Hoesy Corona's 'Cityscape (goats) with North American Shepherd' sprawls across the front of the gallery

Hoesy Corona's 'Cityscape (goats) with North American Shepherd' sprawls across the front of the gallery (EMP / July 21, 2014)

I think I tripped every time I walked into “We’re All Strangers Here.” There’s this mysterious flowery figure hovering up near the rafters that makes one want to look up. Unfortunately for me, there’s also a long, wiry, red tail snaking its way along the gallery floor. Both sprout from Hoesy Corona’s ‘Cityscape(goats) with North American Shepherd,’ an installation that sprawls across the front of the gallery, demarcating the surreal interior from the outside world. This evocation of a “threshold” is reinforced by Corona’s treatment of the floor—viewers must step across a loose carpet of plastic mesh sleeves (like the ones used to bundle flowers or produce) to reach the exhibition, which implores, via a handwritten sign, “Enter Me Softly.”

Corona’s dreamscape is populated by a herd of waist-height furniture/animal hybrids. They’re beautifully crafted from found objects and bones, tied together by wrapped string. This construction method gives the impression that the creatures are bound in place—captives immobilized for unknown intentions. The concepts of passage, boundaries, and captivity are inseparably tied to geopolitics and international borders. Part of what makes this piece so successful is its ability to address sociopolitical issues without sacrificing beauty or mystery. Corona weaves a parable about immigration but allows the audience to fabricate its own narrative, opting for an emotional/aesthetic appeal rather than a heavy-handed didactic tone. Walking on the soft plastic wrappers is pleasurable, but also intimidating—creating the awkward/seductive feeling that comes from touching art in a gallery context that Felix González-Torres mastered. A floodgate of associations with produce, flowers, and the trade relationship between the United States and Latin America is opened when you realize what the objects are. It’s refreshing to see artwork that’s politically relevant without forcing its relevance down your throat. Much of the work at EMP struck the same balance. 

I visited the exhibition, curated by Sara Barnes and Carly J. Bales, during the queer edition of Pulse, a new monthly performance series at EMP Collective, also curated by Bales with Alexander D’agostino. It is rewardingly immersive to experience performance and installation in the same space. NAPSQUAD (artists Alexander D’agostino, Noelle Tolbert, and Porter Montana) performed their piece ‘SPACEFACE’ in and around Gina Denton’s hanging sculpture ‘Power Necklace.’ While NAPSQUAD ran laps, changed clothes and shoes, and gradually exhausted themselves in something like an inscrutable gym class ritual, ‘Power Necklace’ resembled a climbing rope or obstacle course. When the performers scattered, the piece asserted itself once again—a cascading chain of labor-intensive baubles including head-sized felt pom-poms, embroidery, and papier-mâché loops. It looks almost like a string of lobster pots designed to snare crafters rather than crustaceans. Just as this thought struck me, the North American Shepherd figure, wrapped in butcher paper, stopped mechanically surveying his flock of “Cityscape(goats)” and began changing costumes. I had previously noticed the figure, but mentally registered it as a kinetic sculpture and was startled by the reveal that it was Hoesy Corona in the suit all along. Those kinds of surprises that happen when you’re focused/distracted/present/hypnotized for/by a room full of huge artworks and performances made me miss the old days of the Transmodern Festival, when visual art and performances were scattered together around the H&H building. 

Appropriately, Laure Drogoul, one of the organizers of Transmodern, produced one of my favorite pieces in “We’re All Strangers Here.” Drogoul’s interactive ‘(Pendulum)’ is housed in a small, curtained-off room. Inside, there is a transparent dish of blue liquid suspended beneath a spotlight, projecting a wobbly cerulean glow onto the floor. Four people can sit in the corners of the room, ask a question, and manipulate the apparatus by pulling on hanging strings, directing the light, swirling with patterns, toward “answers” on the floor. It’s reminiscent of those Magic 8 Ball oracles, but much more fun—and poignant. Even if a group can master the task of working in tandem to shift the light, the answer is always the same: “Maybe.”  

