The Search for Dispravosláviye: Shanna Wadell & Rob Matthews
Curated by Rubens Ghenov
by Ryan McCartney
Through January 27, 2013
Arriving at Tiger Stikes Asteroid for The Search for Dispravosláviye: Shanna Wadell & Rob Matthews, I already know a few things about the show. Prior to the opening, the gallery posted an extensive discussion between curator Rubens Ghenov, Matthews, and Waddell concerning the show’s focus around cults. Still, I’m not really sure what I expected. Cults are as diverse as they are many, but I was surprised by these works and how their sense of empathy differed from what I had imagined. Leaving the gallery, and thinking more now, I am left considering the nature of compassion.
When I think of what I have known of Shanna Waddell’s work, what strikes me most is one thing: a full-on speechless, psychic paroxysm, an utter heaving forth of un-named meaning. When this occurs with Waddells’s work, it is only after I allow the effect to pass that I fully see images. Sometimes that does not happen, and the work remains in a realm that I mostly associate with painters like Paul Thek and Forrest Best – it is more a question of sensing the work than seeing it, and that sense, in turn, becomes a separate sort of image.
In this show, there is a focus on imagery as icon, and some of Waddell’s energy seems more directed inward towards the syntax of the pieces. In “River Phoenix”, the eponymous subject’s pants seemed imbued with a presence more concrete than the rest of the painted material. Phoenix’s portrait head, by contrast, seems distant, spectral, as do the wings and the written name “River”. The acid pop colors and the air in the brush marks – paint at times runny, at times dry, and frequently very thin – seem to speak of a place like California, or at least a notion of it, and the combination of these painterly elements seems to point to a very American mythology of sex as a power encompassed in jeans. “Medicine Cabinet Altarpiece” seems to involve similar elements, but rather than putting forth an icon or collection of icons, the entire painting becomes the presentation of an iconic space, in which a seemingly complete universe is contained. A drug reference seems inescapable, but it quickly becomes too obvious and too superficial. This painting is actually too psychedelic for such a reading, as it presents the permeability of spaces and their inter-related significance, their interdependence, and at the same time points outward, to where you stand as a viewer yourself. There is a familiarity in these works, and yet cults remain as subject matter, explored with sensitivity and a certain sympathy, presented as the Arcane American experience.
What I have known of Rob Matthew’s work is quite different: immaculate portraits in pencil very deliberately posed and composed. These drawings seem clearly taken from photographs, but the nature of these photographs is somewhat unclear – there is a strong intimacy, a real sense of portraiture. How well does Matthews know his sitters? I am struck by their apparent of familiarity. Both “Work hard, Play hard” and “Anna”, the two drawings in the show, seem to provide us with a dense, fictional narrative, and elements which might at first seem joking or crude reveal themselves to be something of a reverse-grounding in popular mythology. The tinfoil hat and the bags over the heads are what we expect of the paranoid and of the ugly. Guitars are as iconic as jeans. In this Matthew’s subjects are returned to a sort of regularity where they associate with an American myth, and are perhaps representative of humanity or an idea of humanity. In the aforementioned interview, Matthews cites a quote by Sally Mann: “I think there are certain things you can say about Southern artists and that is their love of the land, their commitment to the past, their susceptibility to myth but the main thing I think about us Southerners is we’re willing to experiment with dosages of romance that would be fatal to any other postmodern artist.” Here, for Matthews (a native Southerner), I believe that the romance is the desire to place his subjects into situations where his meticulous composition and execution assure the viewer that these portraits are not expressions of absurdity, but are rather representations of doubt and humanity. This then is a romance of doubt, the struggle of searching.
So is there a human responsibility in the specific representation of the lives of others? A large grid of photographs, all Polaroids, the legendary instant stock that went extinct only to be resurrected again, hangs apart from the other works in the show on the east wall of the gallery. “Sunday Morning. Sunday Evening” is a collection of some nearly 700 pictures. Placed by Matthews, the images are all from services at the Knoxville House of Faith, which was led by Sister Pauline Turpin. Taken by a devotee, most of the images themselves are of Sister Pauline, with few exceptions. The images were given to a local paper upon Sister Pauline’s death in the mid 1990’s, after which they were abandoned, and subsequently came into Matthews’ possession.
I find the photographs to be unnerving, and the piece in general to be wrought with an overwhelming sense of death. Here are frozen moments on instant film, recording a repeated service that at the time must have been highly charged. They are now completely static. The temporality of these documents has changed. We see them all at once now, arranged in order to influence their viewing – it is a viewing! The documents have lost their source. The person here is no longer a person, but now is an idea or a marker, a placeholder, aestheticized.
Is this humane, and do these images deserve humane treatment, or are they just images: found memento mori? In asking that question, am I being romantic in a way that Sally Mann would not approve? Am I actually asking about authenticity? I see the other works in the show telling me that these images are part of our shared experience living in this country, part of our collected memory, a construct. However, the rest of the works in the show have re-presented those represented through a process of internalization. The rest of the work in the show feels utterly humane, compassionate. What are these photographs on the wall telling us? I generally believe that debating authenticity is a sort of nostalgia, and yet the punctum of these images is Sister Pauline, the record of the person, the not-person. No one knows her. Does that matter?
The answer is yes. Yes, it matters. But it matters in the way we look at doubt or consider epistemology. On titling the show, Ghenov writes, ”the word Dispravosláviye is my own invented term. I added the prefix Dis to the Old Church Slavonic word pravosláviye (Правосла́виѥ) which was the term used for orthodoxy in Slavic-language churches in Eastern European countries like Russia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, etc. I wanted to invent a term so as to also provide a fictive entrance to the pre-existent descriptor.” The search here, as posited by the curator, is for the non-, the negative, the reverse-orthodox. Certainly the search for that which is outside the accepted path is the only way to both expand one’s understanding and create limits: two functions of the same operation. There is, however, a marked difference between utilizing celebrity and everyday objects to channel an American ethos, or creating narrative fictions through the portraiture of willing participants, and the utilization of the life of another through existing artifacts – transformed, aestheticized. Whether we believe a photograph is a document or a fictive construct itself is not what is at stake. What is being transformed temporally, aesthetically, is an entire volume of images representing the lives of others. What is at stake is whether we can see these images and understand their humanity, that they are us.
Ryan McCartney is an artist and curator living in Philadelphia. His recent projects, produced along with Timothy Belknap, include Winter Down, a curated installation on view at Crane Arts until February 10th, and Language for the Common Landfill, a publication featuring collected text pieces from 40 artists, writers, and musicians.