Worlds Apart: Illustrious Decay at CWAL
Despite using very different materials and techniques, artists Jenniffer Omaitz and Arabella Proffer augment the impact of one another’s work in their current two person show, where they reorganize, reinvent, or sabotage the stability of organic and domestic structures. Titled Illustrious Decay, the exhibit of paintings and sculptures will be on view through October at CWAL Gallery.
Prior to 2010 Proffer was already known for highly imaginative, carefully wrought small or mid-scale oil on canvas works, like her fascinating series of portraits depicting fantasy royals, complete with back stories. Then one day she found herself making paintings of an entirely new type. Call it what you will – surrealist, or maybe exo-biological, with a psychological twist – her newest images at CWAL still suggest a sense of the mythic time that was typical of her narrative figures, but inquire further into a mystical realm of dangerous-looking fruit-like forms. Her pictures in the Illustrious Decay show might well be botanical studies from a book cataloging the flora of Hell, or of Jupiter’s moons. One small work measuring a foot square greets visitors near the gallery’s door, like a gift from Pluto. Taunting and seducing, even as it bleeds an aura of doom, the painting is called “Eater,” and shows a pomegranate-ish orb, floating in a sea of subtle grays. This strange fruit opens its ruffled folds of dissolving pink-violet flesh towards the viewer, revealing interior pale green nodal forms dotted with seed-like spots, ultimately disclosing a shimmering egg shape. Fluttering strands of dark ribbon are a recurring theme in these paintings, festooning the air of Proffer’s mystical space like streamers or the discarded packaging of an eternal holiday. As Proffer explains, these paintings refer in part to her ordeal with cancer. They describe the lush perversity and sheer alien quality of the disease as it reproduces and advances through the human body. This hard-to-check expansion is certainly part of the underlying symbolism of the streamers, which aren’t contained within the picture plane but extend down the wall between Proffer’s works and the gallery floor, forming a sort of frame and extending the range of the image’s hypnotic, mandala-ish, potential invasive force. The pretty ribbons are headed toward the viewer’s real-time space. At the far end of the gallery a medium-sized painting, “Moodswinger,” depicts an irregular, morel-shaped, deep purple or indigo form, sprinkled with a constellation of lavender spores. It floats in a pale green sky, while beneath it trail strings of bead-like purple teardrops, over an ethereal rash of white dots – perhaps daylight stars. Above it on the wall a pale green banner furls and flows.
The late Cleveland-based painter and educator Shirley Campbell used to begin her lectures on abstraction by dropping a vase or tea cup on the classroom floor. “That,” she would declare, pointing dramatically at the fragments, “is abstraction.” Jenniffer Omaitz, a painter who also makes frequent dynamic forays into the world of site specific installations, belongs to a similar school of radical conceptualization. Each of her three pedestal-mounted sculptures on view at CWAL collectively titled Stacked Spaces show a modern looking house, frozen in the process of becoming “abstract” in just such an abrupt and energetic way. Made out of materials like balsa wood and foam board, each seems like a maquette-sized beach house, whirled into its constituent elements and remodeled as a multi-dimensional dwelling, liveable only in the eye of a silent hurricane.
Of course in this case the teacup was never whole. Omaitz uses miniature staircases, porch railings, and wall-like planar fragments along with windows and doors and square holes, as the raw materials for a kind of three dimensional abstract painting. Fragments are her palette, and the air itself, the invisible geometry of the space above the pedestal, is her canvas. Her real subject, though, is far more down to earth. This swirling, stacked and teetering, rising column of mismatched architectural elements is uncomfortably familiar, because it is the landscape of our contemporary experience. We all find ourselves in a time where extreme dislocation and random recombinant movements of people and ideas, even laws and whole economies, are increasingly the only “order” we can count on. Omaitz’s sculptures speak of the antigravitational fields of postmodernity with surprising eloquence and cogency. If, as Karl Marx in the Communist Manifesto so poetically (and ironically) phrased it, under capitalism, “all that is solid melts into air,” then what Omaitz recreates in her sculptures is a movement in the dance of disintegration following the deflation of earlier economic or political systems. You can see the design of a house which is a home, with places to stand, and lie, and sit – but in fact this is mere hallucination. In Omaitz’s structural compilations you can see the design of a house which was a home, with places to stand, and lie, and sit – but in fact this is mere hallucination. Real usefulness has been subtracted, along with traditional order; the connection between the floor and your feet is gone. And thus we float away, into an unimaginable futurity. That such ideas and perceptions are expressed in depictions of radically dismembered contemporary houses makes Omaitz’s work all the more personal, leaving us, like victims of a natural disaster, homeless in the midst of a great storm.