Joking the unspeakable: No More Tears at Survival Kit

Zak Smoker, “Toy < , >, or = Gun”. Mixed media.

No More Tears is an exciting showcase both of local artists and an emerging curatorial talent.

The show, closing this upcoming Friday, was the first show assembled for Survival Kit by Anna Tararova.  Tararova works as Gallery and Artists Opportunities Coordinator at the Morgan Conservatory. She is also a print artist who has completed fellowships at Paper Circle and Columbia College Chicago. For No More Tears, she recruited a roster of artists who deploy wit and visual flair to broach otherwise intimidating topics like gun violence, and the ignored pain of women. The work is still challenging to engage. But like the best satire, once it has stung us, we want more.

Zak Smoker’s installation piece “Toy < , >, or = Gun” is an experiment in minimalism, undertaken in the same spirit as Picasso’s 1945 series of bulls in various stages of abstraction and stylization. In those prints, Picasso tested both his own mimetic abilities and his audience’s powers of recognition. Some of the cattle have recognizable fur and musculature, while others are cubist mosaics of irregular figures. The simplest drawing is comprised of only about a dozen lines, but all the essential signs of a bull—four legs, sturdy body, horns—are there. Smoker works in three dimensions, assembling a rack of guns entirely from found objects. One “rifle” is constructed from a cane with extra handles attached on its underside. A broom with a window latch “trigger” resembles a shotgun. A pistol is made from a fire extinguisher and a door stopper.

It’s easy to interpret “Toy < , >, or = Gun” as a statement the killing of Tamir Rice by Cleveland police officers Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback. Five years have already elapsed since the shooting, but the shooting still feels immediate. The Cleveland Police Patrolman’s Association continues to appeal Loehmann’s firing. And last summer, attention was turned back to the case by “A Color Removed”, an installation at FRONT Triennial by Chicago-based artist Michael Rakowitz. Like Rakowitz, Smoker could be addressing Cleveland Chief of Police Calvin Williams who, while defending, Loehmann, claimed Tamir’s plastic pistol was visually indistinguishable from a real weapon. In this reading, “Toy < , >, or = Gun” embodies a series of barbed questions: “If a plastic gun equals a death sentence, how about this broom? Am I safe if I carry a can of bug spray? How about this chalkboard eraser?”

Nikki Woods, a painter and director of the Reinberger Gallery, contributed five paintings. In content, they are among the most powerful work she has ever produced.

“Mar-A-Lago” is another installment in Woods’ ongoing reaction to the current presidency. At last year’s CAN Triennial, Woods displayed “The Most Beautiful Piece of Chocolate Cake You’ve Ever Seen.” That piece was remarkable for producing provocative work within a tired genre—the Donald Trump caricature. This painting (which does not appear in No More Tears) went further than any newspaper editorial cartoon could, deploying explicit gore to represent the president’s moral rot. While munching dessert, Trump’s nose had fallen off, and his flesh taken on the bruised apple-brown color of decay. In the background, a white dove hung dead from a spear stuck in the ground. The spear stands alongside a pair of tiki torches.

Nikki Woods, “Mar-A-Lago.” Oil on canvas

“Mar-A-Lago” is subtler than the chocolate cake painting, but also cleverer. In it, Woods turns Trump’s self-mythologizing against him. Under her brush, the crown jewel of Trump’s resort empire transforms into a villain’s lair on par with the Death Star or Barad-dûr. In the painting, a black and red sky swirls overhead. The resort’s exterior is glossy pink, resembling raw meat or the maw of a carnivorous plant. A gray haze obscures a second-story walkway, and  the windows glow with silvery blue. The Mar-A-Lago is a cursed place, with ghosts trapped inside and would-be visitors locked out. This is Trump’s America: an unapproachable menace, stifled by self-imposed isolation, and threatened by a burning sky.

However, Woods’ strongest work does not directly address the current political crisis. It is concerned with the quieter, but still dire, suffering of women. In “Smoking and Crying” and “Bed Lounger,” we see two women straining under the weight of patriarchal life. They strain not because they are weak, but because they carry too many burdens. They are weighted down not only the stresses of working life, but also the harassment and condescension of sexism, and the expectation that they will never openly complain about any of this.

“Bed Lounger” depicts a woman dressed for an evening out, but prone on her bed. Her skin shines white. To match her hair, she has applied dark violet blush, lipstick, and eye shadow. An arm clothed in silk and lace hangs limp off the edge of her mattress. Turning to look at the audience, her mouth is flat, her eyes unamused, and tired. We wonder if the purple on her face is really makeup, or dark circles caused by too little sleep, or bruises. A green, jackal-eared imp perches on her back.

