David Shelton Gallery, San Antonio
Closed October 8
by Hills Snyder
Erewhon is almost nowhere backwards, I’m fond of saying, and you can get there in a station wagon. Families, those complex tangles of darkness and cheer, have been doing it for decades, ever since Dad got the keys. So here we go. We’re out of the woods, stepping into the light, but are we there yet?
Seduced at an early age by four-door wanderlust via multiple trips to Disney Land, Yellowstone National Park and other points West, O’Connor launches her good natured critique of America (same thing as Utopia, right?) from recent experiments in spaces outside the frame in 2009 and 2010. From these dual expansions of her endeavor she has derived beams of light made of yarn; replicated calcification; the hexagonal structure of wasp nests; and of course, those lovely, lovely drips (nothing to do with Gorky). Post Utopia extends these experiments by bringing them back inside the frame and with multi-colored radial vectors painted directly on the numerous windows that line the space.
But the hexagons are key. They can be found in water, radiolaria, soccer balls and some geodesic domes. Start looking for them, and they’re all over the place, even where you can’t see them. Eco-inversions of “the grid” that art theorists love to talk about, they are microcosms in Post Utopia, offered as art on a tray, appetizers made with wasp nests garnered from the dusty shelves of natural history museums on eBay, each with some cavities filled with attractive little extrusions of Sculpey painted with nail polish. Eye candy easily devoured.
A few wasp nests hang upside-down from the ceiling, mimicking their original orientation. Brilliantly lit by David Shelton with floor mounted lights shooting their high-watt beams straight up, they appear as tiny versions of the World Tree, but the inversion suspends any notion of support. The trees emerge from shadowy black holes, rather than the milky ways of myth. Despite the dystopic meanings that emerge from such a reading, these cosmological vignettes are transporting.
The hexagonal grid also serves as a kind of surface in other works such as Launch Pad, an image of the NASA transporter used to move an Apollo moon rocket from assembly site to launch pad. The tessellated hex-pattern serves to flatten the perspective of the image and perhaps lighten its implied load—even sans rocket as it is shown, the transporter weighs five and half million pounds, about the same weight as “the grid,” which may need to relax a bit and feel the curves of the planet, now that O’Connor has brought it to earth. Launch Pad can be overlooked simply because there are so many inviting images everywhere you turn, yet it’s this piece that is the way in to everything else and in its own subtle way reclaims a corner of Utopia for a future hopefully more partnered with feminine influence than this world has been for centuries.
Some works function like inset maps referencing more complex pieces. Old Faithful, for example, features Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, calling out to a lost Toto or perhaps a just as lost Judy Garland. She beseeches hopefully, her back turned to the most famous geyser in North America, seeming to miss an important signal. Colored hexes interact with the upward spray and give the image a 1950s Tomorrow Land look, as if Dr. Irwin Moon might step into the scene speaking of Our Friend The Molecule. A couple of pink and blue hexes align most cleverly with the geyser. Cut from water-stained cardboard, the stains trace the outline of Old Faithful. True to form.
But this “inset” Dorothy also calls out to other Dorothy’s across the room in the keystone work, Portrait of the artist’s room as a child. This work features the travertine terraces of Mammoth Falls in Yellowstone, which O’Connor visited as a seven-year-old. Seen in an image lifted from a vintage postcard, these calcified cliffs serve now, and not without wonder, as the primary topography of Post Utopia. Like most other works in the exhibition, this piece is populated with characters from film and television, including three more Dorothy’s. One looks into open space with Toto under her arm, nervously contented, waving to someone below, perhaps the sleep walking hallucination of herself that hovers above a cracked maelstrom of uncertainty. The third Dorothy, barely distinguishable from the landscape, knows the storm is coming.
Just up the slope, Carol Ann “they’re here” Freeling, from The Poltergeist, kneels before a spinning vortex rising out of the earth before her. It replaces the television screen familiar from the movie as the portal of entry from the other world, but no contact seems to be forthcoming. Above, Shirley Temple, the only character in the tableau that meets your gaze, bobs incongruously from a caldera, while Willy Wonka stands calmly on the lip of another, seeming to control the action like a puppet master. Or perhaps he’s just another bored bystander, blithely flying Apollo rocket drag chutes.
Or maybe it’s all just a collage. Plastic detergent bottles and cosmetic containers are littered about, but mainly eddy in the lower left corner of the composition. Here stands Veruca Salt next to a candy urn finial from the foyer of Wonka’s chocolate factory, both equated by scale and proximity to a bottle of dish soap. Clown heads top a couple of bottles too. One has an almost comedia dell’arte look while the other, a Ringling white face, is topped with some filigree, the image of a lion and a unicorn nifty-lifted from an album cover with O’Connor’s X-ACTO. But this carnivalesque suggestion offers only the slightest hint of subversion. Mostly this work is plain old fun. Notice I didn’t say just.
(And Kelly: go to Giant’s Causeway as soon as you can.)
Hills Snyder lives in San Antonio. More of his writing can be found here.