The Contemporary Arts Center Serves Up a Trippy Trio of Shows

Three colorful, vibrant and mind-expanding exhibitions will take over the Contemporary Arts Center this summer

Jul 8, 2019 at 4:25 pm

If the Contemporary Arts Center’s three upcoming exhibitions are any indication, your visit to the museum might take a turn for the trippy. 

Starting July 12, the CAC’s gallery spaces will erupt with primary colors, exhibiting vibrant — and often lysergic — solo work by Saya Woolfalk, Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum and Bubi Canal.

“It’s clear when you look at the imagery that there’s a thread between them,” says Valentine Umansky, CAC's curator of lens-based arts. “Part of that is deliberate and part of it’s by chance — let’s say ‘orchestrated chance.’”

Umansky has curated the solo shows for Woolfalk and Sunstrum, which will be on display in the second-floor gallery. Woolfalk crafts large, diorama-like scenes and Sunstrum paints flat, surreal tableaux, but both focus on the links (and disconnects) between identity and the digital world. The future and past co-exist as folk-art tropes merge with visions of technological progress. 

Woolfalk, a New Yorker who is of Japanese and African-American descent, is fascinated by the concept of hybridity: the combination of genes, cultures or species. Each sense of the word is evident in her upcoming CAC exhibition, A Cabinet of Anticipation.

In Woolfalk’s imagination, the future promises the Chimacloud — a virtual world just beyond ordinary perception made accessible by the advancements created by a firm called ChimaTek. Through works that resemble anthropological exhibits, Woolfalk introduces audiences to the Empathics, a race that has learned to transport their consciousness into this new, customizable universe. There, limitless possibilities have leveled the distinctions between cultures and geographical locations; what’s left is a colorful hybrid of all lifestyles and eras that have previously existed. To say her work is maximal is an understatement. 

"An Empathic Preparing to Paint Images from the Book Empathetic Plant Alchemy (Jillian)," 2011 - Saya Woolfalk // courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artwork + Projects, New York
Saya Woolfalk // courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artwork + Projects, New York
"An Empathic Preparing to Paint Images from the Book Empathetic Plant Alchemy (Jillian)," 2011

“The gallery will feel like walking into the dark of night,” reads the CAC’s press release. “Deep blue walls filled with immersive and intricate constellations of projection and wall-mounted sculptures will surround the visitor. Much of the work in the exhibition opens up possibilities for future human narratives and the acceleration of post-humanism.”

Sunstrum, born in Botswana and based in Canada, also explores the symbiosis between humans and their digital selves. Her mid-career survey, All my seven faces, will feature the largest-ever display of her drawings, as well as the first monograph dedicated to her work. 

Often working in pencil, gouache and watercolor, Sunstrum layers faceless figures atop surreal landscapes. Bodies merge into multi-limbed beings. Flowing dresses mime mountain ranges. Dreamy pastels and geometric shapes form backdrops that are by no means natural, but perhaps nature-adjacent. 

“The notion of the avatar is essential to her work,” Umansky says. “A visual being tied to our imagination. It’s an added layer of simulation to what we perceive as reality. Sunstrum calls her avatar Asme, which reads ‘as me’ if you cut the word down the middle.”

It’s this idea of multiplying the self that inspired the title of Sunstrum’s show and connects the decade of artistic output that will be on exhibition. 

"Sleeper", 2018 - Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum // Courtesy of Tiwani Contemporary
Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum // Courtesy of Tiwani Contemporary
"Sleeper", 2018

“She has this really unusual, elaborate technique which allows you to see the under layers of pencil through thin, very watery layers of paint,” Umansky says. “This is a technique she has developed over the years, but for me as a historian — and I’m sure for her as well — traces back to what we now call the ‘palimpsest,’ which is the idea that you can have layers of understanding. In that case, it was in the pages of books; and in Pamela’s case, it’s in layers of paint.” 

Slated for the lower-level lobby gallery, Spanish photographer Bubi Canal’s Into the Gloaming series embraces absurdity by centering itself on playful costume design that wouldn’t feel out of place buried in a toy chest. 

The show’s 18 photographs and supplementary video, shot during the “gloaming,” aka twilight or dusk, were curated by former CityBeat arts contributor Maria Seda-Reeder. 

“There’s a kind of nuance and ambiguity that his photographs kind of get to that allows for multiple things at once,” says Seda-Reeder. “It feels like daytime because the sun is out, but it’s in the process of going away. There’s a kind of magic that happens in those transitional moments, a kind of interstitial thing.” 

Bubi Canal's "Into the Gloaming" - Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Bubi Canal's "Into the Gloaming"

Surrealism is often associated with murky colors and an unnerving atmosphere, yet Canal’s work emerges from the subconscious swathed in pure reds, blues and yellows that act as optimistic bulwarks against the eerie unknown. In his 2010 Supercolor series, an early precursor to his upcoming CAC exhibition, a wizard-like figure in a blue bubble jacket huddles with plush Rainbow Brite sprites; an evening storm frames them in darkness. “Love Is My Message” (2013) centers on a half-human, half-mascot biker in Jordan tennis shoes, acting as a purple beacon of positivity against the creeping dawn. Furbys — yes, the robotic, owl-like toy from the 1990s — feature prominently throughout his body of work. 

“(Canal’s photography) is reassuring,” Seda-Reeder says. “The work isn’t supposed to be jarring or disorienting. There’s something very childlike about it — something willfully naïve that really reflects his personality.”

All three exhibitions open the evening of July 12, kicking off with a 7 p.m. artist talk that is free to all CAC members. A public opening celebration follows at 8 p.m.

Saya Woolfalk’s A Cabinet of Anticipation, Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum’s All my seven faces and Bubi Canal’s Into the Gloaming open July 12 at the Contemporary Arts Center. Into the Gloaming runs through Sept. 15; A Cabinet of Anticipation and All my seven faces through Oct. 27. More info: