Kaylee Beam, Palm Springs Desert Sun Published 9:00 a.m. PT
A museum exhibition title like "Brave New Worlds: Explorations of Space" probably brings to mind images of abstracted nebulae and galaxies. But this new contemporary art exhibition, currently on view at the Palm Springs Art Museum, has nothing to do with astronauts or NASA.
Instead of focusing on outer space, "Brave New Worlds" brings together the work of five Southern California-based contemporary artists and pushes the viewer to engage with their work in a more unconventional way.
All of the artists are women, and four are women of color. While curator Mara Gladstone said reading the works through these identities isn't "necessarily the right way" to approach the exhibition, she emphasized the importance of acknowledging that the pieces come from perspectives which are "diverse in a lot of different ways."
The first two works at the exhibition entrance are Gisela Colon’s "Monoliths," which are structures based on the parabolic arch. One stands 15 feet tall and the other 12. The sheer size of each sculpture is enough to make you stop in your tracks, mouth agape, but there’s more: A closer look reveals the most beautiful colors, which shift and change as they interact with the overhead lights. Pod-like objects, located on the surrounding walls, are similarly fluid despite being encased in hard plastic shells.
Colon, 52, was born in Vancouver and grew up in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She moved to Los Angeles in 1987 to attend graduate school at Southwestern University, and began pursuing art years later. She draws inspiration from many places, but most notable is her connection to the "Light and Space" movement.
“Plastics allowed me to be completely free form. It was the ability to take any shape that came into my mind – any form, any idea – and just make it reality.”
To make her pods, Colon uses blow-molding to expand pieces of acrylic and layers them on top of one another. She then plays with materials of different colors and finishes to create the variation between the pods. Instead of plastics, the monoliths reflect Colon's experiments with aerospace materials; they are made of engineered carbon fiber, resulting in structures that are sturdy and durable.
“She’s very interested in creating objects that exist in a kind of dual state,” Gladstone explained. “Her static objects are always shifting. They’re masculine in their phallic shape and gigantic size, but they also have traits that seem feminine, such as their colors and organic, soft forms.”
Moving away from Colon’s work and into the gallery space, a colorful curtain is suspended from the ceiling, There's a wood block, painted in hues of orange and green, on the wall behind. In what appears to be a trick of the light but is actually just clever construction, it is "folded" between two walls. Moving forward past the curtain, there's a chaotic video, rife with layered images and sounds that come and go. On the opposite wall, colors dance from a light shining through the curtain.
Each of these pieces represent Victoria Fu’s focus: the screen.
Fu, 41, has an artistic background in digital video and analog film. She has a B.A. with distinction from Stanford University and earned an M.A. from USC and an M.F.A. from California Institute of the Arts. She has had her work displayed all over the country and currently teaches at the University of San Diego.
As an artist, Fu focuses on how our relationship with screens has changed over time, and how the buffer that used to exist between the two has become fairly nonexistent. Even stopping in front of her video, transfixed by the visuals, contributes to one of her main points: In their ability to demand our attention, screens have come to have a lot of power over individuals.
The next artist, Adee Roberson, has her work on display in a separate, cozy room. The light pink walls are covered in art of various mediums, including screen prints of women on paper and canvas, videos of her performance art, and painted fabric canvases. Circular sofas in the center of the room are perfectly positioned to help the viewer experience the space, and a sign outside urges visitors to "sit and find a place here to reflect."
The canvases, colorful and inviting, feature intersecting blocks of colors that are rooted in history. In particular, they take inspiration from Harriet Powers, an African-American slave and quilt-maker in the late 19th century, and Sam Gilliam, a prominent African-American abstractionist best known for his drape paintings in the '60s and '70s. Gilliam specifically wanted to use his work to connect abstract art to the African-American experience at a time when the two were considered disparate.
Even without reading about Roberson's work on the walls, you can tell that it's personal.
Born in West Palm Beach, Fla., the 38-year-old is both a visual and performance artist who has a love for collaboration and is known for frequently weaving familial history and spirit into her work.
“The images of the women are either of her mother or of her aunt,” said Gladstone. “Several of the portraits are from their passport photos when they first came to the U.S. from the Caribbean.”
Even the light pink walls are inspired by Roberson's roots — more specifically, her love and appreciation of yams, which are culturally important, nutritious vegetables in Africa.
