. It is a little like the Morton Salt girl.
In the artist talk Sophia and Ryan talk about the color, they call it chroma key blue. I don’t know what that means, so I look it up. “Chroma Blue as RGB Color Value: 0, 71, 187. Chroma Blue as CMYK Color Value: 90, 68, 0, 0. Chroma Blue as Hex Color Value: #0047bb.” To someone in the know, these numbers mean something, a value and measurement. That is fascinating because, for me, color is emotional, even, or maybe especially, in abstract work. This blue, which Sophia says is the farthest from human skin colors which is why it works as a “greenscreen” in film, is close to a color which I used to call electric blue when I was a teenager wearing a lot of it in the 80s, this blue is not calming like the sky or the ocean or anything natural, this blue is so dense I feel my own 3 dimensionality thrusting up of the floor in relief as I stand in the area painted this blue.
The specificity of blue reminds me, of course, of Yves Klein blue which gives me a high-art feeling but the painters tape and the tools lying on the floor in the photographs tell me this is just construction materials. And so these very formal abstract compositions become a little like Photography’s cousin — the snapshot. I like how they are framed and presentational, obsessive and careful, but then also seem like a quick shot of the artist’s process of making rather than the art itself. Sophia tapes a frame around part of the room or part of the photograph. A frame says look here. But there is no discernible thing more special about the framed part in the photograph.
Another digression, a secret — Kristin and I danced in this installation when it was only partially installed, kneeling on the blue part of the floor, with a blue wall behind us using it as a most flattering set to make a tiny video. Sophia’s show was partially installed that day. The installation tools were actually lying around, in the way that they are placed to look like they are lying around in the photographs. We moved them around, spelled words with them. That was the dance. The screen we filmed it on made another tiny frame in the space.
Putting a frame around something can give it value or, strangely in this case, it can make everything inside and outside, process and product, color or lack of color more equal. These photographs are optical illusions, I had to lean in to figure out what was real, where the frame could possibly be, the tape on the wall in the photograph or on top of the photograph? what was in front of what? So looking became a detective game. What is real and what is artifice? This is the question of our time right? And it is the question that all art and news sources and most especially photography must ask or answer.
Arwen Wilder is “sheltering in place”, like everyone else. There, she misses many tactile off-screen things about normal life most especially dancing with her long-time collaborator Kristin Van Loon.
Leia Wambach writes about
Hannah E. Brown’s Personal Record
envying our crackling hair
Lucille Clifton, “sorrows”
Several years ago, I saw Hannah Brown out with friend and fellow artist Lauren Roche. I didn’t and don’t really know either, but was writing about Roche’s work at the time and had recently seen her host a gallery talk. Brown I recognized in that mid-sized city “No, I don’t think we’ve ever met but I see you everywhere” way.
It was a hot afternoon, and the pair walked into the coffee shop wearing high cut-offs and flimsy shirts, wild hair and tattooed summer sweat bodies, erotic and fuck off. It was strange to be writing about Roche’s work which, like Brown’s, connects deeply to the communion of women, then to be suddenly spying into their living friendship. It felt intrusive enough that I considered leaving, but I sat and watched them instead.
Perhaps it is unfair to begin a reflection on Brown’s show with a memory of her own body and not her body of work. The two though are coiled, and my uneasy voyeurism of the living body mirrors my appraisal of the drawn. Can a woman keep domain over her eyelashes and rolling skin while we watch her? What if she likes us looking?
The line between autonomy and objectification in Brown’s work wiggles, sometimes one way sometimes the other. The ten works — all but one are pen drawings on paper — recall formal portraiture. The two young women in Open for Interpretation could be seated for their senior class photos, in Embrace is our mourning Madonna, Girl and Dog an affluent maiden to be married, her likeness commissioned and hustled to court if not #blessed and posted for likes. Like any subject who sits for a portrait whether eager, hesitant or coerced, the women portrayed here know their bodies are being made available for view. For some, this presentation appears purposeful. The companions in Love Is What it Takes to Dreamrecline casually against each other, their gazes ahead, their nudity a shared and restorative confrontation. I think of Beyonce and Jay-Z alone with Mona, looking not at her but at us. I think of resting my head on a close friend’s belly, an intimacy I realize now that I haven’t enacted in years.
