It definitely isn’t a cheery back-to-school moment.
Walk into the University of Puget Sound’s Kittredge Gallery and you’re faced with shadows, mourning and an almost metallic taste of death. But beyond the bleakness, artists Jessica Bender and Susan Seubert find a beauty in fear and death through their skillful handling of, respectively, mixed media and historic photographic technique.
Neither woman is known for prettying things up, but they sum up life’s uncomfortable truths in very different ways.
Bender, based in Gig Harbor, calls on everything from taxidermy to embroidery to depressing poetry to tell her stories, such as the black padded solitary confinement cell at Tacoma’s Telephone Gallery last year.
The Portland-based Seubert has mastered contemporary and historic photography techniques to capture detailed, highly tense shots of everything from depictions of rape to deforestation.
Plus, in a pattern that’s seen Kittredge develop as a kind of in-depth annex to Tacoma Art Museum ever since TAM curator Margaret Bullock took over managing the gallery, both artists are also connected to TAM: Seubert was in the 2009 Biennial and Bender is a preparator there.
But when you enter Kittredge, all that matters is the pain and fear articulated in the art. Bender’s installation “Dejection” stretches through the whole main room like a cloud. In the center, a vortex of black and white fabric – rather like a giant windsock – seems to suck up life and spit it back out into a hoop of endlessly sprouting black leather lilies, while at its knotted end a peck of crows carved meticulously in soap squat heavily. The meaning’s unclear, but loss and emptiness are tangible.
In one corner is a quasi shrine with more crows’ heads dotted over a black lace skirt; in the other are three black leather panels detailing a mysterious journey. The whole thing is a memorial to Bender’s mother, recently passed away. The panels tell of her terminal illness through a painted moonlit eye, esoteric symbols, prescription figures and embroidered skulls, ending with crystal lumps traveling down a black ribbon of gut from a scissored organ. Tablets imprinted with more scissors speak eloquently along the far wall. The skirt, it turns out, was the wedding dress of Bender’s mother, now dyed black; the objects embedded into the panels also hers. The whole thing is gaunt, morbid, unrelenting; and yet highly skillful in the interweaving of mystery and pain.
In the smaller room, Seubert combines her “Phobia” and “Neurasthenia” series into a fascinatingly dark commentary on mental processes. The platinum “Phobia” prints are tiny, black-and-white still lifes, closely cropped, of the various triggers for irrational fear – a spooky doll, a mouse, a faceless gay couple intertwined, a glimpsed corpse, a writhing nest of worms. Each photograph is slightly offset with very low exposure, creating a dreamlike vision surrounded by black shadows that blur the chemical process with the photographic subject. The tension is palpable, but the message – that all fears are equal – is calmly objective.
At the center of all the phobias are the three “Neurasthenia” portraits. Seubert’s dry plate tintype technique superbly transforms a simple human head into a blurry, vaguely medical nightmare of unreality, with hints of the Victorian diagnosis it references. Thought becomes grotesque, visually freakish – a symbol of the bizarre yet painful brain processes generated by stress and fear.
What: Jessica Bender, “Dejection” and Susan Seubert, “Nerve-wracked”
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday, noon-5 p.m. Saturday through Sept. 22 (Seubert) and Nov. 3 (Bender). Artist reception from 5-7 p.m. Sept. 5
Where: Kittredge Gallery, University of Puget Sound, North 15th and North Lawrence streets, Tacoma
Information: 253-879-3701, email@example.com 253-597-8568 blog.thenewstribune.com/arts