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PORTLAND, Maine — Trigger Warning, the title of Diana Cherbuliez’s second solo show at Grant Wahlquist Gallery, immediately places the viewer on guard, as it signals that he or she is in for some provocation. The words position the artwork smack dab in the middle of the zeitgeist in America, in a society where our eyes are glued to our iPhones and social media accounts, where disasters occur on a regular basis and are fodder for our cultural anxieties and voyeurism.
Trigger Warning gathers work from several different series developed over the last few years. It presents a remarkable diversity of subject matter and materials. The title piece, from 2019, is a cotton t-shirt with an X-ray on the front of a hand with a nail embedded in it, taken from a manual on nail gun safety. Cherbuliez gives no trigger warning for those of us averse to painful images to avert our eyes. This is the kind of dark, sometimes caustic humor she employs.
On another wall hang three pairs of boxing gloves, each titled “Concussion” (all 2019) designed to look like Facebook’s iconic “like” button. Here, the artist targets the way we deploy our thumbed approval in virtual interactions: like punches, swiftly, mechanically, thoughtlessly. Made of vinyl, fabric, foam, elastic, Velcro, and thread, the gloves attest to Cherbuliez’s formidable fabricating skills. She is consistently meticulous and inventive in her creations — she once made a small female figure out of dust collected for a year from under her bed. Yet these perfectly constructed mitts represent a new level of manufacturing, like coveted signature basketball shoes.
Accompanying the t-shirt and gloves are 15 miniature mannequins distributed throughout the gallery space, mostly on the floor. Cast in rubber in shades of brown and cream from beeswax originals, their tiny eyes fixate on cellphones they hold in both hands. They lie on their backs or curl on a chair or do a split while focusing on their devices. The title of the 2019 series, Their selves 1-15, implies a kind of existentialism, as in, “We exist, therefore we text.”
Two photographic series draw on Cherbuliez’s worldwide web wanderings. Following a trip to see Robert Maillart’s Salginatobel Bridge in Schiers, Switzerland — a reinforced concrete arch considered a wonder of engineering — the artist took to Google Earth to explore the road that connects to the Alpine valley crossing. In so doing, she happened upon a woman in a remote valley seemingly looking at the Google camera and then away. The artist grabbed the images and printed them, creating a kind of portrait of the disquiet of our surveillance world.
The other photographic series consists of four internet screen grabs of the warehouse in Oakland, California where the Ghost Ship artist collective was headquartered; the building burned down on December 2, 2016, killing 36 people — the deadliest fire in that city’s history. (On September 5, 2019, the trial of the two people accused of negligence in the fire ended with an acquittal and a no decision.) Cherbuliez, who lived in the area while attending San Francisco Art Institute, went online to look at the building shortly after the fire and encountered distorted and fragmented views of the neighborhood, apparently caused by others making the same search. She cached many of the images and printed some of them. The photographs are eerily beautiful, the landscape transformed into shimmering and broken vistas. As critic Brita Konau observed in the catalogue for the exhibition Maine Women Pioneers III at the University of New England Gallery in 2012, Cherbuliez “is always capable of seeing myriad sides to the dilemma of being in the world.”
Near the center of the gallery, set on a low square pedestal, is an older work, “Gift” (2000), comprised of a hand, armored with match strike plates and holding an apple made of beeswax and matchstick heads. The piece resembles a prop from a knights-of-old movie but suggests other trigger warning associations: for instance, Eden’s forbidden fruit about to burst into flames or a fiery ball hurled at an adversary.
In the corner of a separate space on the third floor of the building, Cherbuliez has arranged a cluster of odds and ends left over from her fabrication work for the current show, including various body parts and casts, some suspended from the ceiling. Again, the work calls for a trigger warning as the detritus recalls images of earthquakes and other disasters in which bodies are partially buried under rubble.
Cherbuliez lives and works on the rather remote island of Vinalhaven (where the late Robert Indiana once held court) in Penobscot Bay in the Gulf of Maine. Critics have attributed her extraordinary, labor-intensive creativity to her relative isolation and yet, as Trigger Warning makes clear, she is very much connected to the here and now — and she reflects it in her exciting, thought-provoking work.
Diana Cherbuliez: Trigger Warning continues at Grant Wahlquist Gallery (30 City Center, 2nd Floor, Portland, Maine) through September 28.
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