Whitney Snow @ The Scarab Club

Tricks of Magical Realism 

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Whitney Snow, Installation Image, Courtesy of Sarah Rose Sharp

Magical realism is the watchword of the Whitney Snow solo retrospective on display at the Scarab Club – the first since the painter’s passing in 2006. Snow certainly captured the spirit of magic realism, wherein surreal or “magical” elements are introduced to otherwise everyday scenarios. Likewise, his large-format paintings contain many cultural and art-historical allusions, as well as a symbol set designed for sly, if somewhat abstracted, political commentary – another imperative of magic realism as a device is its use in holding a somewhat whimsical or disruptive mirror to society or culture. In these respects – and in terms of realizing technically well-rendered tableaus – Snow’s work is very successful.

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Whitney Snow, Living on the Edge

But there is a creeping sense of vagueness that makes it hard to digest these images, on some level. Snow’s scenarios are, at times, amusing, but their magical elements leave them steeped in a kind of cartoonishness that makes it a challenge to take them very seriously. There is a fable-like quality to their narratives – again, much in alignment with the history of magic realism – but these protagonists engaged in foolish or nonsensical pursuits seem largely unmoved by their surrounding circumstances. One might expect a glimmer of consternation from the subject of Technology on my Back, who is being ridden like a backpack by a green demon of gambling and internet addiction, but there is barely a frown. One might anticipate high drama from the subjects of Living on the Ledge, a couple standing at the window addressing a third person poised to jump off a high ledge – the man on the ledge seems utterly indifferent, and the one at the window seems, at most, peeved. The de facto expression for Snow’s subjects is a deadpan. The experience of viewing his paintings is much like hearing about a crazy dream someone had last night – doubtlessly, each element is all terribly meaningful…but it lacks a kind of visceral immediacy to engage the viewer. This is particularly surprising, in light of Snow’s rather virtuosic ability to visualize his dreams.

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Whitney Snow, American Sunset

Arguably, this does not represent a problem. Indeed, all of these things – dream states, nonsense, and reality-disconnect – fit within the stylistic mechanisms of magic realism, and that being the stated parameters for Snow’s oeuvre, it is rigorously on-target. So, too, there is a wealth of symbolism, both in the form of pop cultural references and the complete canon of art history, from Roy Lichtenstein to the Greek muses. One imagines that a well-versed art historian could be happily occupied for some time identifying and picking apart these Easter eggs. This viewer, however, remains unmoved. Snow’s work seems to be a failing of both the magic and the real – too fine in its details to embrace abstraction, too wedded to some kind of discernible references to transcend the source material. The Easter eggs are just sitting there, right in the middle of the lawn; picking them up offers little satisfaction. And though it is wrong to fault an artist for making work that lacks relevance a decade after his passing, the current-day political stakes honestly feel just a little too high to swallow social commentary as generalized as American Sunset, wherein a bald eagle with a broken wing (get it?) sits atop an upside-down globe (get it???) soaked in a pool of spilled motor oil (GET IT???).

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Whitney Snow, Self Portrait of a Painter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Really, this might not stand out so starkly if it weren’t for the striking quality of the few examples of Snow’s “realism” paintings. Denver Skyline is about as straightforward a subject as one could encounter – the view out a window, blind half-drawn against a cloud-filled sky, clock on the sill, and just a few buildings visible. All of Snow’s ability to render fine details is applied to the exhibition sole believable female subject, in Portrait of a Woman. The woman makes piercing eye-contact, actualized to herself, and by extension, actualizing the viewer. Self-Portrait of a Painter seems to suggest that Snow took himself at least a little bit seriously. These images have a kind of quiet dignity, and demonstrate that Snow was capable of something beyond madcap imagery and imagistic political satire. In a poetic missive titled “The Illusion of Light,” Snow reveals a deeply painterly sentiment:

“It can teach us joy through observation and work
and when the day is done, we can return to the dark
with a heightened sense
of the infinite cycle of light and dark.  – Whitney Snow

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Whitney Snow, Newton’s Angel

One detects a hint, at least, that this master painter perhaps defaulted overmuch in the direction of his impish spirit; press beyond the magical veil, and you find a more serious sentiment. It is that gravity, more than Snow’s fanciful and magical tableaus, which inspires great curiosity in this visitor to his mind palace.

