Pretty comes with a purpose, and a price: Lena Wolek and Emily Marchand’s ‘brittle peace’ at NowSpace

 

brittle peace is an art show by Emily Marchand and Lena Wolek currently on view at NowSpace. Before I go any further, I have to clear up this question I keep having about titles in italics versus titles in quotations, because it keeps confusing me. I always thought titles of shows went in quotations, and titles of artworks went in italics. As it happens, it seems every magazine, newspaper, and institution has their own style, which I guess I should not be surprised by. One of the reasons I cling to this notion (and use it as a style in my own writing) is because it brings clarity, as in, separating a title of a show from the individual works, and inferring if they are in fact individual works, or not. In retrospect this may sound REALLY CRAZY, but I honestly thought if I went to a show whose title was set in italics, it meant it was a single artwork, even if the pieces inside it had individual titles, too. And, to sound even crazier, if there was a show with quotation marks around the title, and no individual titles for works, then it made me mad and annoyed.

Obviously this is an incorrect way of looking at titles and artwork, but it brings me to the small first thing I should point out about brittle peace; it is just so, so different if read as a collaborative singular artwork, which is what I first thought it was, for a few reasons. One reason was because of my italics mis-read, as I described; another reason was because the first time I saw brittle peace, it seemed so aesthetically cohesive, so well “designed” if you will, I assumed the artists must have worked together on all the pieces in some way; but mostly, it was because the press release reads “…brittle peace will mark their first ever collaborative effort and the beginning of an ongoing practice creating work synergistically together.” I realize now that this sentence refers to a specific artwork, soft ammunition; but the phrasing lead me to initially considering all the works collaboratively. But I’ll get back to that later; for now, I will proceed in the way I think the works were intended to function; as individual pieces in a two-person show.

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Lena Wolek’s Help Yourself, 2017. Ceramic, drop cloth, latex paint. (Image courtesy of the artist and NowSpace. Photo: Josh Schaedel)

The first thing you see when you get through the labyrinth entrance to NowSpace and round the corner into the main gallery is a long table covered in desserts; it’s an artwork called Help Yourself, by Lena Wolek (it’s also the only artwork in the show with what we call headline titling, which means capitalizing (most) words in a title, which distinguishes Lena’s work from Emily’s). Specifically, Help Yourself is an absurdly long and narrow table-object with very non table-like curves; it has a tablecloth, an object sometimes deemed snobby and often deemed unnecessary (especially this one, custom made of canvas and painted communist red on the surface, the color perfectly in-line with the groovy table shape). On top of this already highly sculptural and art-like object are many more highly sculptural art-like objects; an abundance of ceramic foods, all desserts or sweet things, I think, messy, gloppy, surreally colored, fantastical but also somehow real-looking; I would call it “Alice in Wonderland” meets Claes Oldenburg meets Betty Woodman. I don’t typically make comparisons to other artists when I’m looking at artworks, but this one really does look familiar. Maybe it’s because dessert is a trope, not just in art, but in life; but what could it mean?

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Lena Wolek’s Help Yourself, 2017. Ceramic, drop cloth, latex paint. (Image courtesy of the artist and NowSpace. Photo: Josh Schaedel)

What’s the difference between a lot of dessert, and a little? I know I always want a lot of dessert, but at the same time it provokes anxiety and even shame (here my editor gave me a simple but loaded note: gender?). I’m actually the kind of person that orders dessert with dinner, but that’s predicated on the fact that I’m enjoying myself. So, dessert is also an extension of a good time, but simultaneously, the end. We simply cannot go on eating dessert forever and ever. And, more to the point, what is a lot of dessert that you can’t eat? The idiom “a feast for the eyes” comes to mind, and also “let them eat cake,” but these are very loose associations. Something else I see in this work is the labor of difference, of differentiation; not just to form the desserts from clay, but then to make them all look different. In a lot of artworks where there are multiples, none of them look special—one or two may stand out for subtle and subjective reasons—but in this piece, they all look special. I coveted them all. I suppose when I look at this table I think about greed and shame, but I also think this artwork is almost profoundly aesthetic; I didn’t mention it but there’s also this red stripe that goes from the table (which abuts the wall on one end) up the wall at an angle; to me it infers distance, or endlessness, imagining the clay desserts ad infinitum. This was really, really striking in the gallery—all these choices about where to put things, the stripe, the colors, the sheer numbers; something about the sloppiness of the desserts seems unnatural to the rest of the work; a calculated sloppiness? But what could that mean? (She wrote for the second time, this time with true longing.)

