ARTS AND HUMANITIES: Columbia Museum of Art show explores selfhood

September 21, 2018

In studying the concept of the self, many scholars have focused in recent years on how much of our individual identity is based on performance. That is to say that everyone of us puts on a performance in society. At times we may play, for example, the part of the attentive student or the loyal friend, and we ask others to believe the identity that we have projected in those contexts.

Performance as it relates to the formation of identity is central to understanding the latest blockbuster exhibition at the Columbia Museum of Art: “Something’s Happening: The Big Art of Katie Pell.” In fact, visitors to the CMA during the run of the show this fall will encounter a four-gallery installation that offers four different takes on self-presentation.

The first gallery dazzles the eyes with 29 works based on album covers featuring male rock and roll musicians of the 1970s, figures that may have fed the artist’s imagination during her own teenage years. In particular, one whole wall features nine variations on the cover of Peter Frampton’s 1976 double live album, “Frampton Comes Alive,” a best seller not only for the catchy tunes contained therein but also for the cover art featuring the curly-locked sex symbol himself.

Pell takes the now iconic image of Frampton, his open mouth and upward gaze reminiscent of the look of Spanish mystics like Theresa of Avila or John of the Cross captured in ecstatic union with the divine, and transforms the once-secular portrait into a hand-painted icon worthy of religious devotion. In some of these nine variations on the Frampton image, his head is encircled with a golden halo; in others, his two “physical eyes” project a beam of light or his third eye, his inner eye, pulsates with glittering energy.

In essence, Katie Pell is taking the concept of pop icon quite literally by playing off the fact that the performer’s self-projected identity on stage can sometimes match a devoted fan’s worshipful inclinations.

In the second gallery, visitors can themselves become objects of veneration, assuming a position in the figurative spotlight by posing in front of seven works, six smaller pieces in mirrored frames and one large-scale piece in four panels. Each pastel and charcoal drawing features a cloud-filled, blue sky background framed on both sides by monochromatic vegetation punctuated with forest creatures.

Visitors are encouraged to take selfies in front of these images, which are purposefully designed to encourage viewer interaction. Pell calls these works her “adoration drawings” in reference to the fact that each photographed individual appears to hover like an airborne deity above a forested earth where lollipop-laden squirrels and balloon-holding rabbits pay homage. The title of the wall-sized piece in this series perhaps best expresses the artist’s whimsical intention: “The Best That I Can Give You and Less Than Half of What You Deserve.”

Gallery three turns the corner, so to speak, on the performative elevation of identity we find in the first two parts of this exhibition. Here we discover 22 charcoal portraits based on the class photos included in the 1970 yearbook of Texas Lutheran University.

With what care most of us prepared to have our yearbook photos taken. How much we pondered what that snapshot might say about our having reached a particular milestone in our lives and how desperately we wanted others to believe in the projected self-captured on the page.

Yet, in retrospect, who hasn’t cringed at these images of our youthful selves? The spotty skin, the clunky eyeglasses, the odd wardrobe choices, the once-trendy but now embarrassing hairdo and the enforced smile. In preparing for the all-important yearbook photo, we may have aimed for glamor and sophistication, but we most likely fell far short. It is little wonder that Katie Pell labels this part of her exhibition “Distorted Lens.”

Finally, in the fourth gallery, we arrive at another large-scale piece, a quilt composed of the rubbings of actual trees beside a creek in Delaware near the artist’s hometown – Pell lives now in San Antonio, Texas, but she grew up in Wilmington. Carved into the bark is evidence of how “The Woods” served as a backdrop for youthful experimentation; there are initials and expressions of nascent longing: “I love you, Horse” and “Carrie is a fox.”

On the other three walls of the fourth and final gallery are pages from an illustrated book, 13 diptychs in watercolor and ink that combine word and image. They speak to how identity is often constructed from our memories, in this case, recollections concerning a group of the artist’s childhood friends who claimed the creek behind their homes as a magical place, a laboratory of discovery.

The text of one image reads as follows: “The creek belonged to us, the kids who lived on the block. It was agreed you could claim your backyard, the part with the grass. There was no off-limits in the woods, we went everywhere.”

The creek offered the opportunity for performance. “The oldest picked the games and made the rules,” the artist avows. The creek also offered life lessons or rites of passage as when the gang spied upon a couple making love in their makeshift campsite.

The Katie Pell exhibition, what curator Catherine Walworth calls a “weird and wonderful valentine to the human condition,” runs through Oct. 28.

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