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Entering into the Transformer Station’s recent pairing of two solo exhibitions by female artists, Julia Wachtel and Anicka Yi, Death, the requiem-toned red wall of the Crane Gallery peeks from around the corner on your left. Like the subtle expectation of eventual experience or the calm before a storm, Anicka Yi’s Death, the artist’s first institutional solo show presented by the Cleveland Museum of Art and organized by assistant curator of contemporary art Beau Rutland, greets viewers subtly before inviting active participation. Entering Yi’s exhibition Death, the industrial echo of bubbling water resounds softly, later to be shushed only momentarily by the pungent perfume of bacterial nature.
Following in the sequential footsteps of two previous exhibitions, Divorce (47 Canal, New York) and Denial (Lars Friedrich, Berlin), in Death, the capstone to the trilogy of this series, Yi tackles enduring and inevitable feelings relevant to most any viewer: loss, failure, and grief define us as human. Here Yi approaches and visualizes qualities inherent to each of our lives with a penchant for material (dis)integration. Her installations and sculptures speak about death and dying in a manner still very much alive.
While some themes are carried forward from previous shows, at the Transformer Station these motifs take on new forms and concepts. Yi’s seminal piece, Sister (2011) shows a bouquet of battered flowers in the nape of a red Uniqlo turtleneck sweater. A puddle of peanut oil collects slowly on the floor beneath. While it may appear to be an unintentional spill, the residue is part of the exhibition; it emits femininity and grief. This headless, weeping torso-figure, hunched over in an expressive, sorrowful state, will continue its elegy until the exhibition closes. Deterioration is natural for all living things, and although the piece was constructed solely for its Cleveland-based exhibition, it’s remarkable that the flowers have lasted. Yi baked, battered, fried and tied this shriveled mass of yellow blooms, stems and leaves—now long dead—in an effort to continue its persistent demise. (She even includes a how-to in the exhibition brochure, detailed enough to make Julia Child suspiciously curious).
On the wall opposite Sister is Yi’s Life Serves Up the Occasional Pink Unicorn (2013), an accumulation of tempura-fried flowers adhered to tall rectangular Plexiglas sheets that are hinged just far enough from the gallery wall to include space for a collection of dumbbells resting on stainless steel plates. The pairing of fried flowers and shiny weights seems irrelative at first, but here heaviness complements fragility; questions of femininity and domesticity arise in almost pharmaceutical slowness. Yi’s kitchen often acts as her studio, and as her series of “soap-paintings” reveal, moisturizers and exfoliating pads become gestural paintings; skin care products are transformed into bacterial petri-dishes resembling paint swatches on a back-lit layer of resin.
Washing Away of Wrongs (2014), built into the wall of the gallery, spreads its stimulating experience throughout the exhibition space. Composed of two inset dryer doors, viewers are invited to open these and stick their head into each small round portal and breathe in the wafting, pungent air of this black void. Two different scents, created in collaboration with a perfumer in France, are intended to elicit non-visual feelings, olfactory associations that illustrate bacterial beginnings—chaos and decay. Regardless of their lack of visual signification, these smells inhabit space and define experience, detailing the entropic decay of all natural materials. Yi presents a fine line between life and death, a separation that isn’t so separate and most often out of our control. We should at least however, be aware of its consequences: grief and sorrow and its understated stench.
On view in Transformer Station’s main gallery is Julia Wachtel, a survey of the artist’s work from the 1980s to now, organized by the CMA’s associate curator of contemporary art, Reto Thüring. Showing influences drawn from the Pictures Generation as well as 1960’s Pop artists, the exhibition marks Wachtel’s first solo museum-sanctioned exhibition in 20 years. Appropriating images from our media-saturated culture, Wachtel pairs silkscreened photographs and hand-painted renditions of cartoon characters to implicate familiarity and the ultimately foreign quality of everyday signs and their corporate reality, as well as our difficulty in differentiating between these.
The paintings, many composed of multiple canvas panels, line the walls of the space. Wachtel’s first early painting to include cartoon characters, Just the Two of Us (1982), shows a young woman in a stately Victorian dress, her back turned to us, and her attention directed towards the letter she holds in her hand. To her right stands a young girl, innocent and attentive. The dichotomy—one woman seized by language, the child free of possession—parallels our involvement with images, most significant in the modern era, when their ubiquity seems to define our daily lives.
A Dream of Symmetry (1988) presents an example of Wachtel’s tendency for using appropriated photographs or film stills. Culled from lifestyle and celebrity magazines, films, or more recently, the internet, the images are silk screened onto canvas (and often repeated). In this piece, a halftoned Lena Olin kneels upon a mirror, restating the original image—a film still from the adaption of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Repeated and turned upside-down, the same silkscreen image appears beside the first. On either end of Olin, a duplicate painting pictures a charismatic boy, red in the face and running to the right, his hands outstretched in extreme desire. The pairing of such images implies Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, most notably Jacques Lacan’s mirror stage. The narcissistic position of Olin reminds us that cartoons and photographs are only at least one step removed from reality—a deceptive, imaginative unity of forms. However, to simplify through abstraction (which is characteristic of cartoons) is not so much to eliminate details as it is to amplify meaning.
Ideology of Love (2013) is one of Wachtel’s more recent works in which she tackles contemporary social and political topics while continuing to address our relationship with the power of signs and images. The left panel of the paired canvases shows Hello Kitty riding her trusty winged-unicorn, a saturated rainbow stretched out behind them. The character, a Japanese pop-culture cartoon directed toward younger audiences, spreads messages of love and peace; the brand is internationally recognized as a promoter of acceptance among youth. The adjoining canvas shows a suburban ranch home painted as a large rainbow pride flag. The original house, located across the street from the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, acted as subtle and passive propaganda against the homophobic traits of Fred Phelps Sr. and his followers. Both rainbows come together at the seam, uniting the two both aesthetically and conceptually. We are reminded of the function of images, their dominance within culture, and their ability to speak passively or actively.
Julia Wachtel is an enlightening exhibition. Only when she snaps her fingers and brings us out of an image-saturated hypnosis are we able to analyze the grip images hold. While the cartoons and photographs in Wachtel’s work may be representational and not reality, we can have trouble discerning the differences between the two. For example, Miley Cyrus in Girl (2014) appears to be more of a caricature than the juxtaposed cartoon figure next to her image. Gyrating on a foam hand, she seems more foreign and impersonal than the illustration of a banal teenage girl in jeans and a t-shirt. Although we can’t help but laugh at this playful comparison, the paintings in this exhibition remind us exactly how susceptible we are to the power and possessiveness of images.
Anicka Yi: Death and Julia Wachtel are on view at Transformer Station through January 17, 2015.
Christian Whitworth is a fourth-year photography student at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He has held internship positions at David Zwirner Gallery, Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, and the CMA’s Transformer Station. View more articles by Christian Whitworth.