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Lena Wolek’s Help Yourself, 2017. Ceramic, drop cloth, latex paint. (Image courtesy of the artist and NowSpace. Photo: Josh Schaedel)
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Installation view of brittle peace. From left to right (background): Emily Marchand’s surgeon’s knot, acrobat hitch, icicle hitch; storm tarp. Foreground: Emily Marchand’s repose. (Image courtesy of the artist and NowSpace. Photo: Josh Schaedel)

There are many other things in this gallery, and they are all just as visually compelling in an almost opposite way (for example, where Help Yourself is crass, international treaty is delicate; pretty). Let me say this again; this show looks really good from a design perspective. The balance of colors, sizes, and spatial weighting throughout the gallery (the red stripe especially) feels really, really considered. This is not something that I value (the way art looks), but in this space it’s unavoidable, and I wonder if it should be carefully considered as a subject, as opposed to just an observation or reaction. I am not referring here to the look of the individual pieces, rather, the way all the artworks look together. My gut tells me this cohesion is coincidental; or, it’s a little bit more than coincidental, but I do not believe it is a subject of brittle peace.

Moving along, there are either four or seven other discreet artworks here: international treaty; repose; storm tarp; and surgeon’s knot, acrobat hitch, icicle hitch. I actually think that surgeon’s knot, acrobat hitch, and icicle hitch are all separate pieces, but that doesn’t really matter. If there is a theme in this room, I think it would be alternative processes, or more simply put, using clay in a way it isn’t really meant to be used. Emily’s clay knots and also her clay word-squiggles do this for me. It just seems like such a peculiar choice of material; it really has me thinking, again for the third time: what could this mean? Something I get from this choice of material is rebellion; extruding long tubes of clay and making a large-scale sentence-looking thing is really antithetical to the type of communication language usually seeks to participate in. That was a confusing way of saying, her artistic process takes language and makes it illegible. But the process of becoming illegible is anything but simple or easy; it is certainly time consuming, expensive, maybe even trial-and-error; it dries out your hands, takes heat, and energy, and delicate handling. I think this artwork, when I consider its title—international treaty— is meant to embody the spirit of undoing; its power lies in its senselessness, its aesthetic attention grab which can never be revelatory; it’s an artwork that works against it’s own message, while simultaneously asking us to find it. I really do not know if the clay squiggles are actual letters, if they actually do spell something (I myself could not “read” the script). It’s a sort of bait-and-switch, and this adds depth to its prettiness, which is a nice kind of art.

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Emily Marchand’s international treaty, 2017. Ceramic. (Image courtesy of the artist and NowSpace. Photo: Josh Schaedel)

The knots are totally different; made of ceramic and “paracord” (I assume that is a term for parachute rope), they cleverly employ the same visual language as Emily’s treaty, but claim to be different objects. These works, too, are pretty, yet viscerally disturbing; as authentic as the knots may look, you certainly don’t want to put your weight on them. I look at them, and I think, “you lie.” I am beginning to connect with the vaguely political sentiment this show wants us to vibe on.

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Emily Marchand’s surgeon’s knot, acrobat hitch, icicle hitch, 2017. Ceramic, paracord. (Image courtesy of the artist and NowSpace. Photo: Josh Schaedel)

I think I have to address my use of the word “pretty.” What is pretty? A girl is pretty, and so is a woman, though I think “sexy” is more commonly used in older phases. A man can be pretty too, and many are, though I’m not sure they like being called out as such. I also think of pretty, for some reason, as meaning airy, maybe ephemeral; that is definitely from my conditioning through late-90s movies wherein secretly hot teenage girls float through the halls of their schools instead of dragging huge-ass backpacks. I guess an important distinction is also between pretty and beautiful; I guess beautiful is more profound, and pretty is maybe, more superficial? I hate to even be typing this, but it’s relevant. I wouldn’t call any of the works in this show beautiful, (though I can certainly find moments), and I have a feeling these artists would appreciate that. I think something else this show may propose is, how do we find language beyond our familiar language of the visually recognizable? (I see this particularly in international treaty and storm tarp.) But that can’t be all of it. Perhaps it is more that this show proposes a discord beneath pretty things; an utter roughness and uneasiness despite a flawlessly executed design.

