Disturbing Reality (Review)

New group exhibit at the Weston shows art with a psychological bent

Apr 7, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Disturbing Reality at the Weston Art Gallery is as much a group therapy session as a group exhibition. In addition to the expected scenes out of a child’s anxiety closet, there are a surprising number of cathartic, even comforting, images.

The nine artists in this circle seem to feed off one another, though they didn't work together on this show. Similarities exist even between those artists who are, or were, disturbed by reality and those who are playing around with what was thought to be real. In this metaphorical support group, members are at different stages of dealing with ghosts. There is hope and humor along with the scary and the sad.

Allyson Klutenkamper and Emily Hanako Momohara lead the catharsis. Klutenkamper’s large (40 inches by 60 inches) photographs of an anonymous woman caught in domestic trappings are some of the most powerful of the show. At most we see only the side of this figure posed with clothespins, sewing and kitchen goods. Usually, she’s seen from just the torso down, in an exhausted state. Depression is apparent, but so is a feeling of empowerment.

Each photo captures a decisive moment, as in a movie still. This woman has hit bottom, yet the warm lighting and the doorway or window in each photo suggest that she is going to rise soon and break free.

The Shawnee State instructor says she wants viewers to use their own emotional baggage when interpreting her autobiographical works, so some observers might feel uncomfortable. But just by making these photos, it’s clear that Klutenkamper is leaving her own bags behind.

Momohara, an Art Academy photography instructor, lost seven loved ones in a year. She pays tribute in funeral home self-portraits featuring artful shadows and ghostly blurring. Like the woman in Klutenkamper’s works, Momohara does not reveal her face.

“I want to stand in for every person,” she says, “and the fragmented body adds to the feeling of loss.” Her shadow becomes that of a dragon, a mother and child or an eagle in flight to capture the spirit of the deceased. Momohara’s collection is titled “Koden,” after the Japanese tradition of giving gifts to the bereaved, and she has given a beautiful gift of comfort and hope to the grieving.

Her later works in the series reveal how her own healing has progressed. Momohara and the cardboard cutout shadows are missing, and instead there are bees and butterflies that represent new life, however fragile.

Still preying on our fears are Mark Slankard and Nicholas Sistler. The claustrophobic nature of their art is heightened by its placement in the small, dark rooms of the Weston’s lower galleries.

Slankard’s 12-by-18-inch lightboxes contain what are at once nightmarish and darkly humorous tableaus photographed through the window of a dollhouse. Hitchcock would love the red frozen treat melting all over a miniature bathroom in a child’s version of Psycho, or the set of teeth looming large in an empty nursery. The Cleveland State teacher calls his representation of childhood anxieties that creep into adult lives “Minor Invasions.”

Sistler’s gouache paintings of skewed interiors are even smaller, some barely larger than a business card. But the Chicago artist makes one of the biggest impacts in the exhibition.

The size of the works and vibrant reds, blues and greens pull the viewer in for an intimate experience. The observer maintains physical dominance over the tiny painting, but it isn’t long before the mind leaves the real world. Emotionally, the viewer enters a “disturbing reality” where monochromatic film-noir figures, some of them violent, appear to interact with one another from the walls and furnishings of Sistler’s interiors. Smoldering cigarettes and strewn items hint that someone — likely someone dangerous — isn’t far and could return at any moment.

Sistler’s art shares Klutenkamper’s low-tothe-floor perspective that’s suggestive of a child stumbling upon a mature scene. But unlike Klutenkamper’s, none of Sistler’s doors or windows seems to lead to a way out.

Then there are those in the group who present ghosts not of the past but from today. Their control over their art is a reminder that reality is what we choose to see and anxieties are what we choose to focus on.

David Rosenthal, who teaches at UC and also runs Northside’s Prairie Gallery, says he believes “there’s no such thing as photographing the world. We transform the world through the camera.” Drawn to the story of 18th- and 19th-century religious figures who used lanterns to project images of the dead onto columns of smoke (a practice called phantasmagoria), Rosenthal set out to find spirits at the airport.

In his pictures, lights from jets, runways and towers glow, zip and dance in scenes out of science fiction. No Photoshop is involved, just the manipulation of time and light with a camera. On a column of wispy fabric, spirits of the airport come to life in the Weston’s street-level gallery.

Baltimore-based Nate Larson, who brought Miracle Pennies to the Weston in 2008, is back with Kirlian photos of food. The Kirlian camera, which uses electricity rather than light to make images, is thought by some fans to reveal the aura of the subject. Larson’s disturbing reality is that the black-yellow-green “aura” of a healthful food such as an apple looks little different from that of a glazed doughnut.

In this therapy session, that revelation could be the scariest thing.

DISTURBING REALITY is on view at the Weston Art Gallery downtown through June 6. Get show and gallery details here.