The temptation in writing about a show like Peep Projects’ Reveries is to fill it with everything. Some simply invite all. The effulgent symbology of Kati Gegenheimer, the frosted veils of Erin Murray, and the whirring currents of Molly Metz—these modestly-sized paintings and drawings transfigure and break beyond the bounds of their frames. Together, they hit like sudden, fleeting tinnitus: a sense overwhelmed to the point of breaking, an eye launched stratospherically and slowly returning to earth, perception forever altered. It’s not that the show is an inexhaustible cataloguing of experience–it does not claim to be–but that it seems to be saying something about the life cycle of the mind, about living, remembering, and letting slip.
Maybe I feel this way because I saw the show amid punctuating family events, namely my grandfather’s stroke, and the death of my step-grandmother, who quickly declined when he could no longer care for her. It was Metz’s work that first brought me there; the worming earthliness of it, and its wordliness (different from wordiness–full of words, yes, but not suffering by them). Across Metz’s canvases, lilting, repetitive phrases scrawled on paper are carefully collaged to the painting surface. Streams of vacant thought, tantric breathing and mantra, rushing and swirling into and out of themselves, off the frame and back in. They are also tendrils of connective possibility, compositional tissue growing from a script sometimes as simple and contradictory to possibility as the word “no,” which decorates the painting As Always like speckles on a butterfly wing. Of course, a “no” begs for second tries, and, if still denied, for circumvention.
So, then there is the frustration of knowing that the backs of Metz’s paintings hold more, another stage of secret play, withheld in hanging flush to the wall. Maybe a hinge attached to one side could open them up—these have no such hardware. Some doors stay shut. Frustration being among the defining symptoms of stroke, through loss of language and quick connection, these paintings offered a sense to me of what it might be like for my grandfather to swim the eddies of his new word-muddy mind. Other synaptic lifeboats must rush in, or not, as with 94-year-olds. I don’t mean to say the paintings are like having a stroke. Rather, with an earthy palette and restless mark-making, Metz points to a perceptual understanding of the world that dips into necessary repetitive motion, something akin to digging – mucky matters, dirty fingernails, primordial, guttural, and, despite words, wordless.
Gegenheimer’s buoyant canvases flip the script. They are pangs, bells, clarion and urgent. They speak to joy, practice antigravity, and slough toward a kind of animated pictography. A horseshoe motif triples down a canvas titled Make Your Own Luck: Repeat, each black curve containing its own sun, each a new day. From the top horseshoe, a tongue drools honey, or maybe liquid sunshine, which collects in the trough of the bottommost. As if written on a page, none of the horseshoes are grounded by contact with canvas edge. Graphic, symmetrical forms suggest heraldry (an aesthetic which Luck Loop, a heart-shaped wood panel on the facing wall, solidly occupies.) Yet in Repeat, wisping blue vapors and celestial bodies place us in the firmament.
Make Your Own Luck: Reflect flips the horseshoe across a horizontal, delineated by two cloud-like feathers that stretch to embrace. Within that undulating form – almost a figure eight, almost a cell dividing – a deep blue suggests sky or sea. I slip between looking up, down, out, and through. I feel myself pulling in two. Disorienting as they are optimistic, Gegenheimer’s paintings constantly shift registers, and, even in a frame of calm pinkish color, ripples of paint bloom, bringing me right back to the surface.
Intermission is the most enigmatic of all; a whirlpool swirling flat on a garden landscape, which on second look becomes an ornate brass fence standing erect. Suddenly, the pool is a wormhole, a portal charged with electricity that might allow us to pass through guarded constraints. For all that Gegenheimer’s flattening impasto paint insists on the immediacy of surface, her paintings are a form of psychic transportation. Rife with symbol, you have the sense that something is being said, almost audibly, like an incantation. Get to decoding, and you might find the language to describe paradise.
Words are hard, stroke or no. When I think about writing, I tend to get lost in the notion of the feeling I want to impart. And it’s always just that: a feeling. The words that get me there are around the corner, out of sight; I’d rather shortcut to the gut punch I imagine they’ll deliver. This is to say that when I am in the room with works like those in Reveries, I fantasize about putting together words that do exactly what images do, just as fast, with as much lift. Of course, that’s a fool’s errand, perhaps why I tend toward image-making myself.
