Do you believe in ghosts? How about photographic negatives? In her second wave of work following last week’s MFA Review, Frances Melhop gives us both in “Vanish,” her MFA Midway thesis.
Though her images only appear half-materialized as 26 large-scale, hanging photo tapestries, it’s hard to get around the ghosts of girls past, whose likenesses are burned into the cloth. It’s creepy for sure. And it’s uncanny. Closely spaced to limit viewers’ movements through the translucent maze, each life-sized girl looks like someone you’ve seen before—only in period dress and surrounded by artifacts of the late 19th century.
The images are taken from tintype photographs that Melhop has collected, and the girls appear to range in age from 4 to 20. Each one’s hair is tied back or brushed forward in the style of the day. They wear Victorian dresses, petticoats and uncomfortable-looking shoes. They stand with their hands resting on chairs, in front of backdrops that suggest either the sublimity of the natural world or the domestic trappings of an interior one. Both are literal trappings, though, as it occurs to the viewer that the most familiar things about each face are the expressions of listlessness and underlying sense of disenfranchisement immediately under the surface. This amounts to a lot of blank stares, far-off gazes, and—in a few cases—defiant eyebrows that hint at a belief in something better. Behind each portrait, a negative image floats like a memory, giving physical form to the emotional absence in the work.
Are we projecting a little? Sure. The same dead-eyed stare exists in images of men who were made to sit for long periods of time for early photographs—but they aren’t in the room. The effect of an all-female lineup of half-there bodies and not-there faces adds up to a referendum on an outdated femininity—theirs as well as ours.
Further back in the gallery, Gwaylon Leaf attempts to capture a different kind of ghost with “Spirit Trap,” a series of eight large, scroll-like paintings that hang from the walls, accompanied by a small tree adorned with colorful cut paper. In his artist statement, Leaf mentions his identity as a Chinese-American to give context to the “Chinese mysticism” that colors his paintings.
In each piece, broad, loose brushstrokes meet smaller ribbon-like lines that resemble amorphous shapes and calligraphic characters. The color palette is limited to shades of blue, teal, pink, red and yellow. Blocks of blackwash and lines of white interrupt and ground the movement of color, giving the viewer places to stop, but not necessarily rest. This fluidity, coupled with the paintings’ ceiling-to-floor size, makes it difficult to stand in front of any given piece for too long—especially the paintings that feature a lot of bright yellow which, according to the Leaf’s artist statement, “denotes the internal.” Go figure.
At first glance, Leaf’s work appears to share a lot of DNA with abstract expressionism as well as the Asian painters who inspired this Western movement. Dig a little deeper, and it becomes clear that there is more formula at work here than pure feeling. In his artist statement, Leaf references “abstract scripts, talisman, magic diagram, and color” as his tools in creating a “spiritual visual language.” It’s a perfectly legitimate way of working, especially if the work works.
And it mostly does. Up until the tree, or titular “Spirit Trap.” Here, Leaf borrows the Tibetan folk practice of weaving string, charms, and paper prayer sheets into tree branches to capture unwanted spirits. It’s fascinating and beautiful and may be one mystical element too far—threatening to tip Leaf’s concept of Chinese magic into “wise other” territory. That said, it’s refreshing to see an artist try more rather than less, recognize intuition as a co-creator, and use the word “spiritual” without spitting.
The final thesis in the Midway exhibition—Teal Francis’s “Lines of Action”—rescues the viewer from the highs and lows of looking too hard at our past ghosts and present intuition to present us with a more cerebral exercise—examining the way we dress by animal proxy. Across two gallery alcoves, Francis positions fully clothed, brightly colored, upright, block- and screen-printed paper animals in close proximity to one another, creating a handful of common social situations.
In “Cubicle,” a fox, a gopher, a mountain lion and a goat stand around in professional-looking garments. A few feet away, a bat sports a Hawaiian shirt and a deflated expression. It is not Casual Friday.
Some of the same animals reappear in “Seance,” with the addition of a wolf, gazelle and mole. This time, it is the gopher who is underdressed, wearing a short cape instead of a long one, which—along with socks instead of shoes—seems to be the standard religious garb for a seance.
Anything goes in “Grocery,” as the animals show up dressed for other places—the bat in a uniform, goat in a tank top, gazelle in work clothes, and mole still sporting the green seance robe, this time with shoes.
Francis orchestrates three other gatherings that look at pajamas, egalitarian uniforms and weekend wear. The pieces are awkward and funny in a Wes-Anderson-meets-Dave-Eggers sort of way, allowing the viewer to consider how we signal one another without getting too hung up on the human representation side of things. Francis also has a way of pointing out the artifice in some of our more absurd clothing-related expectations. Professional dress and graphic T-shirts come to mind, but it would be awesome to see, like, a dozen other scenarios. Let’s dress the animals up in lingerie, or badges, or Gap sweatshirts and see how we feel about it.
The MFA Midway Exhibition is on display through Nov. 23 at the University of Nevada, Reno in the Jot Travis Building, featuring Frances Melhop, Gwaylon Leaf and Teal Francis. Gallery hours are Mon.-Fri., 12-4 p.m.
Photos: Kris Vagner