The Plain Sense of Things
Putting on an art show about language—without coming off like a windbag—is no small task. Throw in the added challenges of curating over a dozen artists, a winter storm on opening night, and the thing that happens when 25 hay bales start to decompose in your gallery, and you may get an idea of what Jared Stanley and Sarah Lillegard were up against for their latest project, a group exhibition at Sierra Nevada College called The Plain Sense of Things.
The exhibition features work by 13 artists spread out across three locations on the SNC campus, plus a 30-minute podcast “for the car ride up.” All pieces in the show are examples of “embodied reading” where language is both a limit and a doorway to the gallery experience. Pieces range from screengrab poetry and signage to textiles, a diorama, and an entire appropriated book.
It’s not always an easy read, but that is by design.
“A lot of times reading is there to kind of make sense, and for us there was a bit of a desire to scramble codes,” said Stanley, a writing instructor at SNC. “I think it will hopefully be a little difficult or perverse for the reader, the viewer.”
To the curators’ credit, visitors can expect lots of code-scrambling, reading material, and minimal windbaggery. There are a couple of moments that might genuinely subvert the way you think about language.
One of those moments happens when you see Julia Schwadron’s “Ways To Get Interrupted,” a black and white screen-printed panel that divides the Garage Door Gallery in two. At first glance, it appears to be an art-deco-meets-Japanese-woodblock type of textile but after a few seconds of staring, the word “everything” pops out, revealing its tiled letters to be the only pattern in the fabric.
The 5 or 10 seconds that it takes to see “everything” hiding in plain sight is a length of time that falls somewhere between instant recognition and longer-form reading. It’s text that, according to Schwadron, “is ingested without being deciphered.”
There are other double-take pieces, too—like the haystack. Titled “Idyll” and created by Stanley and Lillegard, the first thing you notice is the huge piece of vinyl stretched over the top. It looks just like the old billboards that ranchers use to keep their hay dry, but instead of an old Comcast advertisement, this one is wrapped in a pastoral poem from the Greek writer Theocrates. The text is partially obscured by bends in the vinyl, making it impossible to get a straightforward read. Instead, different poems emerge between folds as you circle the haystack.
Possibly the most ambitious piece in the exhibit is Lara Mimosa Montes’ “Cinderella Complex XXX.” Created entirely by whiting out sentences from the 1981 New York Times bestseller—and racially tone-deaf feminist memoir—Cinderella Complex, the artist makes a statement with what is left of the text. Poems like “I tell you/ there’s a woman there/ there/ but also not there/ We all know about women/ those women/ don’t we” express Montes’ personal frustration with the discrimination that hid behind her feminist studies courses in graduate school.
“It’s about a bad adaptation, it’s about obscenity,” said Montes over the phone. “I wanted to have a reaction to that obscenity and part of it meant having to vandalize text.”
Nothing is sacred when it comes to language in The Plain Sense of Things. Good thing? You’ll have to make the trek and see for yourself.