Magic attic

Jen Graham and Sara McCoy

“Franklin’s Insides Were All Aflutter” by Jen Graham. Is this fish spitting birds or swallowing them?

“Franklin’s Insides Were All Aflutter” by Jen Graham. Is this fish spitting birds or swallowing them?

Photo By Brad Bynum

Silverland, a sort of hidden art gallery, is like a magical place. It’s tucked away in the attic of Virginia City’s St. Mary’s Art Center. With its dusty interiors, 100-mile views of wild Nevada and bizarre location in the attic of an historic old hospital, it’s equal parts forgotten ghost town remnant, teenager’s secret hideout and classic art loft. It’s a space uniquely conducive to pop surrealist artwork.

Hardly Soft is the current exhibition in the gallery, and it features two Reno artists, Jen Graham and Sara McCoy. The show’s title is a punning allusion to the contrast between the artists’ media: McCoy works in bronze, Graham with felt and thread. But though they work with strikingly different media, they deal with similar themes. As Graham describes her own work in her artist’s statement, the artists “quietly deal with social, political and environmental issues while maintaining a playful and nostalgic sentimentality.”

Upon ascending the stairs of the art center and entering the gallery, the visitor is greeted by small, brightly colored, felt birds suspended from the ceiling. These birds grow increasingly abundant as one moves through the gallery toward the large felt fish that appears to be breaching a felt sea in the center of the gallery. This is Graham’s gallery-spanning installation “Franklin’s Insides Were All Aflutter.”

The title of the piece and Graham’s statement—"Franklin is a fish suffering from an internal infection"—seem to imply that the birds are rushing out from the elongated fish in a cathartic explosion. (Interpret that however you will.) But, in the gallery, it’s unclear whether the birds are exploding out or are being swallowed in. This ambiguity creates a back-and-forth tension in the piece and an energy that fills the room.

Graham’s installation might attract the eye first, but the small bronze narrative pieces that dot the gallery reward closer inspection. Whereas Graham’s installation seems to suggest vivacious movements, the small, bulbous-headed characters in McCoy’s sculptures are like quietly smoldering sentinels. They stand still and exude melancholy.

“Sunday School,” displayed prominently near the south-facing window of the gallery, depicts a hallow-eyed girl concealing a highly detailed crucifix.

“She’s a little girl in this cute dress, and she looks kind of sad,” says McCoy. “But if you take the time to walk behind it, you see this large cross she’s holding. It runs the whole length of her body … so it’s quite the cross to bear.”

Many of McCoy’s pieces hit that enthralling combination of creepy and cute that characterizes a lot of contemporary pop surrealist work. But it’s the details in her work that are truly compelling: the crucifix in “Sunday School,” for example, or the bronze pillow that manages to appear soft and plush in “Boulder Head Nightmare.”

Graham uses bright colors and soft materials to make big, expansive gestures. McCoy uses carefully detailed bronze to convey feelings of loneliness and religious alienation. Paired together in the Silverland gallery they’ve constructed a private world that uses childhood iconography to express adult emotions. It is, in every sense of the word, fantastic.