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Though subtle and refined in many ways, Fool’s Errand—Sessa Englund’s solo show at Hunter Shaw Fine Art—elicited a certain kind of teen nostalgia. Within the controlled aesthetic, shades of mall-chic and adolescent-DIY style pulled through. Yet, the work was not garish or cheap: the exhibit was spare, couching youthful emblems and hints at mysticism within the visual language of a materially-focused minimalism. Sheets of amber latex hung limply from rigid wooden supports, while ball chains dangled from copper-colored barbells on the wall. Englund blended a variety of references—from Northern European folklore to piercings and troll dolls—to create a dreamlike installation that whispered rather than shouted its themes. It was precisely this restraint that made Fool’s Errand so captivating.
In the exhibition, Englund played with symbols of a specific kind of gendered adolescence, from hearts and butterflies to piercings and stick-and-poke tattoos. These symbols were given weight as they were rendered in new materials—glass or metal—or enlarged to wild proportions. Ridges resembling veins or tree roots crisscrossed two brown latex squares on the floor. Small words and images were crudely tattooed into the amber latex, heightening the already uncanny connection to skin. In Twin piercings with chain and butterflies (piercing series) (all works 2021), two butterflies carved gracefully from mahogany ennobled the symbol commonly depicted in the oft-derided “tramp stamp” tattoo. The butterflies were attached to long ball-chain necklaces that hung from wall-mounted hooks modeled after barbell style piercings. Englund fashions chromatically-reserved, elegantly flowing sculptures from loud, tacky imagery, creating works that resemble objects of veneration—more prayer beads than mall tchotchke.
Always implied, overt references to the body were notably absent in Englund’s constructions. Beyond the skin-like latex and necklaces, there were wooden structures—the artist calls them “skeletons”—that felt like stand-ins for figures. Skeleton structure with pierced skin and hanger (structure series) is an upright, closet-like construction that features a coat hanger from which a limp, tan-colored latex form droops, recalling flayed skin or perhaps a bygone garment. In Upholstered skeleton structure with skin, heart and snakeskin (structure series), a wooden framework resembling a bench holds a faux-snakeskin upholstered cushion upon which a long piece of latex is draped, as if the would-be body were molting—shedding one set of skin for another, like a teen trying on a different identity, exploring alternatives.
Alongside these references to a fleeting juvenility, Englund incorporated elements of Northern European folk tradition, like a Hot Topic within the Bavarian Forest. In Three burnt skeleton structures with hearts, marzipan, necklace and trolls (structure series), hearts are cast in colored glass, giving them a sense of permanence. Surrounding each cast heart are biomorphic tendrils made from charred marzipan, a sticky sweet substance that, when hardened, is used as a sculpting material in European folk art. The work is composed of three wooden, shelf-like structures, one of which rests on four small tin Troll dolls that could easily be missed; hidden beneath the construction, they serve a practical design function. Cast from tin, the Trolls recall another European folk ritual, molybdomancy, a form of divination in which molten lead or tin is poured into water, resulting in abstract forms that are then interpreted. Here, childish bauble is recast as prophesying fetish.
In Fool’s Errand, Englund mined teen aesthetics to create a layered meditation on ephemerality and identity. The transformative use of materials lends each work substance, portraying the incorporated symbols as something elemental—pieces of bodies still being formed. Within a rectilinear architecture of hand-crafted wooden forms, Englund inserted more organic and nostalgic components as symbiotic interventions. These structures—“skeletons”—are rigid but open, providing both a support and contrast for the fluid and transient materials that embody youthful impermanence.
Matt Stromberg is a freelance arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Carla, he has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, KCET Artbound, The Guardian, The Art Newspaper, Hyperallergic, Terremoto, Artsy, frieze, and Daily Serving.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 25.