Eleanor Harwood Gallery is pleased to present “Resolutions for a New Year” with artists Alison Pebworth and Carissa Potter.
As the New Year approaches many of us will attempt to come up with some kind of resolution that is aimed at improvement, be it in the arena of the body, (more exercise, better health, that five pounds) or some kind of personal growth that is aimed at a much larger socio-political change. We may aspire to contribute to non-profit causes more, volunteer more, protest more, really see people with compassion as we walk by them as they shelter in tents or quite simply walk around with the quiet mantra; “I love you” as our guiding force. Some of us will aim at gathering our rage with the current administration’s corruption and small minded-ness and try to channel it into useful political change and activism. The aspiration for, and hopefulness of self-improvement and connectedness is powerful.
It’s easy to disregard these seemingly simple attempts at bettering ourselves as inconsequential. It is so much simpler to disconnect and to not feel while political turbulence prevails. To “not feel” is so much easier than experiencing the rage and frustration of watching our countries’ democracy falter. The dangers of cynicism, sarcasm and quiescence are quite real. The tearing down of our internal resources is absolutely intentional. To keep “feeling” is absolutely rife with peril, but it is the only way to continue to be engaged.
Both Pebworth and Potter engage and connect with the public in fascinating and wildly different ways. Their bodies of work are necessarily tied to concepts of connectedness and compassion for other people. Carissa Potter is an Instagram sensation with over a 100,000 followers. Her illustrations and writing detail her quirky and wildly raw personal worries and fears in an absolutely public and open forum. Most of her artwork reaches for connection across a digital space. People reach back and engage with her in fiercely honest ways that point to our desire to expose our anxieties. Her fans and her own voice are in stark contrast to the gloss of our modern lives, especially on the vehicle of most of her content: Instagram. Engagement in that digital space provides so much noise to drown out our worries about competence and lovability. The great irony is that the small screen is largely how people connect to Potter as they scroll through a feed full of distracting content, which inadvertently makes us feel lonely. Her work is absolutely about feeling, and feeling is a political act. Some of her works directly address political issues, but at Potter’s core, her personal vulnerability and continuous “being in touch with feeling" is crux of her work. While Pebworth and Potter’s work are radically different stylistically, the thread of necessary engagement is crucial to their work.
Alison Pebworth is an artist who has exhibited in numerous public institutions while continuing a fascinating and brave practice of traveling alone and setting up “Roadside Attractions” across America. Her first nomadic foray was the “Roadside Show and Tell Project 2003-06” which was initiated in San Francisco and then expanded into an eight month long project called “Looking for Lost America”. The project marked Pebworth’s shift from a solely studio-based painting practice to a practice of social engagement.
For her “Roadside Attraction” projects she sets up tents and artworks as a free public experience. Viewers are enticed to visit by her beautifully hand-painted signs that announce an invitation to participate in a particular activity or experience. For example attendees were invited to join a sewing circle to mourn the War in Iraq together. Another time she featured Creativity Explored artists and welcomed viewers to “Utopia”. The painting “A Simple Plan” (included in this exhibit) was included in the roadside tents. It’s an oil painting in the style of late 1800’s early American painting including a vast landscape in the background that serves as both an intended destination but also shows us the enormity of a difficult crossing. The woman in the foreground is Pebworth herself, a self-portrait of her struggling to row a boat across a landscape with water only in the distance. Poignantly, she carries a rescued lamb strapped to her back. Upon closely looking we see that the lamb is licking away tiny jewel-like droplets of sweat from her cheek. The affinity and moment of care between them is tremendously powerful and bittersweet. Her journey has rubbed her hands raw in parts and her boat is surrounded by entrails and detritus of suitcases. Our protagonist is clearly trying to get away, but is twisted to turn back, to look at us, as she tries to venture forward. Her efforts are recorded in the creases in her forehead and the tattered clothing she wears. The painting shows us an epic trial and also places Pebworth in the position of a biblical shepherd. If she is the shepherd leading the lamb to safety, is she leading it down the right path? The path looks laden with danger in the foreground, but the promised land is ahead. Symbolically it’s hard to know if Pebworth is leading the lamb away from the flock or back to it. As this was painted just before she started heading out on her own solo journeys across American with her artwork, it seems that this painting is the symbolic decision to strike out away from the flock. This painting serves as in immense personal resolution to change the direction of her life.
Following the “Roadside Attraction” works, Pebworth has created numerous public works that investigate social interaction in multiple ways including “The Unofficial Department of Handshakes” in San Francisco’s City Hall this year. Pebworth’s works from her joint project with artist Hannah Ireland are also included in “Resolutions for a New Year”. The project “explores the handshake as one of the few cross-cultural and internationally recognized forms of touch between strangers. The handshake can be simple and direct or complex and coded. Serving as a bridge between people, the handshake can be a casual greeting, a congratulatory gesture, or a mutual agreement.”
Pebworth’s “Handshake Paintings” are exhibited above her sculptural “totems”. The wooden sculptures link with the painting as they are all carry embedded histories and stories with them, whether as graphic tools used to connect people (strangers) or discards from the San Francisco dump which are imprinted with the lives of others and transformed into reverential totems. Pebworth’s works are all explorations into alternative forms of storytelling.
Pebworth and Potter’s work share investigations of the self, but most of their works reach outward, requiring a human connection for the works to resonate. If Potter’s work is largely text based, then we need an audience to read. If Pebworth’s work asks for a handshake, two people need to connect. In “A Simple Plan” Pebworth looks back meeting our gaze. While divergent as visual presentations, these artists both have the impulse to share their work with the public. And in sharing their work, we find an optimism and connection that is profound. As viewers, if we could follow their lead to resolve to connect more in this New Year, that would be an accomplishment.