Jessica Halonen, Wallpaper #69, 2022. Acrylic on panel. 20 x 16 inches.
Fluent~Collaborative & testsite are pleased to present PM, a collaboration between Jessica Halonen and Kelly Baum.
The intrigue begins as soon as one steps foot into testsite. On the wall directly opposite the door is a modestly-sized painting with a seemingly distressed surface dominated by a bright blue-green and, just below it, a glass sculpture whose shape recalls that of a bag tied at one end. Contradictions abound, just as they do throughout the exhibition. Nothing here is entirely as it seems upon first glance. The translucency of the glass, through which the eye travels unimpeded, implies an emptiness belied by the sculpture’s swollen, distended contours. Taped to the upper right quadrant of the painting is a small piece of torn paper that turns out to be a painterly sleight of hand as flat as the background from which it appears to project. To the immediate right of the entrance is the exhibition’s title: “Jessica Halonen: PM.” “PM” is a particularly evocative combination of letters. An acronym with a variety of meanings, including post meridiem, postmortem, and palliative medicine, “PM” is suggestive of endings, both temporal and physical. For her part, Halonen had something else in mind when she selected “PM” for the title, specifically “particulate matter,” which is to say microscopic particles that are felt in the body but barely seen with the eyes, bits of solids and drips of liquids that are impactful but almost invisible.
Halonen’s project for testsite follows naturally from her previous bodies of work. Intimacy, family, home, science, perception, and precarity, physical as well as existential, have long been, and continue to be, her overarching themes. However, the paintings that comprise “PM,” which Halonen interspersed with two sculptures from 2019, are resolutely site specific as well: they are very much for testsite, a domestic space built in the early twentieth century that occasionally doubles as an art gallery. Halonen responds to testsite’s architecture with great sensitivity. In ways both practical and conceptual, she embraces the emblematic features of this and other such houses, synchronizing form, content, and placement. For instance, she installed one painting on a glass shelf meant for books and decorative objects and another painting directly on the hearth alongside a second glass sculpture. For the wall just above the fireplace, Halonen created two paintings that evoke an absent mantlepiece topped by a vase.
Investigatory in spirit, Halonen’s practice is resolutely research-driven. The same is true of her project for testsite. In the case of “PM,” the artist chose a point of departure appropriate to the history and character of the place for which her work was destined. Paradoxically, this led Halonen to a library in her home state of Michigan, where she sought out a study published by R.C. Kedzie of the Michigan State Board of Health in 1874. Titled “Shadows from the Walls of Death; Arsenical Wall Papers,” it comprises a “Book of Specimens of Poisonous Papers,” more specifically, a sampling of mass-produced wallpapers—the type found in lower- and middle-class homes—whose inks contain the deadly chemical arsenic. The book includes a selection of the wallpapers in question. It was also printed on what its title page identifies as “poisonous” sheets of paper. In so doing, the authors made the deliberate, if baffling decision to correlate their publication’s content and material, anticipating by exactly ninety years Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase, “the medium is the message.” Copies of “Shadows from the Walls of Death” were distributed to libraries around Michigan in the hopes of alerting the public to the dangers of the papers with which they had decorated their walls. In its introduction, the Secretary of the State Board of Health, Henry B. Baker, encourages libraries to give the book “a prominent place” on their shelves. The more attention the study received from readers, however, the more those readers were exposed to the very hazards about which they were being warned. The implications of creating a publication about toxic wallpaper that was itself toxic seems not to have occurred to either Kedzie nor Baker, and eventually almost all the copies would be destroyed. In 2022, in preparation for her exhibition at testsite, Halonen reviewed one of three surviving versions at the University of Michigan.
Although “Shadows from the Walls of Death” was published a few decades before the building in which testsite resides was constructed, they belong to a similar time period: it is theoretically possible that the kind of arsenic-laced wallpaper surveyed by Kedzie continued to circulate in the early twentieth century, perhaps finding its way into homes in Austin. Generally speaking, moreover, wallpaper belongs to the domestic sphere: it is produced for houses above all, and it was a house for which Halonen was making a new body of work. For these reasons and more, “Shadows from the Walls of Death” became the foundation from which the artist built her project for testsite.
