As I Say Dying is an art show by Anna Mayer currently on view at AWHRHWAR. Let me disclose that I am a little nervous about this writing, because…Anna. I was the first person to arrive at the opening of her show last Saturday, where I chatted awkwardly with Aline and gulped a glass of white wine that certainly emphasized the pink tones of my cheeks, under the harsh-for-skin but good-for-art light. I live down the street from AWHRHWAR, and when I realized they would be having a one-person show, I was more than delighted to attend and get that show unpublished, if you will. The first time I saw the show, I was into it, but it was a little elusive. I also felt weird being alone; like, performing looking? I was performing looking, but also I was looking looking, and when I’m looking looking, I’m looking for inspiration, or to be inspired—for that little sentence to pop into my head, so that I realize I can go forward with that sentence and turn it into a constructive thought, and this is why art is both mysterious and beautiful and upsetting, and the thing that makes life worth living, besides arguing, sushi, and the beach. But back to the art, and the artist, of course.
The night of the opening, Aline introduced me to Anna (I had told Aline right away that I wanted to review the show; Anna had not arrived yet, because I showed up early, in order to actually be able to see the show). I told Anna I intended to review her work, and that she could walk me through if she wanted, or not; she said we could meet over the weekend. Already the gravity and commitment of the situation is hitting me, and I’m thinking, I hope I can pull this off. I don’t know, this artwork just exudes confidence, steadiness; that was my impression. Not finished-ness, per se, but something deliberate, a feeling of being rooted. Anna’s urns seem to take up the “right amount” of space; they are on these absolutely huge pink pedestals (I am on the Ben Moore website now—is it Salmon Pink? I’m choosing a color “family,” and now scrolling across a color “spectrum”; is it Dusty Mauve? Peaches N’ Cream? Savannah Clay? I get it now, the color is a poem—it’s so linguistic and elusive, it’s absolutely beautiful). The tops of the pedestals, which have a little rim around them, are covered with sand, and the sand color very closely matches the pedestal color, if not exactly. I find stability in this sand/pedestal color-match decision; it seems a choice that requires planning; otherwise, it is arbitrary, which would be impressive, too. I have no cohesive train of thought here; let me try to be focused. When you enter As I Say Dying, there is an immediate consideration of scale; the pedestals denote the importance of the urns, the epic-ness of them, which they do not contain within their own rather modest scale; but their color and preparation resist the white-cube status that makes pedestals and plinths the bane of every artist’s existence. Lest we forget that a pedestal is a symbol, Anna is here to show us in this context, they have a different, and explicit, meaning.
Atop the pedestals (yes I said “atop”), are funerary urns. How do I know this? The title sheet, of course, which reads [smaller pedestal] Matter of Having 1, 2018; ceramic, glaze, paint, flint; Not-to-scale replicas of funerary urns made by the artist in 2017. And for the larger pedestal, the same thing, only, Matter of Having 2. I am not looking at an image of these artworks, and I have not looked at one since Sunday. But I can tell you about them, absolutely. Their surfaces are all about texture, subtlety, and impossibility (as in, ceramic or surface impossibility). The smaller urn has a diamondy court-jester pattern, and I know it’s blue (cerulean blue?) with like, little beads in it that look like round sprinkles—and gold. Blue and gold—campy like a sports team, but soothing, royal, tasty like a sprinkled donut. The larger urn is white, mostly, with a veiny texture—or is it more like the texture of a popcorn ceiling? Painted on the front and back of the large urn is a grid of colors—not a strict grid, but something more abstract looking, more pale; I know, because I know, that this is glaze, meaning it is fired, while many of the other applications on this work are paint, meaning, they are applied after firing—what I call on my resume “experience with cold-surface application.” The two vessels (the word vessel just came out, I meant to use urn) share a few important characteristics, and I don’t know which to point out first, because they both contain what lesser critiques of art call the “reward” of close looking; the lids of both urns have a yellow shadow inside the rim, by shadow I mean, the inner rims are painted in this subtle way, they almost look like they are glowing; and then there are the slits in the urns, which are magical if not a bit disturbing, they are so violent, and practical, and vaginal, and intimate, and strange.
I have written, much much too poetically, about how the artwork looks, and how that look makes me feel. But what about what they mean? At women’s crit crew the other night, I had an exchange with an artist who questioned my interest in the fantasy of art; in the possibility of what it could be, as opposed to what it is. To allow this aspect of my art-view to be questioned or even undermined would be too heartbreaking to abide (and also determining the difference between what an artwork is versus what an art could be is not something I think I believe is possible); but her counterargument was more related to making sure the artist has agency within their work—that it isn’t just sort of a blank canvas waiting for mouthy critics (like myself) to come along and torment it into the subject of our choosing. I don’t know where I’m going with that, other than I want to give a shout out to artist agency, and to acknowledge that Anna’s artworks have a lot of agency; perhaps this is a more politically apt, feminist, artist-friendly version of my initial impression of Anna’s work as confident.