Scarab Club- http://scarabclub.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jaume Plensa’s Human Landscapes @ Toledo Museum of Art

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Installation, Jaume Plensa’s Sculpture, Toledo Museum of Art

Spanish-born sculptor Jaume Plensa is perhaps best known in the United States for his permanent Crown Fountain installation in Millennium Park in Chicago. This sculpture, which projects recorded footage of the faces of dozens of Chicago citizens into 50-foot towers that flank the fountain, distills Plensa’s abiding interest – the maximizing of human forms to the scale of landscapes. Human Landscape , a quasi-retrospective of Plensa’s recent work has just opened at the Toledo Museum of Art, and features a selection of his arresting sculptures, six exterior works sited on the grounds surrounding the museum, and an array of his lesser-known works on paper. The cumulative effect is an exercise in gazing, quite literally, into the face of humanity.

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James Plensa, Paula, 2013, Bronze

Plensa’s use of scale is nearly enough on its own to inspire awe, casting and carving sculptural neck-up portraits that stand at or above human size. Driving by the museum’s front entrance, one’s gaze is drawn by Paula (2013), a portrait of a young girl from the neck up, rendered in blackened bronze and standing out like an Easter Island head amidst the lush surrounding greenery. Around the museum’s eastern wing another piece, The Heart of Trees (2007) is sited, with 1:1 scale bronze-cast figures sitting in silent meditation at the base of seven live Kentucky Coffee trees, planted into a grove against the hillside and perfectly complimented by the angled verdigris exterior of the Center for Visual Arts. Those driving along Monroe Street by night might find their attention drawn by pieces on the grounds surrounding the Glass Pavilion, two torso pieces – Thoughts (2013) and Silent Music (II) (2013) – and two seated figures, Soul of Words, which are illuminated at night, to emphasize the open weave of their intricate metal work.

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Jaume Plensa, See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, 2010, Polyester resin, stainless steel, and LED light, dimensions variable

A figure seated with knees drawn up is a recurring motif for Plensa – at human scale, with The Heart of Trees; at maxi-scale, with Soul of Words; cast in hollow polyester resin, illuminated and mounted on the wall, in an interior trio of works, See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil (2010). This posture, and the tendency for his massive portrait faces to have their eyes closed, suggests that his figures have an interior landscape, as well as the physical one created or augmented by their presence. There is a kind of vulnerability to Paula, even as she towers far above human height, in her closed eyes and solemn expression.

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Jaume Plensa, The Heart of Trees, 2007, Bronze (7 elements), Kentucky Coffee trees, 99 x 66 x 99 (each)

Though Plensa clearly delights in siting his works in open public spaces, the gallery works create all kinds of tableaus, as well. From either of two entry points to the exhibition, the viewer is greeted by a marble portrait head of what appears to be the same woman, Rui Rui (Plensa seems prone to reiterate subjects). Like Paula, Plensa’s head portraits feature an oddly squashed perspective that causes their appearance to shift as one walks around them. What appears to be in correct proportion from one angle becomes slightly or markedly off-kilter from another. The right-hand Rui Rui stands before two massive wire-frame heads in a peaceful sort of face-off in the corner. Images on paper line the walls – it is almost jarring to see subjects with fully articulated features and open eyes after all the smooth lines of Plensa’s abstractions. A curtain of iron letters, Silent Rain (2003), divides this smaller gallery from the main gallery with an ephemeral cascade of language – another of Plensa’s recurring themes.

