Ginny Casey & Jessi Reaves, Institute of Contemporary Art

On view through August 6

By Bridget A. Purcell

A gallery full of furniture, split to pieces, dressed up, tipping over, emitting light. Lamps with handmade shades create a domestic space that one does not often feel inside an art gallery. The viewer is invited to sit on hybrid objects, fractured couches and armchairs with plush upholstery ruptured and carefully pieced back together. Paintings occupy the spaces between the sculpture, with brightly-rendered chairs in conversation with furniture around the room –  a ladder leaning against a wall, another painted into a canvas with soft, feathery brush strokes. Such is the interplay between the work of Ginny Casey and Jessi Reaves, both makers invested in the fracturing and re-forming of indoor spaces that come apart and fall to bits, only to ultimately come together again, forming a version of reality that is slightly off.

In her paintings, Ginny Casey explores departures from ordinary uses for consumer goods. She places household entities in conversation with one another, creating worlds where a vessel can take on human qualities and unidentified fragments are leftover remnants of mysterious action. At times her paintings capture an act of remaking in motion, recording destruction just as it is starting. Blue Table depicts a saw sinking into a table, just beginning to cut it in half, creating an impossible, tilted angle for the viewer to consider. Casey’s tables often embrace an odd perspective, as materials appear to be sliding off and tools and fragments appear in vignettes, frozen right before the chaos really takes off. The paintings’ only human presence is in the form of isolated parts – hands taking on sculptural qualities as they hover eerily above a surface, severed feet and a human ear, devoid of gore and always rendered in the same cheery palette. If at first glance the paintings seem calm, whimsical even, the interior tensions play out as the subjects face off within these staged spaces, reordering themselves according to a new logic.

Sculptures created by Jessi Reaves are visibly subtractive but also highly additive, as bits of debris and tubes of fabric combine with material stripped from chairs and unfinished wood in various forms. Wood is cut into ambiguous shapes, then carved into and stacked to create skeletal structures. The pieces combine an aesthetic that is anything but precious with special care, line work drawn on in marker (seemingly for planning purposes but left visible) next to laminated wood that is carefully cut and sanded to a rounded edge. At times Reaves will dress her wooden armatures with a carefully sewn fabric skin stretching over a structural geometry, adding color, texture, pattern, even glitter. In Night Cabinet (Little Miss Attitude) Reaves creates an elaborate fabric garment for a plywood object that almost seems figurative; zippers closed in places and fully pulled back in others, glamorizing a structure that would otherwise be genderless, devoid of personality, perhaps less human. 

It’s easy for the mind to jump to gender while spending time in this exhibition, as domestic items and spaces historically point to femininity, though it’s important to note that nothing in this exhibition looks like something you would find in an advertisement or a catalog for home goods. More typical interior stereotypes are largely absent here: none of the depicted items are defined by a perfect home décor system that must remain trapped in place, with all messes carefully contained.  In Casey’s painting Moody Blue Studio a pink table with spindly legs assists in the creation of a sculpture, with a giant pair of scissors taking up almost the entire tabletop surface, as floating hands shape a figural form that may be female, or maybe not. Allusions to gender are mostly subtle, which seems to suggest that the artists are trying to avoid an instant or more predictable read. Opening up the domestic sphere to atypical situations allows for alternate definitions to emerge, stretching toward a future moment where perhaps an image of an interior space or representations of household products may no longer point to a specific gender at all.

While there is much that is dissimilar between the works of Casey and Reaves, there is a similar impulse to dissect familiar entities, to depart from the confines of the normal and instead present another possibility for what a reality or world could look like. Their works are at once dynamic and static, beautiful and off-putting, recalling both the functional and the decorative, the mass produced and the unique. At a time in human history where so much is in flux, these projects offer a new reality born from the destruction of older systems, presenting possibilities for consumer culture to take on updated identities, and allowing for more traditional definitions of the domestic sphere to expand. These artists remove commodities from the unconscious assembly lines of consumer culture, rescuing them from the invisibility of the trash heap, ultimately clearing the decks for something new.

Bridget A. Purcell is a visual artist who lives and works in Philadelphia. She obtained degrees in creative studies from Tyler School of Art and Washington University in St. Louis, and her artwork has been shown in Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Rome, Italy. Last year she won an Honorable Mention in the 2016 New Art Writing Challenge and was subsequently published in the Artblog and the St. Claire.