OMAHA — Swish, swish … whooooosh … sccccraape-THUD, thump-THUD. The sounds of Lilli Carré’s hand-painted animation “Glazing” (2021) hung in the air as I walked through Presence in the Pause: Interiority and its Radical Immanence, a group exhibition of “interior” paintings. The video joins a selection of works on view at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts that use figuration, portraiture, and domestic scenes to depict physical and psychological spaces and, often, the inseparability of the two. Landscape and language sneak in as well, as they are known to do.
The exhibition spans two galleries, which meant that in order to see the entire show, I had to cross the building’s bisecting hallway near the entrance. This passage is one of several instances throughout the show that emphasizes the physical experience of the pause — of being in places where time and memory loosen their grip, making way for what’s next.
Carré’s animation takes as its subject some of Western art history’s famous depictions of women, all artworks by men. A dark-haired, pink-skinned figure moves quickly throughout the frame, morphing from one familiar pose to the next, pausing briefly between each and occasionally running into, flattening up against, and sliding down an invisible wall. The effect is mesmerizing. Continuing to engage with the male gaze — a historic one at that — left me wondering if works like these perpetuate such problems and asking when we’ll finally be done with all that. But the piece is a bit irresistible. The audible rhythm of the figure’s movements became a soundtrack as I moved through the exhibition, sometimes recalling a mic drop — a reference that may or may not be intentional but that infused a bit of welcome dark humor.
Several paintings evoked a sense of being in close quarters, crowded by oneself and personal thoughts rather than other people and their business. Celeste Rapone’s three compositions of a woman, possibly distraught, position her contorted head and limbs against the limits of the canvas, competing for space amid a table, wind chime, and knives. Other works show entanglements with family members and histories — some welcome and some obligatory. Time seems to simultaneously unfold and collapse in Andrea Joyce Heimer’s dynamic, colorful flat-lay-like landscapes that envision layers of memory. Animals, people, fires, shoot-outs, farming, arguing, sunrise, sunset, and more are all activated in strata of relationships and negotiations.
Danielle McKinney’s figures in “Twilight” (2021) and “Calvary” (2022) drew me in with their stillness, rich color palettes, and paint handling, all of which exquisitely establish interior spaces of a personal nature — deep, soft browns, velvety blues and golds, and highlights of salmon-pink nail polish. And then there is the glowing ember and gauzy vapor of a woman smoking. Does anything else so completely capture the mood of taking a break, a few stolen minutes of contemplation and introversion?
Kathy Liao’s large-scale mixed-media work “Without” (2018) depicts three figures sleeping in one bed, evocatively suggesting the distance we often feel from the people we are close to. Perhaps the figures represent three generations of family members or other loved ones, or even three different phases of a singular life. Liao’s selective use of warm colors within the black-and-white scene draws attention to how personal memory and consciousness activate our lives yet remain inaccessible to those around us.
Maia Cruz Palileo’s “All the Crossed Out” (2021) struck an unexpected personal note with me. In the small painting, more of a study really, a young woman’s face is rendered through outlines of heavy black brushwork on her eyes, nose, and mouth. Her fingers hover near her mouth as she gazes across the room, a book propped between her chest and the table where she sits. I’ve always been fascinated by the common gesture of bringing our hands to our mouths — maybe picking at our skin or biting our nails — while deep in thought or in moments of distress. It’s as though we are grasping for language. My own finger and thumb dropped from my lips as I turned my head from the painting to read one of the excerpts from Molly Prentiss’s collection of writings, FEED, present by way of wall vinyl: I forgot to look out the window until EOD ….
The isolation that the COVID-19 pandemic brought, and its havoc on our lives and relationships, continue to reverberate. Presence in the Pause is undoubtedly about that extended experience. But the exhibition goes beyond a simple read of what it was like to be in our domestic spaces during lockdown or how it felt — and feels — to create our own space, even if that space is in our head. There is no confinement here, no madness. Each work highlights agency in the lives it depicts, a view of what it looks like to be alone, together.
Presence in the Pause: Interiority and its Radical Immanence continues at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts (724 South 12th Street, Omaha, Nebraska) through September 17. The exhibition was curated by Rachel Adams, Chief Curator and Director of Programs.
Editor’s note: Travel and accommodations were provided by Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in connection with the exhibition.