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Jaume Plensa, – Awilda & Irma, 2014, Stainless Steel, 400 x 400 x 300 cm (each

This focus on multi-lingual creations – some of which contain characters from eight different languages – suggests a keen desire on the part of the artist to find ways of bridging gaps in communication, or at least highlighting language barriers as a critical boundary between human societies. Through works like Silent Music, Thoughts, and The Heart of Trees, Plensa seems to suggest that music might provide a form of more universal connection; other works, like the Evil trio, highlight isolating factors such as anxiety, insomnia, and amnesia.

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Jaume Plensa, Talking Continents (III), 2014, Stainless steel, dimensions variable

As any portrait photographer can tell you, people love to look at other people. There is a kind of perpetual enchantment with ourselves as subjects, and Plensa’s works play easily into this appeal, while subtly introducing themes of diversity, awareness, and connection – all buoyed by whimsical and unexpected touches. Floating in the main gallery, Talking Continents (III) (2014) features an archipelago of cloud-like forms, a couple of which are ridden by his ubiquitous seated figures. The effect is playful and magic-carpet-like; the seeming effortless lift of the metal forms belies their material structure, and their open motif of linguistic characters throws lacy shadows beneath them. All of Plensa’s environments, expertly installed around Toledo Museum of Art, provide opportunities to pause and wonder at the human condition – arguably one of life’s greatest mysteries, and the one given to all of us, as humans, to contemplate.

Jaume Plensa: Human Landscape, Toledo Museum of Art
June 17-Nov. 6, 2016

Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia @ Cranbrook Art Museum

 

Two exhibitions offer a preponderance of material objects to make sense of the past

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Psychedelic posters and printed matter, installation view

These days, the San Francisco Bay Area is neatly divided into two camps: you either are a tech bro, or you hate them. Back in my day as an errant Bay Area youth, there was a different kind of division: you either were a hippie, or you hated them. I, my friends, was certainly no hippie. Of course, in my time they weren’t even real hippies—although there were still a healthy number of Summer-of-Love burnouts quietly resisting the rising tide of capitalism. They were proto-hippies, the spawn of Baby Boomers, appropriating the fashion or rediscovering the music as it made its 20-year orbit in retrograde. Whether the die-hard originals or the new school posers, hippies were not, by any metrics, modern.

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Isaac Abrams, Hello Dali (1965)

In fact, the seeming paradox between hippie and modern sensibilities provides the immediate tension of Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia—a sprawling exhibition initially organized by Andrew Blauvelt during his tenure at the Walker Art Center, which has subsequently followed him to be presented at the Cranbrook Art Museum, where he took up the mantle of Director last year. Hippies are commonly associated with back-to-the-land movements, eco-sustainability, and the timeless human yearning for peace and simplicity. Modernism is more concerned with technology, rapid progress and development, clean, modular design, and spare, white spaces.

 

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Ken Isaacs, The Knowledge Box (1962-2009)

But, as Hippie Modernism proves, these odd bedfellows forged a powerful connection indeed (who wouldn’t hippies jump into bed with, really?), fused in a social pressure-cooker of late-60s radicalism and wartime unrest. This extremely dense exhibition is not so much an art show as it is a walk through time with an art-historical lens—one which captures facets of hippie culture that have been elided by a typical focus on the flashier and more simplistic culture of drugs, fashion, rock-and-roll, and sex.

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Works by Haus-Rucker-Co, (installation view)

These facets are loosely divided into three galleries: Turn On, Tune In, and Drop Out. Each of these examines a dominant theme of the time period, roughly the mid-1960s through the early 1970s—that of consciousness-raising on an individual level, social awareness on a geo-political level, and active rejection of certain cultural pressure of normativity and technological progress (to name a few). The objects and information on display demonstrate a deep interest in modern design not as an aesthetic exercise but a practical one, as applied to communal and off-the-grid living, mobile housing, and sustainable infrastructure; technology, not at as means of warfare but as a means for more direct powers of computing and personal representation; and tool use as a mechanism for exploring the inner workings of the mind. The exhibition, which occupies the entire main floor of Cranbrook is veritably papered in schematics of ergonomic living solutions, imagined vehicles, and visions of bio-domes (not to mention an actual geodesic dome that features an interactive and highly trance-inducing installation, The Ultimate Painting, by Clark Richert, Richard Kallweit, Gene Bernofsky, JoAnn Bernofsky, and Charles DiJulio.

