Iam exhausted. I haven’t been meditating regularly. War is a horror. Andy is annoyed with me today. Mittens will surely eat me when I die.
As I drive south over the Wells Avenue bridge, a billboard plastered with my state-of-mind meets me at the intersection, the word “EVERYTHING” pulsing beneath a messy veil of leaf litter, flowers, and grasses that look like they’ve been scattered or left to grow wild and 40 feet tall. Like any other billboard, this one—a blown-up painting titled “Big Meadow” by Julia Schwadron Marianelli—trades in sensation, triggering low-level body responses rather than thoughts. But unlike the highway ads for cellular service, senior citizen publications, and casinos that surround it, this sign isn’t selling anything except the feeling of “everything,” which happens to look a lot like the kind of breakdown you might have after a lifetime of being constantly, relentlessly sold to.
Dim pink and bright pink letters, tessellated and partially mirrored on a rust-colored background feel dark and totalizing as language eventually dissolves under the graffiti of light purple flowers and blades of grass—natural remedies for the overwhelming state of driving, buying things, and being alive in this moment in time … where we are powerless to stop war and are annoying to our loved ones, where we are eventual cat food or eventual leaf litter.
The light turns green and I continue down Wells Avenue to The Holland Project Gallery, where two more of Schwadron Marianelli’s paintings hang in the group exhibition, Holding Pattern, curated by Nick Larsen. Like the billboard, these paintings—titled “Who Speaks For You” and “Spike Kiss”— also feature dark backgrounds and tangled plants, but are distinguished by a lack of visible language that renders the flowers and grasses dissonant only in relation to their black context, instead of their literal text. To me, they resemble the flowers that float in the dark water of John Guille Millais’ “Ophelia” painting, where the lovely, mad woman has drowned herself and each flower is a symbol for a different, unrealized virtue—innocence, faithfulness, love—etymological impressions without the wordiness of words.
This, coupled with the flower paintings’ much smaller scale, replaces the confrontation of the billboard with the communion of art object or holy relic. Staring into Schwadron Marianelli’s laptop-sized pieces, I know I could reach in and there would be no bottom, that I could find myself, and—if I only apply the virtues of these flowers—realize that divinity is attainable. Isn’t it more spiritual to die in a deep lake than live in a wide metaverse?
Powerless again. Annoying again. As I walk through the rest of the exhibition—presented as a three-dimensional poem—it occurs to me that even the arrangement of works in the first gallery (including some excellent pieces by Ann Hamilton, Cat Mailloux, and William J. O’Brien) is asking too much. Each piece feels more like a world unto itself than a word in a metered composition. This is probably because I have just been in traffic and am overwhelmed with everything, but isn’t everybody.
Walking into the sparsely hung back gallery, though, a verse takes shape.
Three stacked block sculptures from Ryland Wharton’s Thinking in Pure Shapes series act as the beginning of the gallery poem—uncomplicated, definite articles that lead into the loose, narrative imagery of Nick Fagan’s large, fish-shaped quilt made up of crochet blanket scraps, military tent pieces, rubber boots, and doilies. A Peanuts banner bearing the words, “I’m my own person!”—also the title of the piece—is sewn in place across from a beaded back massager and gym socks. The work feels lifted out of a particular lifetime defined by competing identities and the homeliness of childhood memories that we can’t seem to give away.
In the middle of the floor, two black, beam-like sculptures by Häsler Gómez—titled “Unnamed (Elegy VIII)” and “Unnamed (Elegy IX)” respectively—rest on the floor like two, too-short gallery benches. Proper nouns whose simple, streamlined appearance belie the special people embedded in the material: Gómez’s mother, grandmother, and grandfather … now keychains and graveyard flowers that are barely distinguishable from the smooth, dark surface of the insulation foam that makes up the bulk of the sculptures.
The piece ends with another Nick Fagan textile, this one a mashup of a colorful crocheted quilt and a repurposed moving blanket that appear to jump back and forth between fabrics, giving the illusion of the quilt either emerging from or sinking into the moving blanket, its hand-stitched patterns forming rainbow puddles in the beige, machine-made border.
A final Ryland Wharton block sculpture punctuates the poem, which I am now thinking is an elegy to our past lives—our own pathologies and personal saints. It consists of a long, partly deconstructed wooden pedestal with a small wall of white-painted blocks on one side and a hangman tree tower on the other. Child-like attempts to make sense of our surroundings.
When I get home, I take a shower and pretend that I am surrounded by flowers. I am still exhausted, but not worse off. I forget about the war in Ukraine for a week, turning my attention to the layers of grass and leaf litter in my garden, mind blank and hands busy. Distracted—but only by things I choose, which I’m told is not very noble but is very understandable.
Holding Pattern is up at The Holland Project Gallery through April 29. To see more in the billboard series, visit the Holland Project’s website.
Photos: Kris Vagner
This article was funded by a City of Reno Arts + Culture Grant.