Henry Fuseli’s “The Nightmare” also depicted a demon squatting atop a bedridden woman. Yet whereas Fuseli’s victim swooned in terror, Woods’ subject’s only reaction is a sigh of resignation. She’s not at peace with her situation, but can’t see anything else to do. Or, she just doesn’t want to deal with it right now. She is living in a compromise, in which the other party isn’t giving much of anything.

Nikki Woods, “Smoking/Crying.” Oil on canvas.

The woman in “Smoking and Crying” also tries to put on a brave face, but fractures under the strain. Against her better judgment, she is self-medicating with tobacco. She smiles, trying to offer reassurance; but her eyes are panicked. Her head turns in the viewer’s direction, but her pupils point far to their right, as if she’s searching for an escape route. Her mascara is running, but not only her mascara—streaks of black are seeping from her eyebrows, and the yellow is leaking out of her blond hair. Figuratively and literally, she is coming apart.

Like Woods, Erin Duhigg and Lauren McKenzie Noel offer glimpses behind the groomed, curated, Instagrammable performance women are expected to put on. Duhigg exhibits what looks like her own worn casualwear as if she were assembling in-store displays at Anthropologie. A gray, cozy, but almost shapeless sweater stands upright on a pole. Its arms cross stiffly, like a photo subject told to “act natural.” We encounter the artist’s full, embodied, leaky humanity in a wad of crumpled Kleenex stuffed into a cardigan’s pocket.

Noel depicts three members of a family unit—“Mother,” “Dylan,” and “Keegan”—in paintings scaled like a hagiographic Renaissance portrait, but styled like Matisse at this most Fauvist. Noel’s two boys are enjoying a party, standing amidst balloons, holding a lollipop or a cat. One wears a slight, hungry smile. Beneath a shaggy mane of hair, the other stares forward in relaxed contentment. Mother, however, gets no balloons. Unlike her boys, she is sitting. In her armchair, she grasps her knee as if she fears losing track of it. Presumably, she arranged the party. Yet her ragged hair and blank, exhausted face communicate she is too drained to enjoy it.

Lauren McKenzie Noel, “Mother.” Oil pastel, acrylic, and oil paint on canvas.

However, misery is not the only dimension of feminine experience explored in No More Tears. Jane Baeslach and Melinda Laszczynski celebrate girlhood, a topic rarely taken seriously in either “high art” or pop culture. (Contrast the esteem of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess. One is called a Great American Novel, whereas the other, when it is considered at all, is thought of as children’s literature.)

Baeslach’s “Bunny Time” was made in collaboration with her 6-year-old daughter, Coletta Baeslach-Arian. The two affixed plaster casts of Easter rabbits and teddy bears to a backdrop of wallpaper. It is both a fascinating and touching concept. Any pairing of a trained artist and a “naïve” one would be intriguing. And children’s art is rarely displayed in any context beyond classrooms and parents’ refrigerators. But the project takes on added significance because of the relationship between the creative partners. We know that beyond the installation itself, this collaboration produced memories and knowledge that will always be the private property of the mother and daughter.

Melinda Laszczynski, “Snack Cake.” Acrylic, ink, glitter, paint skins on mylar and panel.

Even before reading that Melinda Laszczynski’s paintings bear titles like “Slumber Party” and “Snaking Cake,” viewers could guess they reference early adolescence. Laszczynski’s canvases appear to be syntheses of abstract expressionism with the neon fashions of the 1990s. Bright pink and dark purple are the dominant colors. Paint is almost sculpted on the canvas in crinkly waves or thick blobs—I was brought to mind of vanilla frosting by the creamy texture of “Snacking Cake” even before learning the title. Laszczynski strips tween culture down to its most basic visual elements, welcoming us to explore textures and surfaces we otherwise would ignore. Her iridescent purple-green-gold fields might bring to mind Lisa Frank, but also oil slicks glistening in sunlight, and the inscrutable extraterrestrial “shimmer” from the film Annihilation.

If one thing unites the above-discussed works, it is their vivid expressions on topics that are usually passed over in silence. Yet far from intimidating, their work is often fun, and beautiful.

No More Tears is viewable by appointment only through Friday May 31 at Survival Kit. The gallery is located at 1305 W. 80th Suite 303, in the 78th Street Studio complex. For more information, go to or email Tararova at

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.