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Superstudio, Prints from the Superstudio Series (1969-1973)

Many of the works bear collective credits, the products of communal discussion and creative efforts; many have the earmarks of what today would be considered “social practice art,” but at the time was considered radical politics—leaving the viewer to marvel at the subsequent commoditization of art in the 1970s and 1980s to defang its inherent power as a social catalyst! There are, as one might imagine, a room splashed with dozens of examples of psychedelic poster art—but the collection is not limited to the vivid band promo materials that probably still line the halls of the Fillmore (if they haven’t turned it into a vape bar or something). Rather, there is a kind of radical parallel to the Madison Avenue advertising culture that was taking hold of the market—a conscious and deliberate exploration of type, color, and imagery as a mechanism to promulgate messaging. There are, undeniably, quite a number of chill spaces distributed around the exhibition, and a good thing, too—with so much going on, the opportunities to stop, drop, and contemplate are welcome interruptions. These include a handful of audio/video screening rooms, a Relaxation Cube from Nomadic Furniture 1 (1973) with floor cushions and a soothing slide show, and a full-gallery installation of a work by Hélio Oiticica and Neville D’Almeida, CC5 Hendrixwar/Cosmococa Programa-in-Progress, complete with hammocks.

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John Glick: A Legacy in Clay, installation view

John Glick: A Legacy in Clay @ Cranbrook Art Museum

It bears mentioning that Hippie Modernism is not the only spectacular exhibition currently on display at Cranbrook Art Museum, though it certainly warrants a visit all on its own. A career survey of ceramic artist John Glick—John Glick: A Legacy in Clay—is a dazzling walk through the life work of a virtuosic artist who managed to find fresh takes on vessels and forms as old as human society. From the wall of teapots, to the hanging friezes, to the physical timeline of Glick’s singular and beautiful ceramic forms, laid out in an engaging and accessible 360-degree display that mimics the sort of tables where they might otherwise be found, the Glick retrospective offers eye candy at every turn.

Food for thought, vessels for food, and much to take in at Cranbrook Art Museum!

15 Steps: Perspectives in Drawing @ Red Bull House of ART

Capturing the process and dispersive outcomes of one of humanity’s oldest expressive forms

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Class Portrait by Tyanna Buie – Installation view, All images courtesy of Sarah Rose Sharp

Red Bull House of Art has made its name in Detroit by showing some of the most cutting-edge young artists in town. Now, as the residency/gallery space transitions to get an international influx of artist in the mix, a palette-cleansing show, 15 Steps: Perspectives in Drawing, curated by local artist and organizing powerhouse Tylonn J. Sawyer brings the focus back to the basics of drawing.

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Tyson J. Sawyer, Cabal: Class of 2016

“When I lived in New York, I attended drawing shows all the time, yet I can’t think of any in the surrounding area, other than the DIA Drawing and Prints gallery,” said Sawyer, regarding his motivations for the show’s theme. “Drawing is very instinctual practice. As children, we are compelled to pick up crayons and scribble. Early on in mankind people felt the need to record their daily lives on caves as in parietal art.  I think there is an honesty in drawing and in the process of drawing.  To do it well takes repetition, practice and caring.  For many of the artists (in this show), drawing is not their primary art form, but it remains somewhere in their creative process.”

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Leto Rankine, Figure in Pink and Gold

Despite its thematic foundations in drawing, the show has some unexpected outcomes as the result of these various creative processes, including an augmented piece of found object art by one of Sawyer’s fellow MOCAD employees, Leto Rankine, and a breathtaking large-scale print work by Detroit newcomer and CCS Professor of Fine Arts and Printmaking, Tyanna Buie. Buie’s piece, Class Portrait, works from imagery lifted from one of her own childhood class pictures, universalized by the obscuring of the facial features of the children pictured, yet still somehow achingly personal.

