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SANTA FE — During the summer of 2013, Seattle-based artist Emma Levitt’s partner died suddenly. She was 30 at the time, and none of her friends had yet experienced a similar loss. In the months that followed, Levitt was “there, but not really there,” she said. She slowly took apart the apartment they’d shared (but where he’d lived alone for much longer), going through closets filled with his things. At the same time, Levitt took up knitting, which she’d learned from her mother and grandmother when she was a child. She began cutting her partner’s clothes into pieces and knitting them together, a process she described as “mindless and repetitive, but still making progress at something.”
The resulting piece, “In the Presence of Absence,” is a 14-foot-high tapestry woven from strips cut from her deceased partner’s clothes. It resembles a very large rag rug and presides over whatever space it’s in with a weight and solidity that’s comforting, rather than oppressive. Viewed from across the room, “In the Presence of Absence” is indistinct, but up close, details like buttons and clothing labels pop out from the weave. It becomes clear, suddenly, that this is someone’s wardrobe — winter coats, undershirts, ties — deconstructed and reorganized for public consumption. Levitt recalled that when she started working with the clothes, they still smelled like her partner. “I don’t want the art to be about my story, but at the same time, the story is fundamental to the piece, in order for people to understand it,” Levitt told Hyperallergic. “Much of contemporary art is about the opposite of being vulnerable, but this is an emotionally vulnerable piece; that’s the power behind it.”
“In the Presence of Absence” is part of an exhibition called Getting Real at the Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe. The show explores art that’s explicitly born of — and indulges in — catharsis. “When I moved to Santa Fe a year and a half ago, I really noticed the tradition of art therapy in New Mexico,” said curator Angie Rizzo of the impetus for the show. “In contemporary art, there’s a stigma associated with anything with a new-agey tone, anything that has to do with feeling. But for most artists, art does come from a personal place, even if we don’t like talking about it. Getting Real is about exploring that stigma.”
The show features work by 10 artists and collectives, whose materials vary from photographs or fabric to scents or finger traps made from reinforced notebook paper, which viewers are encouraged to pick up and play with. The finger trap project, by Oklahoma artist Laura Reese, is titled “the harder you pull, the harder it becomes: the things we say for the dead are not for them.” On the wall are three letters and drawings that Reeseand her family made when their dog Sparky died in 1996. She copied the letters, reinforced them, and wove them into finger traps to complete the work. The letter by Reese’s mother is particularly sweet: “Dear Sparky, I am so happy that you loved all of us and were a sweet and fun dog for Laura and Helen,” she writes in clear print with skipped lines, presumably so her children could more easily read it.
The personal relevance of other pieces is subtler but no less compelling. Albuquerque-based artist Claudia X. Valdes printed her 92-square-inch photograph “Judgement” on Japanese kozo paper, which she chose for its “billowy, skin-like quality,” she said. The image shows a plaster cast of part of a human body that was a site of personal trauma. Valdes, who has herself experienced trauma, conceived of and executed the piece with two other women who have too. The image, while hyper-detailed, is also ambiguous, because we’re not sure what part of the body it is. An area of the cast looks like a clitoral hood, but that interpretation doesn’t correspond to what surrounds it, which resembles crepey underarm skin, like your grandma’s, the soft bend of an inner elbow. The temporal separation from the trauma is conspicuous: this is an image of a plaster cast of a body part that was once visited by pain. The sense of removal reminds us that while wounds heal, aftereffects remain.
While Getting Real is primarily concerned with the way professional artists process their personal experiences through their work, it also addresses the disquiet that exists in all of us by way of interactive pieces and public programming, including panel discussions and “psychologist-led gallery tours.” Certain pieces, like The Institute for New Feeling’s “Air Freshener” and “The Preparation,” are metaphoric, and not a little tongue in cheek. The former reimagines a standard Air Wick air freshener as an oxycontin-dispensing device, surrounded by what looks like hewn stone, which creates an effect that’s at once ultra-modern and recalls the caves in which our species once lived. An accompanying infomercial underscores the commodification of both art and therapy. “The Preparation” is a how-to-do-your-taxes template, structured like a 30-minute guided meditation in a small, dark cubicle. A projected animation shows a diamond pattern undulating outward atop a tax form, while a soothing, female voice instructs the taxpayer to spread all her receipts from the year on the floor and lay down to let them buoy and support her, like a friendly cloud. The piece is meant to evoke humor, though the effect can be quite the opposite, as the mere sight of a pulsating 1040 form in an enclosed space is enough to start heart palpitations.
Lindsay Tunkl’s “Pre Apocalypse Co-Counseling,”“Scents of the Apocalypse” and “Origins and Endings: An Inkblot Test” address the primal and innate fears all humans possess — of death, essentially — in a way that’s inviting and almost whimsical. Viewers are encouraged to lift bell jars and breathe in the scents of the apocalypse: tsunami, drought, nuclear blast, and asteroid collision, co-created with scent artist Daniel Krasofski. The smells are acrid yet beguiling, something you almost want to slather on your pulse points but in the end wouldn’t, because they’re just a shade too strange. Tsunami’s aromatic notes are listed as: “Sea Mist, Green Leaves, Tidal Pull, Blue Metal, Oily Smoke, Rubber/Oil.” You close your eyes, draw breath, and imagine yourself on the seashore, watching the tide recede, a wall of water a few miles away. It’s romantic and kind of fun, until you remember that tsunamis are real and kill people.
Tunkl’s contribution to the show also includes pre-apocalypse co-counseling, during which Tunkl (or anyone following the replicable method outlined in her manual, Pre Apocalypse Co-Counseling Handbook: Aid for the End) asks participants questions like how long they think they’d last in the event of, say, a zombie invasion. (Tunkl said most people are surprisingly optimistic about their chances of survival.) She offers reminders that when you’re dead, you won’t care that you’re dead, and you won’t worry about making bad art, and you won’t have to shop at the Gap anymore, either. Usually, Tunkl performs counselling sessions in her car, but at Getting Real, two white tables have been set up for the purpose, accompanied by a large deck of cards she made called Origins and Endings (a marriage between Rorschach inkblot tests and tarot cards), uniformly sharpened white pencils, and an iPod with a Y-shaped headphone splitter attached. Using levity to engage existential questions is familiar territory, but Tunkl takes it one step further by inciting curiosity. She tempts the viewer to smell, to touch, to ponder. Her work succeeds because it doesn’t take itself too seriously, but still forces the participant to pause and consider the essentials.
An expression of catharsis alone isn’t enough to make something art, let alone good art. But when the art is able to stand on its own, knowing that the piece comes from a place of vulnerability infuses it with additional resonance. Probably it’s narcissistic, but when we see ourselves in something, we begin to say, yes, I think I understand why you made this. That moment of personal connection with someone else’s work is certainly not the only reason to look at art, but it is a good one, and it’s hard at work in Getting Real, as we worry about the impending global pandemic that will probably kill us all or to think about our own pets, decades gone and buried under painted-rock headstones in our dads’ backyards. The show encourages exploration of essential parts of our humanity — interdependence, fear, pain, and love — and acknowledges that catharsis is something we all need once in awhile, whether through the making of artwork or in the viewing.
Getting Real continues at the Center for Contemporary Arts (1050 Old Pecos Trail, Santa Fe, NM) through April 17.