In other drawings, power and consent is more ambiguous. A too-tight bra rides awkwardly up the back, stretching against its last latches. A Lolita double cherry bikini hardly conceals, its exaggerated ties unspooling. On adult bodies, they are like vestigial insecurities, garments which evoke teen transition and its give-it-all-away coming to sex. Brown draws with a ballpoint pen, the tool itself a high school holdover, the perpetually dismissed medium of doodlers. These works seem to be a slow shedding of all this — women emerging from the need to compensate for their so-called unlovable bodies and the fantasies those bodies contain.
I keep thinking of the second woman in Our Bodies Know More Than We Do. She holds up the tablecloth beachtowl backdrop, gaze averted from her black-bagged replica who sits modeling her fruit. The second woman’s overly large hand is masculine in proportion to her body, acting without the consultation of those faraway eyes. She should be outside the frame and hidden from view, but instead her quiet collusion is as significant as the violence of that deleting hood.
That these bodies are similar to mine — their wide and rubbing thighs, the folds of soft belly and back, the intact hair — can’t help but shape my reading. Most days, the respect and adoration I feel for my body is up against a learned disgust with its softness, its showing veins, its thick muscle and wiry black hairs. Brown is a close observer and methodical in execution, her way of seeing so distinct from the instinctual approach of her collaborator Roche. What Roche harvests from dreamlife, Brown captures in live translation. I can’t say for certain that Brown draws from her own body, but it seems the likely reservoir of her source material. I imagine hours and days spent insistently honoring the fat folds that I compulsively attempt to reabsorb whenever I catch myself in a mirror. A slow shedding.
That summer day I watched them, Roche and Brown seemed blissfully unapologetic in their bodies and their pleasure. Their attention didn’t falter, didn’t shift to see who else was in the room, to notice me or anyone else looking. Why would it? It was them, there together and enough. What happened next in my memory feels so perfect that I wonder now if it is a faulty recollection. They walked out. They put their sun hats back on. They got together into a beat-up convertible, roof down, and drove away with their hair in the hot wind.
Leia Wambach is a museum and arts worker in Minneapolis, MN.
Sheila Dickinson writes about
Sophia Chai’s Interpolation
Interior spaces have suddenly changed. Before a room had been a space to spend some time, typically limited time spent getting ready to go out and take advantage of things happening out in the world. Now, during quarantine, a room is a space we can rarely leave, a container that we now know far more intimately than in our former busy lives. Perhaps, it’s that those of us who are not artists are coming to know a room in the same way an artist comes to know the room that is their studio. Our bodies slow, able to fully understand the merits of down time, the time between productivity, the time spent looking at a corner but not really. A look that is absent and present at the same time. Long episodes of time in the space of the studio/room means we hover in an invisible, seemingly unquantifiable active state that is truly creative. Our forced confinement gives us the space and time to experience how creativity lies in the space in between.
For Sophia Chai, she chose right out grad school at SAIC to remove the distraction of “productivity” from her studio, to clear it of all the distraction of making work and focus on the space between thought and action. The result is a focus on the space of thoughts, the space between lines of poetry, the space between painted lines. Within this in-between space, her current body of work emerges. The studio as compartment for the soul begins to open and unfurl rather than contain and confine.
There is much to learn from Chai’s studio practice in our time of coronavirus. We are all turning inward at varying levels, understanding more the world of the introvert who finds solace in being alone in a room of one’s own. Chai is a photographer, who found this art practice at odds with her own introvert tendencies. A photographer tends to be out photographing people and places, found situations or staged in the studio, artificially masking the room of the photographer’s studio itself. Stripped bare of pretense, Chai’s studio space becomes the blank canvas upon which she can create, often highlighting the quirks and imperfections, the overlooked and ignored. Mimicking the inward life, the soul searching interior life of an artist that explores the crevices, creases, openings, corners, sealed flat surfaces, each terrain, until, knowing every detail, enlightenment feels obtainable, the soul more aligned with the body and mind.