“What prompted me to make this particular piece was my response to what is happening within the public school system in our country, but specifically in Detroit,” said Buie. “My memory of my time in a public elementary school in Chicago, IL, was not made clear until I received documentation of my achievements and class photographs from that school. I thought the schools that I went to was not special and didn’t teach me anything of importance. However, once I looked at the class photo, I began to analyze it…I realized how much the principal took pride in the school and how the teachers worked hard to make sure we also had a since of pride in ourselves. The school I once went to from 1990-1993 is still standing, but is now a charter school. I wanted to make a piece that would give a subtle nod to public schools for making a difference in our communities through the children despite the many challenges faced.”

By what Sawyer characterizes as the “happiest accident ever,” Buie’s work is directly in conversation with a large-scale piece by Sawyer himself, which applies a similar technique and aesthetic to a large-scale class portrait of another kind. “In Cabal: Class of 2016, I am presenting the institution of law enforcement standing tall and proud as one collective or brotherhood, ready to do their sworn duty to enforce the law of the land,” said Sawyer in an artist statement about the piece. “Yet we live in a time where literally hundreds of videos and news reports highlight police officers behaving less than professionally, and the majority facing no consequences. I imagine the institution of law enforcement struggling to maintain integrity in the public eye, and this struggle visually manifesting itself in the form of officers physically falling apart or melting away. I purposely removed all the faces because when I think of police officers, I don’t think of them as individuals, but rather parts of a whole.”

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Christopher Batten – Chronicles of Kobi (A Japanese Chin) – installation/detail view

Other contributions to the show are more lighthearted and more strictly limited to drawing as a final process, rather than a foundational one. A collection of 16 drawings by Christopher Batten take, as their subject, a Japanese Chin named Kobi. In an era where the internet threatens to collapse beneath the ponderous bulk of adorable pet pictures, there is something endearing about the process of capturing a (presumably) beloved pet in this more analogue form. Batten’s work is face-to-face with a colorful wall of visual and performance artist http://baileyscieszka.com/—a kind of insane clown posse unto herself—who also has a few pastels on display in a show of local talent at What Pipeline, Ever get the feeling we’re not alone in this world?

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Jennifer Wroblewski , Clones v.1,

Truly, there is no lack of innovative approaches and gratifying results, an outcome that Sawyer consciously cultivated with the group of 15 artists on display. “I don’t know if I would characterize this collection of artists, especially in any monolithic terms,” he said. “That’s kind of the opposite of what I was going for. Diverse is the first thing that comes to mind. Some of the artists are documenting life as they see it, some are trying to negotiate traumatic experiences, and others humorously reflect on some of the worst aspects of our current society. I asked each artist to contribute more than one piece, so that viewers can see that the work presented in the House of Art show is not a lark, but rather a small glimpse into the creative practice of each individual.”

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Collection of works by DeMags, Circles of Routine – Installation/detail view

The appreciation that Sawyer, and House of Art curators Matt Eaton and Robert-David Jones have for the arts, artists, and viewers is evident in the open process that permeates both the HOA residencies and the construction of 15 Steps. It’s a brilliant showcase of a wildly diverse range of talent and approaches, one that’s definitely worth taking a few steps out of your way to go experience!

15 Steps: Perspectives in Drawing will be on display Saturdays from 10-3 (or by appointment) at the Red Bull House of Art through July 9. For an appointment, you can make contact at redbullhouseofart@us.redbull.com.

Shaina Kasztelan @ Hatch Gallery

Somewhere Over the Rainbow is a Double Rainbow: Way up high with Shaina Kasztelan

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Shaina Kasztelan – Central installation, All Images Courtesy of Sarah Rose Sharp

One of the most challenging aspects of grappling with mental illness is not just the negotiation of an emotionally fraught psychic territory, but the social pressure to conceal whatever struggles may be happening internally. For women, especially young women, this struggle is a subset of the prevailing demand to present a shiny, positive face to the world. In Somewhere Over the Rainbow is a Double Rainbow, at HATCH Art in Hamtramck through May 28th, artist Shaina Kasztelan effectively reveals the turbulent and colorful interior life of a young Millennial woman. This, her first solo outing, is an installation-heavy environment that immediately draws the viewer into a kind of psychedelic and intensely female headspace, via a chaotic accumulation of material culture that targets her as a consumer.

