Natasha Johns-Messenger has created a maze of mirrors in “ThreeFold” (2015). It will make you laugh at how easily mirrors can trick and fool your mind. It’s worth a trip out to El Museo de Los Sures to explore.
Winding through this maze, you may bump into its mirrored walls, perceiving false space ahead. A bottle of windex is dutifully stashed away to clean off these mirrors at the end of the day. The surfaces get marked up from visitors’ wrong turns.
The fun house is a bad analogy for Natasha Johns-Messenger’s work. While both put mirrors in a room and invite people in, the similarities stop there. Fun houses allow for observing yourself distorted. But you can’t always see yourself in this maze of cleverly rigged mirrors, LED lights, MDF boards, and plexiglass. Instead, you see reflections of the surrounding spaces. The walls’ angles and the geometry of the mirrors’ reflections turn you invisible at moments. The work’s honestly disorienting effect — and it truly and actually will disorient you — is a rare and precious feat. Jaded as we all have become, there is something magical about art that can still, somehow, trick us.
But what is the value of being confused? And why bump your way through this maze? Because we all need experiential reminders that perception is not all it’s cracked up to be.
What is perception?
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a philosopher of perception, once wrote: “I discover vision, not as a ‘thinking about seeing,’ to use Descartes’ expression, but as a gaze at grips with a visible world, and that is why for me there can be another’s gaze.” Before we can even ponder what we are looking at, our gaze has already used several perceptive techniques to “get a grip” on what we see. Merleau-Ponty sought to distinguish how perception is a mental process of gripping that precedes thinking.
Whereas we can think and change the topic of our internal monologue, it’s harder to use thought to change our mind’s perceptions. For example, the “Is that Dress White/Gold or Blue/Black?” meme revealed to all of us how we can’t control what we see. We can’t command our minds to flip that image from gold to blue on a whim. For some the dress will always be blue, for others always gold, and for others it can flip unpredictably and uncontrollably. The rare thrill of loosening the grip of our stubborn perceptions energizes both that color-changing meme and the spatial lies of Natasha Johns-Messenger’s maze.
At the end of the maze, there is a room with geometric digital painting and photography. Their simple forms and monochromatic palettes are reassuring. After all the tricks and games with perception, the images’ simplicity and stability calms and soothes. Although, admittedly, the maze left part of me suspicious the images were actually circles I was mis-perceiving as squares.
This exhibition is curated by Melissa Bianca Amore, whose accompanying essay is an invitation to further explore how the philosophy and psychology of perception can enrich our encounter with Natasha Johns-Messenger’s art. The booklets are available in the gallery for visitors to read. Don’t be intimidated by the term phenomenology — Amore’s essay is accessible and illuminating. When she writes that the artist “takes us into the world of illusion and into a space that resembles the reality we make up for ourselves,” she is coaxing us to admit our perceptions — inside and outside of the maze — can deceive us.
The artist-trickster Joey Skaggs once quipped: “It is the fool who thinks he cannot be fooled.” Although it’s humbling, it is a valuable to experience how wrong the mind can be in Natasha Johns Messenger’s “ThreeFold.” This installation playfully makes it safe to see the wrong thing and then to adjust and correct. And if spatial perceptions can be so easily hacked, emotional perceptions might not be so ironclad either. Knee-jerk emotional responses can deceive us in the heat of the moment. So precious is the second look when we re-interpret, re-assess, and re-perceive. And it doesn’t need to be shameful — it can be funny. This maze offers up the joy in being fooled and re-seeing what is actually going on.
Natasha Johns-Messenger:ThreeFold continues at El Museo de Los Sures (120 South 1st Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn) through November 29. The exhibit is jointly presented by the International Studio and Curatorial Program and El Museo de Los Sures.