Shotgun Review

From New York: Usable Pasts

By Christine Wong Yap September 10, 2010

In their yearlong residencies at the Studio Museum in Harlem, three artists used selective histories to make new works, currently on view in Usable Pasts, curated by Naomi Beckwith. The results are poetic meditations on family histories; satires about class and excess; and post-race self-portraits and abstractions.

Valerie Piraino’s photographic and mixed-media installations are somber meditations on family histories and the construction of narratives. They pair conceptual art’s coolness with the condensed evocations of short poetry.

In With Pen in Hand (2010), two slide projectors display travel snapshots from Piraino’s family archive on a wall of empty picture frames. Images of a Spanish bullfight, a holy site, natural landscapes, and two posed, smiling women co-mingle. No contextual clues are supplied. The installation’s ambiguity is enhanced by the slides’ reversals and rotations, which reinforce the inscrutability of the documents: What meaning did these people and places carry for the photographer? What does the artist learn about herself from them? The images, like the fullness of lived experience and identity, exceed the picture frames.

Piraino’s gravity contrasts Lauren Kelly’s playfulness. Kelly’s Lindy Drive (2010) photographic suite depicts elaborately constructed sets of kitschy postwar suburban interiors, complete with modernist sculptures. Three mixed-media sculptures are also on view. Their base materiality—foam, duct tape, and resin—poke at the high-minded ideals of such abstractions. Kelly also presents three stop-motion animations made with dolls and plasticized clay. The videos are about as technical as an episode of Adult Swim’s Robot Chicken, with rougher audio. Depicting stories of suburban excess and interpersonal drama, they are entertaining and oddly captivating.

Valerie Piraino. With Pen in Hand, 2010; found frames, slide projectors, slides and tables; 84 × 84 × 108 in. Courtesy of the Artist and the Studio Museum in Harlem. Photo: Marc Bernier.

Breaking from Piraino’s and Kelly’s interest in the domestic, Mequitta Ahuja contributes large self-portraits, which she describes as “automythologies.” There is something refreshingly entitled about the equivocal approach with which she appropriates art historical and cultural references. In Usable Pasts, Ahuja presents images of herself as an ancient Asian warrior, Greek Medusa and Hindu spiritualist. It may sound like narcissistic work, but I enjoyed her post-race sense of freedom.

Ahuja also contributes abstractions, which she considers landscapes for her archetype. They feature brilliant patches of red and blue washes beneath a dense network of transparent blacks tinted with phthalo blues and greens, which, in turn, lie under shiny impasto lines of black paint, raised as keloids, but tangled as brambles.



Usable Pasts is on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem in New York through October 24, 2010.

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