Knife, Mantis, and Ear: Ashley Wick at Marginal Utility

I Lost My Head, Marginal Utility Gallery through January 17th, 2016

Live performance with Iris Freehart Friday, January 8th, 8pm

By Samantha Mitchell


There is something about stop motion animation that immediately endears the viewer, invites them into a personal place that they can share with the artist. Perhaps it’s the element of handling, the necessity that the artist be intimately involved with the objects they work with, breathing life into them. The work of Ashley Wick – stop motion videos created with small-scale oil paintings, repainted over and over again – uses the peculiar kind of closeness stop motion provides to take her audience on a strange journey, investigating roles of self and other through her playful (and sometimes scary) lens.


For I Lost My Head, Wick has created a cavernous alternate reality within the bounds of Marginal Utility gallery, transforming the space into a portal through which we can access various narratives. Wick weaves these narratives together into a kind of mythology through a handful of symbols and syncopated speech patterns that appear in her videos. Familiar objects-as-characters serve as protagonists, which lead you through these videos from one sequence to the next: hands, knives, vaginal openings (along with mouths, cuts, eyes, and ears), mantis-like bugs, and goats. Objects are fluid, constantly morphing into other things through Wick’s unique stop motion technique. Each video features a sequence of events taking place on a small canvas, illustrated in oil paint and paint thinner. The paintings move effortlessly through a sequence of transformations to form short snippets of narrative, recited in Wick’s distinctively low, rhythmic vocal accompaniment.


“Look how curious I am,” one video begins. “I’m a goat, I’m a porpoise, I’m in space. Look at this fascinating culture, do you hear that fascinating language?” The video features a series of animals emerging from a vertical slit, and finally an earth, spinning jerkily on its axis. It ends with fingers snapping, articulating the “fascinating language” with quick popping sounds. In spite of the goofy and playful elements within the animation, the theme of the video seems complex and contemplative, a kind of declaration of self-affirmation through an absence of self. The narrator is simultaneously human and everything but human, being born over and over again, witnessing the world from within and, ultimately, from outer space. The magic of Wick’s videos lies in sitting with them for a while, experiencing them in loop, and letting words and images stick. The surreal, absurdist imagery takes on a dire, urgent meaning of its own.


In previous exhibitions at FJORD and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Wick worked to create vessels and environments to carry her videos. Working primarily with paper mache, these sculptural elements have their own scrappy, post-apocalyptic aesthetic which, when paired with the videos, creates an overwhelmingly unglossy, hand-made experience. Screens are sometimes embedded into ambiguous grey mounds, or found at the end of long narrow passageways with stalactites hovering above. At Marginal Utility, Wick has built a number of “goat shacks” out of scrap wood and panel siding, breaking the dimly lit space up into several different areas, sometimes requiring the viewer to crouch to see the work. In the gallery’s largest open space, three dangling sculptures hang from the ceiling, which one can duck under and slip their head into like a helmet. Each has a unique shape at the top, giving viewers an opportunity to turn themselves into some element of her narrative: a mantis, a knife, or an elongated ear.


When I visited the gallery, Wick and her longtime collaborator Iris Freehart were preparing for a live performance. Freehart wore the mantis helmet, singing and playing a home made portable pump organ, while Wick (in the ear) sang as well. Their performing style is irreverent and stripped down, like a Daniel Johnston cassette, almost liturgical in the dim, purplish gallery space. Live performance highlights the remarkable strangeness of the poem-songs that Wick has created for her videos, which are morbid, surprising, and irresistibly catchy. The songs give life to the narrative and characters that Wick creates in her videos, as if folksongs of an ancient culture that worships body parts and insects.


Whatever the true meaning behind Wick’s narrative, it is clear that she is unafraid to experiment with her methodologies, and equally unafraid to invite the absurd into the conversation. The work remains undeniably human and relatable on a common plane, and, however bizarre it becomes, maintains a tricky balance that keeps us engaged.


Samantha Mitchell is an artist, writer, and teacher living in Philadelphia.