As far as artistic inspiration goes, “the subconscious” is always going to be a popular muse, right up there with “daily life,” “ephemeral stuff,” and anything having to do with “the nature of perception.”
What’s harder to find is an artist who poses unfamiliar questions about all of the above. “Where did I hide my hard childhood?” “Can I look back on it as an adult?” “Will looking change it?” “Who else can see?“ In her current exhibition at Sierra Nevada College—titled stale G r a v i t y—artist and Sierra Nevada College alumnus Shawnie Personius imagines what past trauma might look like as a present-time, three-dimensional location. Not just a moodscape. Not just an aura of dreamy confusion for us to get stuck in, but an actual room with corners and candles, hanging pods and miniature houses whose surreal forms hold space for the artist’s real experiences.
It’s disorienting at first. The expansive, white walls fight with the room’s studio-apartment dimensions. Scrawled across them in what appears to be clay slip are poems about Personius’ return to her childhood home.
“I felt the weight of my two feet/ heavy, deep upon the ground/ as I walked through my/ childhood house./ The mirror in the/ bathroom, slightly cracked, bottom left/ looking in, leaning into another self-/ remembering her, her anxiety, her fear./ Feeling the slight breath she took as she/ lost feeling of the gravity/ holding her to the ground.”
These walls and words provide a backdrop where seemingly unrelated, dissociated, and strange objects can coexist.
A dozen ceramic sculptures resembling large cocoons hang (or float?) from the vaulted ceiling. One has fallen to the floor and is broken. All are pod-shaped and earth-toned, sealed up with row after row of the artists’ own fingerprints, giving the vessels a wasp’s nest quality that implies a threat inside. The heaviness of the forms also adds to this feeling of dread, as do the abstracted body parts—a spine, a mouth, a clit—that protrude from the clay. One smaller pod is wrapped in wire and two larger ones are completely closed up. Several have gash-like openings that reveal the danger inside to be little white houses made of unglazed porcelain. Or, more likely— symbols of houses—since all distinguishing features have been omitted, rendering them allegories, rather than literal objects, of domestic unrest.
On the wall, more porcelain houses sit in a row on a shelf. Piles of broken-down porcelain chairs, broken-down porcelain ladders, and half-formed porcelain candlesticks rest atop pedestals around the room—their whiteness and smallness identifying them as functionally different from the hanging pods. (The latter protects the artist from her memories, the former are narrative devices meant for us). It’s all a bit unsettling, but not scary.
And then there’s this pile of rusty nails in the corner. And this piece of old doorframe leaning against the wall next to a scrap of homemade paper that forms an ominous-looking stain on the floor. I cannot stress this enough, but these items are chilling. Without Personius’ dingy house relics, we have no real way of grounding the trauma in her allegorical objects. But seeing old pieces of the artist’s childhood home—whether or not they actually come from her real house—gives us a direct link to the events that occurred there. Without knowing what happened (especially without knowing what happened), the objects seem almost evil in comparison to the rest of the room.
The good news—if an art exhibit can have good news—is that there’s evidence of healing, too. A small shelf with five porcelain cups sits in the corner opposite the one with the rusty nails. The cups are porcelain but not all-white, specific not symbolic, colored with glaze, and really, really beautiful. They are so delicate that they appear as though they were created from the same piece of paper that stains the floor by the old doorframe.
Behind the pedestal with the candlesticks, a row of 11 previously lit candles are affixed to the wall; one candle for each pod, one memorial for each memory. Some candles have been burned more than others, and one has been melted down to its candlestick. Maybe that one was for the pod wrapped in wire? It’s impossible to know.
What we do know is that the artist has found a way to go home again. It involves hermetically sealing memories with clay, lighting candles, and inviting witnesses. And it seems to work.
The exhibition stale G r a v i t y is on view through Oct. 4 in the Tahoe Gallery at Sierra Nevada College. A closing reception is scheduled for Oct. 3, 5-7 p.m., with an artist’s talk at 5:30 p.m. For more information about the 2018 Perspectives on Design (POD) award winning artist Shawnie Personius, go to www.shawniepersonius.wordpress.com.