Built upon this new kind of knowing of the studio space, Chai builds out compositions directly onto the studio walls and floor by painting directly on these surfaces, then ultimately photographing these compositions. What is amazing about these static compositions that turn into printed photographs is the lack of stillness as they burst with color, light and dimensional confusion, to the point that the viewer often has a hard time discerning whether they are in this space (gallery) or that space (studio). One imagines that interior life of the introvert’s studio to be a stereotypical space of contemplation, stillness and silence. Chai’s is filled with the raucous, even playful, sometimes discordant inner workings of an artist in her studio. Mirroring here, our own experiences of shelter-in-place, where ideas, words and thoughts bounce around, are heard and heeded the ones we avoided through busyness of art openings, artist talks, dinners, and gallery visits before the quarantine. Capturing these avoided ideas, words and thoughts in a somewhat random, poetic manner, Chai’s photographs allow for freedom of association by following the tiniest of details from the artist’s studio to the quirky details of the basement gallery. Though simple and minimalist, yet equally busy and provoking something new at the same time. The burst of activity despite the simplicity conveys feelings of hope and joy in this time of state mandated confinement.
Hope is also conveyed through the conflation of inside and outside of the picture frame. Chai collapses inside and outside upon themselves by the entirety of the gallery becoming its own artwork. This is different from a typical art installation, because the art seems to like a spilling out of the discreet object of the photograph. The intense blue bleeds into and fills portions of the space. The gallery seems enveloped by the photos as much as the other way around. I have seen many exhibitions in the Hair and Nail’s basement gallery, sat down and given talks in the space, but the coat racks, hooks from the early 20thCentury, remnants of earlier iterations of the small storefront space, I have never noticed before. No artist, as far as I know, has used the coat racks as a frame, used the reflection of the blue paint off of the metal boiler to create a similar atmosphere. This is a resonant word for Chai’s work, atmospheric, in that the work permeates all aspects of the space causing a sensation of lightness. In her exhibitions I feel like I am floating in a space of not here or there, but in a place of a new kind of knowing.
Partly this is derived from the true nature of the work, which is performative. I believe that calling Chai a photographer is a misnomer; she is instead a performance artist, performing within the studio to create scenarios that she then documents. She further creates new scenarios, sets a new stage in the gallery in which the viewer becomes the performer. I always feel that I am within the work even while I am gazing at an object separate from me. It is disorienting in the best kind of way. I have spent much time in her exhibition Sight Linesat the Rochester Art Center, because I curated that show. Before the quarantine, I would stop by the gallery often in order to stand and float in the space, a sort of the revelatory experience of performing with the photographs in the gallery. Training perhaps for quarantine as I feel a floating affect in my life right now, floating between the normal of before and the unknown normal of the future.
When Chai gave an artist talk in conjunction with her solo show, Sight Linesat the Rochester Art Center, she concluded with “Lichen Song”, a poem by Arthur Sze from his book, also named Sight Lines. The poem recounts the glory of staying in one place for a very, very long time while being intensely and beautifully alive, nonetheless.
“you’ve seen a crust on the ceiling wood and never considered how I gather moisture when you step out of the shower…you don’t care that I respire as you breathe…for years you’ve washed your face gazed in the mirror shaved combed your hair rushed out while I who may grow an inch in a thousand years catch the tingling sunlight”
I feel I can speak for most of us, the artists, curators, art world people that linger at home as non-essential workers, we have slowed down immensely. There is kinship with the lichen now. It helps to know that Chai’s work functions with similar slow, attention to detail, emitting a song for our time.
Dr. Sheila Dickinson is currently the Artistic Director at the Rochester Art Center. Where she has curated curated Alexa Horochowski: Beautiful Sky and Eamon O’Kane: Intimate Expansive. As an art critic she has published in Artforum, ART News, The Brooklyn Rail, Hyperallergic, InReview, Hong Kong’s Artomity, among others. Her PhD is from University College Dublin, Ireland focused on contemporary Irish art.