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Last winter, visitors to artist and curator Yelena Zhelezov’s living room witnessed an evocative transformation of private space. In an unassuming apartment complex in Highland Park, Zhelezov took cues from a speculative novel, assembling a sparse arrangement of 11 works by five artists that together explored notions of isolation and its attendant unexpected moments of creativity, humor, and enchantment. Titled Who is it that I am writing for?, the exhibition was the inaugural presentation in Zhelezov’s living room qua art space called Certain Fallacies—a project originally conceived during Zhelezov’s quarantine in her grandparents’ apartment in her native Belarus (which she described in our correspondence as a “USSR time capsule”). Zhelezov transposed the idea to her Los Angeles apartment due to the increasingly fraught political situation in her homeland. In light of our recent prolonged quarantines, the show reflected the inevitable mind wandering and interior monologuing—deep dives into memory, random trains of thought triggered by casually addictive phone scrolling—brought on by long-term confinement.
Piranesi, the 2020 novel by Susanna Clarke from which the exhibition took its inquisitive title, chronicles the main character’s solitary existence inside a murky labyrinth home in which an ocean is imprisoned—thus in a constant state of flooding. The works in the exhibition responded affectively to the novel’s theme of watery, labyrinthine solitude and its accompanying disorientations; together they formed a loose constellation of superposed solitudes, residue of months of isolation now come out to play. This conceptual webbing connected works that were largely sculptural but ranged from ceramics to assemblage to painting to a participatory work that invited the audience’s interaction. In the semi-porous space of an apartment living room—the very place to which many of us were confined during our respective quarantines—the interior experiences of individual artists were staged in spatial relation to one another, forging unexpected connections in a quiet domestic choreography. In this space, viewers became unexpected witnesses to each other’s solitude. The works pointed not only to the more uncomfortable realities of living alone in a time of overlapping political and medical uncertainty—overwhelming loneliness, distraction, cyclical thoughts—but also to the humor, play, creativity, and forms of solidarity that it can sustain. Any quarantine has its phases—despair, boredom, excess energy leading to ad hoc creative spells. Who is it that I am writing for? reminds us that in our all-consuming bouts of boredom and excess, we were never really alone.
Jason Burgess’ four screen-like paintings, Seduction, Hollywood Ending / Thai Town, Strip Mall / Torrance, and Tesla at Sunset / Echo Park (all 2021), play on the clichéd category of plein air painting. The glazed-over landscapes—an out-of-focus tree emerging from a swath of green or an atmospheric, sunset-colored sky—recall the familiar blurring effect of an image as it leaves the periphery of the Instagram feed. The paintings’ opalescent surfaces are layered in casual bursts of colorful marks, adding an individualized element to the mechanical phone scrolling that has become a ubiquitous activity of our contained and quarantined lives, reclaiming the feed by way of this tiny rebellious gesture. With a coy and self-deprecating sense of humor, Siobhan Furnary’s demure figurative ceramics invoked the states of overwhelm and burnout that run parallel to sustained isolation. Enraptured by the art at the museum, he needed to lay down (working title, 2021) —a white ceramic swan flecked with blue glaze, which lay “passed out” on the edge of a plexiglass pedestal—embodies exhaustion, while Crying Woman (2021) takes a more direct approach: a scaled-down self-portrait of the artist kneeling and crying into her neatly crossed arms.
Rachel McRae’s two hanging assemblage sculptures, ConfigRange_04 (2019–2021), combined such disparate objects as oyster shells collected from the shores of England’s River Thames; the popular and hypnotic “fidget-spinner;” fluorescent hair extensions; and the mystical hag stones—glassy stones with a naturally occurring hole in their center—of British folklore. The objects are laced together via the kind of black elastic straps you might find in a CrossFit gym. In our era of wellness and self-care, wherein trends borrow indiscriminately from spiritual, natural, and consumerist worlds (sage burning, gua sha, Korean face masks, to name a few), McRae’s spontaneous arrangements highlight both our susceptibility to marketing and the restless creativity of quarantine, during which we were all forced to more intimately reconcile with the objects that populated our domestic spaces.
Zhelezov’s own contribution to the show, You saw it in a film, or maybe in a painting (2021), took the form of a wall-mounted lyre-like instrument made from a mixture of salt, flour, and water, and strung with vintage thread, offered up as if to enliven the contained life with a bit of home-spun musical accompaniment. And as visitors exited the space to return to their own islands of interiority, they were free to tear a page from Anna Zoria’s spiral-bound takeaway, each marked with the emblematic statement, I AM NOT ALONE (2019).
The ensemble of the works in chorus read as an experiment in contiguous echo chambers, tracking the unanticipated overlaps and resonances that occur when distinct mental spaces are materialized en masse. The artists’ individual subjectivities came together in a collective quarantine of sorts, each adrift in their own solitary experiments yet serving as witnesses to each other’s experiences. Their shared presence lightened the burden of solitude with gentle humor and creative exuberance, reminding us of the healing power of community. Entering Zhelezov’s living room, we were invited to partake in this communal solitude—to bear witness to the fruit of others’ isolation-driven dérives, and to reflect on our own—an act from which we might emerge a little less alone.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 28.