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Shaina Kasztelan “The Devil’s Vibrating Smile,” (2016), 46″x46″

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These materials include, but are not limited to: stickers, small toys, fake fur, plastics in innumerable iterations, decorative cake toppers, beads and cheap jewelry, a blow-mold nativity trio, fake fur, craft paper, artificial hair, and a series of pool floaties. Hearts! Rainbows! Unicorns! Kasztelan has plumbed the depths of the party-variety store in her search, and leaves no corner of her installation space unoccupied. One has a sense of stepping into a riot of Attention Deficit Disorder and teenage misanthropy, rife with cultural references that might be enigmatic to some, but readily identifiable to anyone within Kasztelan’s demographic. The nativity scene sports Insane Clown Posse face make-up; a cross-stitch bears an iconically self-pitying Nine Inch Nails lyrics; everywhere we encounter pop culture figures, from Mickey Mouse to the murderer from Scream, to the ubiquitous “Have A Nice Day” smiley face, in various interpretations. This is an interesting interplay between the objects Kasztelan has bought ready-made and incorporated into her texture- and color-rich compositions, and those that she assembles from scratch using craft materials; why bother to meticulously assemble a Mickey Mouse face from perler beads, when there are literally thousands of commercially made objects bearing the same visage?

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Shaina Kasztelan – Details from the central installation

This speaks to a kind of obsession, which is echoed in the endless repetition of shapes—often small toys that can be bought in bulk for a few pennies each. In “Baby Cactus is Happy,” a cactus shape covered in rainbow hair and wearing a pink inflatable wig bears dozens of tiny variety store plastic babies, the mere existence of which is slightly confounding. Indeed, when you start to zero in on any of Kasztelan’s works, the preponderance of oddly useless objects generated by our culture and marketed in the direction of young women begins to become unnerving. What message does it send, to be continually surrounded by things that are colorful, basic, and functionless. Kasztelan seems to have compensated for this material invasion of her head by creating an imaginary life for these objects, reimagining them into creatures, friends, and demons—golems of hyper-femininity—often by means of craft projects, another highly feminized activity set. As each creature takes shape, so it reflects some aspect of young womanhood, dark or light. “I Scream, You Scream, We All Throw Up,” is a tower of plastic spray foam, fused into a kind of totem pole with spray foam, and topped with a fright mask that is the most recognizable symbol from the “Scream” movie franchise. The mask is vomiting spray foam in lurid colors down the length of the totem pole, and this violent mixture of hoarding candy, binging, and purging, very successfully blurs the innocence of a child’s Halloween activity with the body image pressure applied to young girls as they emerge into puberty, and the resulting host of horrific eating disorders that are a scourge against this demographic.

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Shaina Kasztelan – Two works on paper 12 X 20″

Though presented in the trappings of frivolous girlhood, Kasztelan’s materials are a Trojan Horse for extremely intense concepts about sexuality, drug use, and mental wellness. Technically, each piece is incredibly rich in detail, seamlessly constructed (even in the event that drippy spray foam is being used as an adhesive, there is an intentionality and conscious hand at work) and remarkably successful at balancing literally hundreds of objects into well-balanced compositions. As a first solo outing, Kasztelan’s work already presents a strong self-awareness and adroit leveraging of a personal perspective that is often marginalized—that of the young woman, struggling to process a world full of expectations and distractions, and perhaps prone, in this struggle, to medicate some of the confusion into imaginary friendships. Somewhere Over the Rainbow is a Double Rainbow is a wild journey that brings home a surprisingly deep message.