In Lewis Carroll’s 1871 sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice traverses a mirror above her drawing-room fireplace to enter the “Looking-glass House.” Once there she discovers a chamber that is both familiar and bizarre — a place identical in dimension to the humdrum parlor she has departed, but where chess pieces frolic and poems are written in reverse.
As she makes her way through this peculiar land of talking flowers and nursery-rhyme characters, Alice is repeatedly confounded by dramatic fluctuations in time and space, language and logic.
Visitors to Alice Pixley Young’s new exhibition at PAC Gallery may empathize with the petite heroine’s plight. Looking Glass possesses compelling pieces, but their visual continuity is tenuous. Resisting the artist’s search for “the possibility of a different experience of reality,” the exhibition’s seven works never quite gel into a cohesive show.
Young is a National Boards certified Visual Arts Instructor and the recipient of multiple fellowships and grants. Her marvelous 2009-10 solo exhibition Nightfall at the Alice F. and Harris K. Weston Gallery was a haunting descent into the dark recesses of the subconscious mind.
But where Nightfall was Young’s opus, Looking Glass feels like its coda. The motifs are reprised — collisions between the familiar and the strange, domestic and arboreal — but the climax has passed. What we witness instead is an artist in transition.
In “You are looking for something that no longer exists,” a weathered door stands sentry-like near the gallery entrance. Beckoning the viewer forth, its cracked and faded surface is a phantom skin, its peephole a gateway into another world. Staring into its eerie monocle reveals a colorless film that methodically pans around a tree’s leafless limbs.
The door’s battered exterior and faint odor elicits a tingling, haptic response and the land beyond the tiny sliver of glass is a place where fear is perfected. Tonally similar to Nightfall’s more sinister elements, the work is a striking introduction to the exhibition.
Its heir apparent, “Secret Worlds” is a decrepit cabinet topped by a cast-glass mirror that doubles as a video monitor. Surrounded by salt-encrusted doilies on the wall behind it, the cabinet doors belch reams of ribbon embroidered with the phrase “There are secrets in your bones.” Spreading out like entrails across the floor, it’s an almost gruesome scene.
Like the film in the previous work, the video projected on the glass mirror in “Secret Worlds” evokes a gateway, but without recognizable imagery. The cumulative effect is the sense that the cabinet’s interior is larger than its exterior, and what dwells within is trying to escape.
But after the visceral impact and potent symbolism of “You are looking for something that no longer exists” and “Secret Worlds,” several smaller works are perplexingly out of place.
“Tracery” and “Homeland,” both laser-etched glass squares, exhibit stylized images of the forest and cast delicate shadows on the wall behind them. On the opposite wall, a collection of fragile glass flowers sprout from the pale white finish. These green and white “Mementos” suggest growth and rebirth, perhaps a reference to the artist’s change in direction.
Compared to Young’s menacing tableau, these pieces are downright sunny. But the abrupt shift from ominous to optimistic is disorienting, and their cleanliness is formally at odds with the grit and grime of the storied objects in her more effective pieces. “Mementos” coupled with “Tracery” and “Homeland” read like an investigation into a new medium rather than a sincere effort to evoke the uncanny.
PAC Director Annie Bowling has done a tremendous job championing cutting-edge contemporary art in Cincinnati, but the space is a harsh mistress. Its layout and the floor to ceiling windows that run the entire length of the gallery aren’t always kind to visual art, and this inhibits a completely clean inspection of Young’s effort.
Sculptures must not only transcend their material nature, but also affect a transformation of the space around them. That’s a tough task in the best circumstances, let alone against a backdrop of traffic whizzing by at 40 mph. As a result, the hodgepodge nature of Looking Glass’ recent work is accentuated in ways it might not otherwise be.
Alice Pixley Young is a talented and thoughtful artist and given different display circumstances, a more coherent show could emerge. Despite the exhibition’s shortcomings, the best pieces will, like Carroll said of Alice, “still haunt … phantomwise.”
on display at PAC Gallery through April 13. More information: www.pacgallery.net.