Recently, it’s the astronomical lithographs of Étienne Trouvelot that most encapsulate the launch I’d aim for with words and images alike. Credit goes to the art historian Jennifer Roberts for the introduction: she has been pulling together some of Trouvelot’s images on her Instagram with tidbits of biography in the captions. The amateur astronomer’s sketches flicker between truth and decoration. Using a telescope with a grid etched onto the lens, he recorded his observations precisely, which meant sometimes that, rather than looking precise, they appear cloudy and unmeasured, the way things like gaseous storms and bolide craters often do. In his lithographs, he took liberty to tidy it all up.
Trouvelot is a bridge, it seems to me, between Gegenheimer and Murray, who at first glance appear to have more in common in color and composition with each other than they do Metz. Yet where Gegenheimer teleports us into otherworldly unknowns, Murray grounds us, puts our feet on the floor and has us penetrate a windowlike, horizontal space which feels deep if still shrouded by tiers of gossamer. Where Gegenheimer seems to receive her heraldry from somewhere within and above, Murray peers through layers of carefully assembled glass and cut paper to create luminous observational drawings that somehow appear invented. The two split the function of Trouvelot’s grid-etched telescope; one recording intently, the other bursting into new worlds. Alone in the same room they might be too complete a circle, but with Metz to complicate, the three synergize, sending us deeper than even the far reaches of astronomy.
Quiet, but more three-dimensionally spatial, Murray’s works slip into and out of a haze. What could be inky logograms are more likely architectures, cropped, framed, and filtered with graphite into uncertain echoes of physicalized symbol. Staring at them, I felt like I was accessing memories woven into a dream. Warm, like a home, but sometimes unnerving, as in Mask Quest, which locks eyes with you through yellow light.
Murray’s works were on my mind as I drove out to Allentown, Pennsylvania a few days after the show’s opening, for my step-grandmothers’ funeral. For years, my family would drive out to that former steel town, to the house where she and my grandfather lived their golden years together, windows decorated with stained and painted glass ornaments redolent of Murray’s gradient hues. Or so I thought I remembered. Truth be told, I recall their basement more vividly than anything – dark, earthy, furnished and warm, but not many windows. We tended to gather there. The second floor and all its trim are less sure. Memory is slippery, shifting, and easy to conflate. Words are not its medium, too precise, too pointed, but images hardly fit the bill, either.
At the funeral home, my step-grandmother’s ashes rested in a pink marble box. After a brief service, we all took a moment to say goodbye. My brother and I, on either side, touched our hands to the urn. What a softened symmetry we must have made in that moment. To my eyes, the two of us look nothing alike, but strangers pick us out as brothers wherever we are together, the image is apparently so spitting.
When I returned to Peep for a second look on a quiet day, sometime after the boisterous, celebratory opening, and after the gentle funeral, I recognized a twoness in almost every work in the show, compositions imperfectly Rorschaching across varying central axes. In them, I saw myself and my brother, standing a day earlier with the pink, gaudy urn. Then I saw my grandfather as maybe he saw us, from his wheelchair in the front row, welling tears setting us ablaze in fractal lights, shooting us, though blurred and shifting, into cosmic realms, into heaven.
Todd Stong is an artist, writer, and educator based in Philadelphia, PA. He received his BA from Brown University and his MFA from the Tyler School of Art and Architecture. His writing has appeared in Title Magazine, Squeegee Platinum, and the Quarantine Public Library, among other independent publications. He has exhibited across the Northeast and internationally at venues including Automat in Philadelphia, PA; SPRING/BREAK Art Show in New York, NY; Galerie im Körnerpark in Berlin, Germany; and Commonweal Gallery in Philadelphia, PA. In December, he will participate in a two-person exhibition with artist Katie Rauth at the pop-up gallery Zach’s Crab Shack as part of Rhinestone Jetski in the Icebox Project Space in Philadelphia, PA.