So, titles first, or again, in this case: Matter of Having 1 and Matter of Having 2. And the description: not-to-scale replicas of funerary urns made by the artist in 2017. We know from the press release that the urns were made for family members; and we know that we are looking at replicas, not “the real thing”; so, I go back and forth between being certain that the urns were actually used for burial (the press release refers to the works as being made in a time of extreme grief), or if they represent a death, or the possibility of death, or impending death, or the fear of death. What’s really striking here is what I will call the “precise vagueness” of Anna’s language describing her work; it straddles, in the most emotional and yet object-centric, physical way, the edge of metaphor and reality; in the most sophisticated way I can possibly comprehend, these artworks occupy the space of what is, and what is not. Are they symbols, representing the anxiety of death, pain, and loss? Or did they contain a literal death, actual cremated remains? And in times of grief, just what is the difference? For me, this is the central question of this artwork; the inability, sometimes tragic inability, to separate what something is from what something could be; it is all, it is both.
What else should I say about Matter of Having 1 and Matter of Having 2? I started with titles twice, but never got to them. Well, they’re a bit cryptic, but it’s a play on words; this is an artist who may be more invested in language than I am. All of her work has this metonymic quality, I can’t quite describe it, but the subject and the object are always existing on these planes that are just barely legible, but yes, they are legible. Matter means both subject and substance, which refers to what the vessels may contain; and having means, well, having; both an obligation to, but also in the sense of possessing; and to think of what we have means to think of what we’ve lost.
What else? That there are two urns; that they come in a pair; that one is larger; that they are decorated differently—all of this suggests a coupling, which in death signifies the most tragic of losses—parent and child; brother and sister; husband and wife (for me it would be of course be wife and wife); mother and father. I want to say something beautiful about this, but I don’t really know how. This is a sad story, regardless of how it ends; that it functions as an artwork in such a sensitive and sophisticated way is a testament to how Anna values art; it reflects her willingness to make herself vulnerable to its possibilities; to labor over its material demands; to speak through it what cannot, or who cannot, speak anymore.
I’m feeling sort of emotionally drained by this, but I want to continue just a little bit more, to address the other works in the show, so I’ll try to stay focused. Pale Clay (Sailor) is the back of a hooked rug; the image hooked into the rug is a section of a Paul Klee painting that Anna’s mother transferred into a knitting pattern (Klee was Anna’s mother’s favorite artist). This is an artwork that totally operates on subtlety and deep emotional reverence. I can tell you easily what it is not: an image hooked into a canvas rug and shaped like a painting, whose materials and presentation are intended to represent female labor or women’s work. What this artwork is is harder to describe; the layers of information are so complicated. My mom works in a knitting store, and has been knitting for as long as I can remember. The magic of the yarn store—the puffiness, and the colors, and the grids, and the sharp objects, and the manifestation of line into shape; all of this resonates with me. For Anna’s mother to create knitting patterns from her favorite artworks—it’s so intense, like, the beauty of the thought, the love of art and pattern and color and labor; I don’t know how to articulate it; it sounds just like Anna’s work. And in Pale Clay (Sailor), Anna honors that labor and the spirit of that gesture—not by knitting the pattern, no, not even by hooking it into a rug—but by translating it into an object that can be worshipped as work of art, as it deserves to be. I often wish I could worship my family through a work of art. I’ve certainly tried.
Pale Clay (Unknown Grid) operates in a similar way, emphasizing the grid even more, thus drawing a parallel between the grid of the artist, and the grid of the mother, and conflating them, which I love. This artwork is hung in the “office” of AWHRHWAR, which I also love, as a gesture toward gallery conventionality; the prized artwork in the back office, which lay-visitors to the gallery never see—it’s too special. And of course Pale Clay is a play on words (Klee is pronounced more like clay), so yeah, Anna is flexing her aural muscle here, if you will, but probably more importantly, satirizing the convention of titles; what they tell us about an artwork, and how.
The last work in the show, (I don’t know why, but I see it as last), Utteruent-1, is the most enigmatic. It’s extruded clay tubing, open on the end, with tiny words written on the tubing, so that you have to look really closely to read the writing. Honestly, I thought it was a sort of a sculptural bicycle frame until I saw the words on it; Anna explained to me something about the planes of the sculpture, and the different words representing language on different planes. I recall telling her I understood how she wanted the artwork to operate, though I would never have, in a million years, described it in those terms. By now, I have lost all sense of how I thought Utteruent-1 operated, but if nothing else, it is another iteration of Anna’s commitment to the material and conceptual versatility of ceramic; if it wasn’t already clear, her technical ceramic skill is on full view in this artwork, as well as her transcendence of it as a medium from which one well-known artist sold ashtrays at Gagosian, and another lesser-known artist made an unglazed hotdog in a bun that I use as a paperweight (with much affection).
As I Say Dying is a little show with huge emotional resonance; even for me, this writing has been a kind of catharsis; you don’t need to know this, but through much of this, I wanted to cry. Had I not been in a library, I very well may have done so. I don’t know. We have to let art be emotional. We have to let it be personal—to touch us, both as artists and consumers of art. This is a difficult time to argue in favor of emotions, and yet I must. Artists, if you are out there in your studios, agonizing over ways you can make your artwork both grandiose and intimate, while it simultaneously pivots on and transcends your identity, please cut it out and do what you really feel inside. Take Anna as your inspiration, and remember that you can be skillful, subtle, sophisticated, emotional, confident, vulnerable, and worldly, all without leaving your own head, if that’s what you choose. I’ll be there.
The featured image at the top of this post is Matter of Having 1 and Matter of Having 2, image courtesy of AWHRHWAR.
All photographs by Jason Gowans.
Thank you to Sarah for editing this text!