“PM”, or “particulate matter,” derives from Kedzie’s essay in “Shadows from the Walls of Death.” There he speaks in great detail about the many avenues through which arsenic-laced ink might sneak into the body. Common to all such methods is particulate matter. Thanks to the printing methods used and the atmospheric conditions of the home, this ink is prone to being dislodged from its support and scattered as into the air as “finely divided particles of matter,” where it is absorbed through the skin or inhaled through the lungs. Our first line of defense again external dangers, the skin and the lungs—among the body’s most porous of organs—prove all too fallible when faced with particulate matter. Indeed, rather than protecting us, they serve as a means of transmission, a conveyance through which danger passes. This is one of the many factors that recommended “Shadows from the Walls of Death” to Halonen: the phenomenon it surveys functions as a case study in human vulnerability, likewise the bodily response to threats both social and physical.
Halonen does not end up dwelling on the more macabre aspects of “Shadows from the Walls of Death.” Instead, she focuses on the wallpapers themselves, forging an artistic and conceptual dialogue with her source material. Nine of the paintings are titled Specimen, while two others bear the names PM (particulate matter) and Wallpaper 69 (landscape), all of them nods to the book. Most consist of acrylic on either linen, canvas, or panel, with a few exceptions, including PM (particulate matter), in whose pigment Halonen mixed crushed glass, thereby concretizing the kind of dust that so preoccupied Kedzie. The vast majority of the paintings share the same dimensions as the wallpaper collected in “Shadows from the Walls of Death.” All of these derive their compositions and palettes from the patterns found in the samples, with specific paintings matched to specific papers by way of a numbering system.
Although her translations of wallpaper into paint tend to be faithful, the artist takes a great deal of creative license with her source material, changing what she borrows, whether cropping, rotating, combining, or recontextualizing. On occasion, she inserts references to her creative process, incorporating the residue of her experiments in the studio. Very frequently, she mixes representational codes— signifying systems—as well. Take Specimen 24, 54 & 43, for instance. The painting’s ground is based on a sheet of striped wallpaper, more specifically, on an image of the wallpaper captured in a scan and saved as a PDF. Transcribed into a painted composition, the original pattern reads as an austere abstraction, especially when seen in conjunction with the other compositional elements, specifically cut and torn prints of two other sheets of wallpaper, both rendered in meticulous trompe l’oeil, creating the impression of scraps taped to a surface. Nearby is Specimen 24 (string), whose composition is dominated by polychromatic stripes pulled from a sheet of wallpaper (more specifically, a reproduction of one) and rotated 90 degrees. Here again the artist partakes of playful illusionism, as a piece of string seems to dangle from the top of the painting, interrupting the regularity of the stripes. Specimen 25 (fleur de lis) is an especially striking example from the series. Here abstraction and illustration are set into potent dialogue with one another. What looks like a haphazardly rendered ground comprised of stains and smears was actually built by carefully applying thinned acrylic paint to unprimed canvas, a process that evokes, perhaps, the contamination that occurred on the pages of “Shadows of the Walls of Death,” as the arsenic-laced ink from one page leaked into the adjacent pages, depositing decorative palimpsests. This abstract ground sets off a painted representation of a scrap of paper bearing a printed representation of a reproduction of a sheet of wallpaper that is itself a printed representation of a pattern. Given the verisimilitude of this scrap of paper, one might be forgiven for mistaking the work for a mixed media collage. Like many of the paintings in Halonen’s exhibition, Specimen 25 (fleur de lis) is a kind of self- referential mis en abyme, in which the “real” recedes ever farther from view.
For Halonen, there is a great deal of meaning to her methods. The artist is able to deploy different styles and techniques, adapting them to the space and the content at hand. The importance of trompe l’oeil in particular, though, is undeniable—it is also historically specific. After a period of decline following its popularity in Renaissance and Baroque Europe, trompe l’oeil found especially fertile ground in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, likewise in the early twentieth-century paintings and papiers collés of Cubists Georges Braque, Juan Gris, and Pablo Picasso. The resurgence of trompe l’oeil occurred around same time, of course, that “Shadows from the Walls of Death” was published and the house in which her exhibition is staged was built. In this and other ways, Halonen strategically choreographs the relationship between site, time, style, and content, weaving a visual narrative that is possessed of visual beauty and an incisive, investigatory spirit.
-- Kelly Baum