by Samantha Mitchell
Through October 29th
For the past few years, artist Astrid Bowlby has been in the practice of photographing a window in her home and posting these pictures, along with their date and time, to her Instagram. It is an unremarkable window – vertical and narrow, familiar to the Philadelphia row house, and sometimes covered with a thick white cotton curtain – but it is a dynamic space that changes with each picture. Sometimes the light that filters through is tinted green, or shaped by the foliage from beyond the glass; other times it’s a night shot revealing only Bowlby’s reflection, cellphone in hand. Subtly beautiful or banal (or both) Bowlby believes that the window always deserves a longer look.
This practice speaks to a quality that all of Bowlby’s work possesses: a kind of matter-of-factness and face–value honesty combined with a nimble questioning of reality as we know it. Both of these themes run throughout The Shadow is Not Your Shadow at Arcadia University’s Gallery. Perhaps best known for her intricate drawings, which feature the dense accrual of lines and dots in mesmerizingly intense compositions, Bowlby only includes a handful of drawings in this exhibition, which also includes sculpture, sound installation, wall drawing, and photography. Shadow was originally planned for the Marginal Utility gallery at the Vox Building (closed indefinitely after a fire this spring) but was fortuitously re-homed at Arcadia Gallery. Although it doesn’t have the passageway feel of Marginal Utility, the gallery’s white cube keeps the diverse works contained and referential, each piece more or less in eye-shot of every other.
Shadow unfolds like a riddle without a clear punchline, a series of in-jokes that keep you engaged without knowing exactly why they’re funny. Text-based pieces offer odd commands and lamentations – “You kill it you eat it,” and “The sea is so wide and my boat is so small” – and a giant red oven mitt suspended from the ceiling seems to be waving a welcome to the gallery visitor. While observing the work, the viewer is accompanied by the incessant babbling soundtrack of Blah/Me emanating from a small round speaker on a pedestal. It features the voice of the artist, though she is not exactly speaking; the recording is a looped and overlaid track of nonsensical mouth-sounds that slowly crescendo to a loud roar over the course of several minutes. If you are ever at risk of taking the work – or yourself – too seriously, Blah/Me cuts you back down to size. It is this undercurrent of goofiness that maintains a kind of camaraderie with the viewer, challenging them to interpret the work without alienating them.
In spite of being tongue-in-cheek, the sincerity that imbues Bowlby’s process is poignant. Within her meanderings, she seems to connect with the current collective feeling of unease and near-panic that the country is seized by. Works like Midden toe the line between a complex and ornate ordered universe and a complete nervous breakdown. A lithographic print that at first glance seems to be a textural pattern in the vein of Bowlby’s other work on paper is actually a kind of catalogue of everything, containing all manner of silhouetted tiny objects – from spiders to heads of broccoli – crammed onto the surface of the page. Oven Mitt hanging from the ceiling is an absurdist gesture to Oldenburg, but is also gentle, immediate and personal. It is quite literally a tool to help us handle an object that might do us harm, and is also large enough for you to climb inside, sheltered from the dangers of the world.
In her statement for the exhibition, Bowlby describes this work as “containers that are as useful as laundry baskets or buckets. I put what I need in them and my responsibility is to leave enough room for other people… to put what they need in there as well.” This embrace of postmodern interpretation serves to create an egalitarian space in the gallery. While each piece is rigorous in form and execution, none of it is rigid. The large wall piece, You would not say that to me if I were not… operates as a meditation on the frustrations of being judged. Labor–intensive and meticulously crafted, the faint lettering whispers a refrain of unfinished sentences from the wall, gently reminding the viewer to remain open.
Shadow presents more questions than answers, perhaps a testament to Bowlby’s many years serving as a teacher and mentor to young artists. Although Shadow is more or less a survey of the artist’s creative thought process, it is always suggestive and never dogmatic, making space for interpretation and play.More than anything else, this exhibition feels like the beginning of a conversation about how, where, and why we look through and through a reflection of the artist’s own querying studio practice. Bowlby’s exhibition statement ends with this encouragement to remain receptive to the value of any shared experience, no matter how tenuous: “We are connected by our humanness although isolated by our place in linear time.”
Samantha Mitchell is an artist, writer, and teacher living in Philadelphia.