repose is cool but bland; I like it more when Emily messes with the extrusions in a deceivingly delicate way. That salt blocks should stand in for pedestals is very very cool, but to me, it’s an opaque gesture. They look a little bit like icebergs, which makes me think of loneliness or isolation (assuming the reposing extrusions are like little people). The word repose is in itself interesting, with disparate meanings, and I’m not sure which one is meant to apply here. Is it more like “a natural periodic loss of consciousness during which the body restores itself” or is it more like “freedom from activity or labor” (Merriam Webster Online). I guess these meanings aren’t disparate, but they are at least subtly different; I can’t help but feel there is a class distinction, between the freedom to rest and restore, versus the freedom from labor, which could also be construed as the freedom from bondage. Maybe. Maybe not.

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Emily Marchand’s repose, 2017. Ceramic, salt block. (Image courtesy of the artist and NowSpace. Photo: Josh Schaedel)

Lastly is storm tarp, a puzzling artwork which is all about subtle screwups, or rather, trying to repeat something by hand and getting way, way off. Yes, the textile depicts objects/things in such a way as to appear allegorical or even pre-historic; from top to bottom I see it as eyes, mountains, hot/cold, tongues (?), razor blades, infinity squiggle or racetrack, lushness of nature, fire, matchsticks, and a fence. I’m guessing I was correct on some of these, not on others. Anyways what you get from looking at this artwork for a long time and trying to figure out what is depicted is the fact that it is very handmade; even though the stitches are done with a sewing machine, I imagine the process was done freehand, because every iteration of every “glyph” is different, some more noticeable than others, especially the “smoke wisp” (which looks like a comma) coming off of the matches. The thing about art is, almost anything can be fabricated; and artists that value awareness know that fabrication is not an empty gesture. If the glyphs were super important, Emily could have had the damn thing fabricated to her exacting specifications. The act of its production was more important than its legibility as an object; it is an artwork about who makes things, not how we interpret those things once they are finished. That, or it’s an inexplicable parable in the form of a tarp in the form of a textile. There are many possible interpretations.

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Emily Marchand’s storm tarp, 2017. Textile. (Image courtesy of the artist and NowSpace. Photo: Josh Schaedel)

The last part of brittle peace is installed in what is called the “project space,” which Emily and Lena used as a workspace to create the collaborative artwork soft ammunition. This is an artwork that they literally made together; Lena attached her thrown clay forms to Emily’s extruded ones (or the other way around). There are many, many forms in this room, probably hundreds; and something funny about this installation is that it surpasses in scale even the very impressive Help Yourself, and in that sense really does appear to be a weirdly authentic mash-up of their two practices. When I went back to NowSpace to see the show a second time, I wasn’t expecting to see the artists, but Emily happened to be meeting people there, so I chatted with her a little bit. I didn’t ask her any conceptual questions about the work (I never do), but she shared some anyways. She only mentioned a few things that I can remember; one was that Lena’s table scape was meant to be like a tongue, and the red stripe coming out of the table was supposed to resemble something generic on a flag, like a stripe (I may have said stripe). She also explained that all the artworks were individual, except for soft ammunition, and that the work clothes hanging in the project space was sort of their joke (I noticed it at the opening, and thought perhaps that could be one of those small things I would consider beautiful). Emily said they were thinking of the forms in soft ammunition as flaccid bullets, and that it was a little bit site-specific, since that building had been used as a munitions factory. I think it’s funny that the forms are supposed to be like bullets, because they are so human-like. They’re gestural, they have orifices, and they’re all gathered around a central “figure”; another form that would be relatively generic in the sea of other forms, except for one crucial detail: it’s wearing a hat.