The aesthetics, in conjunction with the ambient sounds from the videos, make the space feel immersive and meditative.
“I might not necessarily know where my ancestors are from, but I can use these mediums as a way to kind of figure that out.”
Directly adjacent to Roberson's room is Kelly Akashi's space. While navigating this section, your eyes are frequently drawn downward — you might even have to take a knee to get a closer look. This is because most of Akashi's hand-worked glass objects, 3-D-printed shells and ortho litho film prints are displayed in simple, low-to-the-ground oak cabinets. She also has a video of a shell’s cross-section on display, and one of her hand-worked glass objects hangs from a metal branch attached to the wall, creating spindly shadows against it.
Akashi, 36, grew up in L.A. She earned her B.F.A. from Otis College of Art and Design, and shortly after, spent time in Frankfurt and Berlin to see what the art scene was like in different cities. Upon returning to L.A. two years later, she earned her M.F.A. from USC, and is currently leveraging her background in analog photography to create her art.
The cabinets in the Akashi space aren’t just display mechanisms – they also serve as historical references. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the wealthy would display their most impressive objects in "cabinets of curiosities" and invite people over to show them off. Even though a "cabinet" referred to an entire room instead of a specific piece of furniture back then, it is this history that Akashi references in her displays.
Additionally, her framed photograms, which hang on the wall behind her cabinets, were created using CT scans instead of a camera. Her shell sculptures and video are derived from the same process.
Adjacent to the Akashi space is Karen Lofgren's work. Stainless steel, pipe-looking forms bend and face in all different directions; some are affixed to the wall, and those that aren’t hang above and below eye level. Hanging off of these varied metal people and clinging to the walls in a whimsical fashion are pink, blob-like objects that resemble slugs. You may not know how to react to these metal forms and their pink companions, but there is no denying the impressive visual impact of the display.
“I just wanted to look for a non-human perspective on some issues I’ve touched on, like limitations of a being, growth, and a different kind of mortality.”
Looking down, Lofgren’s "Gold Floods" are simple puddles on the floor but eye-catching in their gleaming gold finish.
“She’s really connected to the things that we do in our natural states,” said Gladstone. “And she tries to capture this relationship in her sculptures.”
Lofgren, 43, was born in Toronto and is currently based in L.A. She attended OCAD University in Toronto, where she studied sculpture and installation, and went on to earn her M.F.A. from California Institute of the Arts. She couples her visual art with research on rituals and medical histories, with the goal of exploring the relationships between cultural systems and nature.
The pieces in the Lofgren space were inspired by her time in London last year, where as a Fulbright scholar she conducted research on ritualistic approaches to medicine. Most of the metal forms featured in the exhibition are centered around Anglo-Saxon rituals of passing through, in which sick bodies were passed through natural formations with the aim of transferring their ailments onto objects.
Lofgren's slug-like objects (known as "Defenders"), made from plastic spikes meant to ward off birds, serve as a commentary on the human tendency to push nature away until engagement is convenient.
“She’s trying to understand our relationship to nature by looking at histories of science and healing,” Gladstone said, “and she translates all of this research into her own distinctive sculptural language that is very embodied.”
Though seemingly different, the works of the artists featured in "Brave New Worlds"share many commonalities.
For some pieces, like Colon’s and Fu’s, the surrounding environment — overhead lights or a phone screen — plays an important role in shaping the viewer's experience with the work. Additionally, several of the artists' display choices challenge the idea that art has to be monumental. For example, Lofgren places her floods on the floor, and for one of her videos, Roberson uses a pedestal as a screen instead of a display mechanism.
“I think of the objects themselves as being performers. I think of them very much as being embodied or alive.” Karen Lofgren
All of the work influences how visitors physically move through the exhibition. To get a more complete experience, the viewer has to adopt new vantage points or explore from unusual angles. Colon's "Monoliths" draw your eyes upward, while Akashi's art may compel you to crouch.
"Brave New Worlds" will be open through mid-December. Later this summer, the museum will launch an audio guide for the show, featuring video interviews with the artists and additional details, and in October, the museum will release the show’s catalog. Public programs related to the show also will begin in the fall.
“I would love for (people) to walk in and have a physical, visceral response to the objects, whatever that might be,” said Gladstone. “I hope that this exhibition is one step in the direction of encouraging a different way of experiencing artworks in the museum.”