“We’re All Strangers Here” is described by the curators as an exhibition in which “Inner worlds collide into extraterrestrial landscapes as artists create new terrains to be interpreted, reinterpreted, and to get lost in.” It’s a great premise for the space; EMP Collective occupies a long, cavernous storefront in an old cast-iron building that has enough character to be interesting without always overpowering the artwork. Some of the pieces, however, never quite reach their full potential to immerse the viewer, largely owing to their scale in relationship to their context. Nikki Painter’s ‘Trip’—an assemblage of boxes, windows, and a ladder painted with clashing stripes—is one of the few artworks I’ve ever seen that I imagine I would prefer to experience as documentation. Prior to this show, I had only seen (and loved) photographs of Painter’s installations, which are usually deconstructed architectural elements painted in bold patterns and posed like imploding or exploding structures. Here, the volumes are neatly stacked against the wall, reading more like a collage of parallel planes than an intervention in physical space. I found myself resisting the urge to pull them out arrange them around the empty gallery. 

Also hugging the wall, Lisa Krause’s ‘Relics of a Disappearing World’ seemed to have a different scale issue. The installation consists of found objects—old TVs, taxidermy, twigs, candles, and assorted kitsch—painted in earth tones and arranged like an altar. I sometimes find it frustrating to engage with visually cluttered artwork that doesn’t offer a proportional amount of legible content relative to materials. Here, there are really lovely moments—such as dream-catcher made from the shell of an old television—that get lost in the mix. It’s hard to tell which details the artist thinks are important. There are a lot of components to this piece that I liked, but due to a lack of editing, I had difficulty connecting them to form a narrative I felt the artist was trying to convey. Scaled back, at a more intimate scale, a selection of these artifacts could be a compelling point of entry into Krause’s world. On the other hand, I could also see myself enjoying a much larger version of this installation, like wandering a quizzical, post-apocalyptic museum dedicated to the ruins of the Papermoon Diner. 

April Camlin addresses the internal/external dichotomy from a wholly different approach; her piece ‘Deflate’ is a garment—the most universal membrane between the self and the environment. But the suit, comprised of felted knit strips woven together, is strangely alien—it references the body and is meticulously crafted, but is so distinct from fashion that it feels like something produced within a different cultural logic. It could be considered as a prosthesis to help the artist (or a far stranger creature) protect herself from a hostile environment. Faceless and bizarre, it reads as an “other.” Presented upright, it might be vaguely sinister. But here it is prostrate on the floor, deflated and vulnerable. It’s an unusual way to display a garment—one that evokes a degree of sympathy. Coming across ‘Deflate’ in the gallery is what I imagine finding the dead body of a dangerous animal would feel like. 

Pulse’s performance programing continued in the back of the space with pieces from Sarah Tooley, Ada Pinkston, and Kunj Patel. A gagged Tooley lounged in a bed next to an array of objects arranged and numbered like evidence. Tooley cleverly mines the established vocabulary of feminist performance art—the bed, menstrual blood, the objects from Marina Abramovi¿’s ‘Rhythm 0’—but playfully twists that language to position herself in a role of agency, rather than subjugation. Audience members were invited to pick a spot on a paper “fortune teller” game, which decided the object Tooley would use on them, a reversal of Abramovi¿ or Yoko Ono’s precedents. I was honestly a little scared as I watched Tooley run a kitchen knife across my blindfolded roommate’s skin. I lucked out, receiving a nice massage from a tennis ball. In the absence of brave volunteers, Tooley occupied herself painting with menstrual blood, repurposing it as a resource for art-making rather than a solely symbolic subject in an artwork. 

The performances ended with Bruno Isakovic’s ‘Denuded,’ a silent (save for breathing) performance in which the artist manipulated his highly disciplined, flawlessly toned body. The beginning of the performance was like watching someone pour himself into various molds based on the classic male nudes of art history—becoming Adonis, David, Saint Sebastian, and Joe Dallesandro in Warhol’s ‘Flesh’ in slow succession. These contortions gradually picked up speed and severity, as Isakovic’s breathing became deeper and more audible, until his torso no longer resembled any recognizable static image of the body, but an undulating lava lamp (an impression reinforced by dramatic lighting). ‘Denuded’ was a fitting resolution to an evening of experiencing work by two different (albeit interrelated) groups of artists. While the artists in “We’re All Strangers Here” externalized their internal worlds through spatial interventions, Isakovic plied his own body into an alien topography—transforming himself from the recognizable to an unfamiliar, shifting landscape.