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Lena Wolek and Emily Marchand’s soft ammunition. 2017. Ceramic. (Image courtesy of the artist and NowSpace. Photo: Josh Schaedel)

A hat! It’s wearing a hat! When I saw it I just cracked up. I mean, it’s really really funny to have hundreds of clay tubes, and one of them is wearing a hat. The hat here becomes such an important signifier; it shifts soft ammunition from being a trite, repetition-obsessed, done-by-everyone-the-first-time-they-work-with-clay, clay-wasting exercise in the most obvious iteration of multiples—to satire. This is not an artwork interested in anything formal, or functional; these are not objects that are intended to have meaning as individual pieces. It’s completely logical to need many of them, otherwise, their would be no way to signify the masses coming out to follow their hatted leader. In fact, we have no idea what the bullet-people are doing: are they waiting, are they following, are they protesting? It tickles me to think about the conception of this artwork; did they get together and say, okay, let’s make a bunch of phallic yet figural sculptures in the absolute simplest way possible, and then set them up like soldiers, all waiting for commands from the Hatted Phallus Figure? I can’t help but see it as a joke. Like, it is feigning importance or gravity; it is pretending to take itself seriously as an artwork, and as a practice, but it’s really all about a hat. Again, there are many interpretations of this work, but it’s another example of that light touch, covering up something so cynical. All that time, all that material, and for this? It perfectly embodies how so many of us feel about so many, many things.

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Detail of Lena Wolek and Emily Marchand’s soft ammunition, 2017. Ceramic. (Photo by the author)

In the beginning of this writing, I said I had first approached this show as a completely collaborative artwork, and that it was of course very different when viewed in this way. The truth is, when you think something is one way, it really seems to make sense that way; and then, when you learn it isn’t, it’s hard to see what you saw before. When I go back and try to channel what it was I was seeing before I knew what I was looking at, I think I come away with something about materials, and the idea of what it means to be overwhelmed, or even underwhelmed, for that matter. The whole show riffs on the question of where we are, and just what we’re looking at. When I first saw Help Yourself, I thought it was fun, silly, and deadly theatrical; but the more I considered it, the more I saw it as some kind of helpless act; it doesn’t matter what material, or language, or symbol, or metaphor we use; legibility remains something that exists somewhere else. And I don’t mean legibility of this artwork, but legibility of the world that brought us to this point; a world where, as Help Yourself suggests, we produce, produce, produce, and are never satiated; where, as international treaty suggests, we value style over substance; and where, as soft ammunition suggests, we futilely give countless hours of our labor to a purpose, only to have that labor misrepresented as a joke.

If I could change anything about this show, it would just be the title; I have a strong distaste for puns, but I love homonyms. Why not call it brittle piece? Why make this whole, very lovely, very subtle (emotionally subtle, not visually subtle!) series of artworks, and slap the word peace on it? Sometimes the audience is just no good. You can’t trust us to get anything right. And that’s what puns are for, right? It just occurred to me at this very moment that perhaps this title is not meant to be a homonym. Maybe it is just supposed to be interpreted as peace—a state without war. Maybe the “peace” refers to the art itself, its materiality, its ability to be at peace with itself, with its making; that would be way better than my initial interpretation, which was more along the lines of “a state of peace that will break apart at any moment.” There is no peace, right, so that doesn’t really make sense? I have a lot of questions about this artwork, and I have no idea if my reading of it is even close to the mark of what the artists were thinking about, or even hoping for (though I seriously doubt they had “hopes”). There was very little to suggest a conceptual direction for this show to go in, other than a little bit in the titling; but even the titling was somewhat opaque. I think “very little suggestion” is the perfect amount here; it’s a nudge, resisting rigidity, letting us fall into the fun and mystery of the materiality, the design, the look. I don’t value prescription, I value passion; it is in abundance here, and just in time for the long, lonely LA winter. Feast on it.

brittle peace is on view at NowSpace from Monday, November 4th, 2017 – December 3rd, 2017. For information on Lena Wolek and Emily Marchand, please visit their websites: https://www.lenawolek.com/ and http://www.emilymarchand.com/.

Georgia is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles. For more information on her projects, please visit www.georgialikethestate.net