Saturday, March 12, 2011

Rachel Sperry's Writ Crit

In her work displayed for Writ Crit, Rachel S., a printmaker new to Wash U who will be a major next year, exhibits a strong use of printmaking techniques and uses them along with her humor to make a social commentary on the production of food, and call upon larger concerns of society’s excessive modification of the natural. There are three groupings/series of works present. The first is made up of life size paper masks and multiple prints of a reductive woodcut of a blue wall water at an aquarium. The second consists of a print of layered agricultural structures, a covered petri dish with an image of an industrial chicken farm, a photocopied annotated except from “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safron Foer and a book with layered translucent pages that progresses from what looks like a graph, to simplified landscapes. The final grouping is a series of seven prints of sugar lift etchings of men who look like they belong in porn magazines displaying increasingly exaggerated male anatomy made up collaged wildly colored corn images.

To begin from left to right, with the “At the Aquarium” piece, the first thing you see is the eye level masks expressing variations of awe, disgust and unhappiness. Rachel’s intention to place them at eye level forces the viewer to interact with them, rather than suggesting the viewer put them on. The choice to make the faces into masks suggests that these emotions are performed, or hiding something behind them, creating an interesting disconnect between these performed emotions and the expected emotions in the situation Rachel has put them in.Surrounded by prints of a reductive woodcut of a large aquariums and the text “AT THE AQUARIUM, 80 MILLION GALLONS entertaining intrigue.” The use of the multiple with the aquarium images conveys a sense of excess, although perhaps a bigger print, or even more prints, could also evoke a similar feeling. The faces suggest an overwhelmed reaction to this excess and reaction to a spectacle. It’s a negative reaction to something that is designed to be fun, and to be an attraction – instead in its excess overwhelms. In this same way, in the vertically hung prints the eyes (taken from the mask images) are not immediately noticeable, suggesting the viewer of the aquarium is lost and becomes only watching eyes to this overwhelming amount of water, stimulation, and information.

As we move to the center to the print of agricultural structures and the books and objects on the pedestal, Rachel introduces her concern with food production. This work exhibits an interest/ or rather concern with mass production, alteration, artificiality and ethics of how food is produced. For me, being from the cornfields of the midwest this print is a very familiar image and brings to mind harvest time when all the farmers bring in their corn and this huge machinery is running constantly with yellow rivers of corn, so much corn that it completely stops looking like it and becomes part of the machinery. This loss of the image of the natural element when it is in such great quantities relates to how in the print, you don’t actually see any land as it is hidden by the excess of printed farm buildings. To me this says the machines and processing of the corn plays a bigger role in food production than the land that grows it, which loses the root of where our food comes from. The except from “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safron Foer and Rachel’s annotations extend the interest in food production into moral and ethical concerns of food production. Though the different underlining and notations appear somewhat academic, they reveal an honest and invested interest in the subject matter. They start to form a conversation around the content between the author, Rachel and the viewer. Particular underlined passages that stood out me in the context of Rachel’s work surrounding it were “shame is a response and a responsibility” and “language is never fully trustworthy, but when it comes to eating animals, words are as often used to misdirect and camoflage as they are to communicate.” The second quotation brings up the idea of something hidden, an idea present in the translucent layers of the book, heavy layering of ink in the agriculture print, and the hole in the covering of the petri dish. Rachel gives the sense in this work that the truth is always hidden, unethical practices, the land, and information in general. This also relates back to use of the mask in the Aquarium series.

The last series on the end, however, seems to do the very opposite of hiding. Through the increase in size, color and ridiculousness of the male anatomy from left to right in the seven prints Rachel calls to mind and makes a statement about the unnatural modification of our food. It’s really funny and I read it as the food industry taking the role of the men in the prints and saying about their genetically modified agriculture and production practices, “look at this, isn’t it impressive!?” and Rachel’s commentary back is that “No, it’s ridiculous, excessive, unnatural, and you’ve gone too far.”
But beyond being amusing, these prints also bring up her concern with the unnaturalness of our food thanks to Man’s tampering, as well as issues of gender and masculinity. Although I think you can read the “man” in these prints as standing for “mankind” in the larger picture, masculinity is obviously as issue raised. These prints are taking masculine pride and making it “bigger and better!!” and bigger and bigger until its altogether too far. In the context of the other work, to the left, Rachel seems to be conflating man with machinery and as being the artificial hand in something that begins very simply with the earth. Man’s alterations are overtaking the natural. Rachel uses color to emphasize what is not quite right here.

The Aquarium piece also reveals man’s artificial hand as the ocean is contained in glass. Along these lines, Rachel also uses color strategically in all human elements and skin tones both in the corn porn and the Aquarium piece. She strips away all warm life-like colors for a cold light gray – which seems to be commenting that with all this excess somehow we are further from our humanity and unnatural.

Overall, it’s very evident that these are issues Rachel is genuinely passionate about, and there is really a lot here to look at and talk about. I see the three sections of work present here as relating to three different stages in the encounter of these issues brought up. The Aquarium represents the initial encounter with this information, and being overwhelmed and maybe a little horrified at all that is out there. The farm grouping represents the research, conversation and discovery. Finally the corn series is using humor to really tell us what she thinks about it and make a statement. The large idea I take away from Rachel’s work is in the excess of information out there the duality between what’s hidden, and what’s out in the open - what the agriculture is proud to share and what we might have to research ourselves and talk to each other to fully understand and be called to action

An artwork I thought of in relation to Rachel’s work is “Apology to Roadkill” by Shaun Gladwell.

In the writ crit conversation Lisa also mentioned “skateboarding video” also by Shaun Gladwell in relation to the repeated reductive woodcut in the Aquarium piece.

Other artists and works that were brought up during the writ crit conversation were:
“Radioactive Cats” by Sandy Skoglund and the activist work of Just Seeds Cooperative.

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