In his famous, “Pioneers! O Pioneers” Walt Whitman ironically encourages his pioneers, “We primeval forests felling, We the rivers stemming, vexing we and piercing deep the mines within, We the surface broad surveying, we the virgin soil upheaving.” The result of this conquest of nature is evident in our contemporary landscape, and plays front and center in Sarah Emerson’s exhibition O Smithereens! whose title references the 1865 Whitman original. By Emerson’s account this world is now a terrifying, tragic mess.
One keenly senses the doom in the hyperactive, deliciously caustic images of Emerson’s third solo exhibition at Whitespace Gallery. Objects may be depicted in the comforting, simplistic, colorful style of Saturday morning cartoons, but many of her figures have been reduced to a pair of frightened cartoon eyes peering out nervously from the darkness as their dying world doesn’t just collapse, but explodes into a tangle of limbs, skulls, smoke, dust clouds and debris. Although end times are implied the words “The End” appear in a work entitled Free Fall, inscribed on a cartoon tombstone, no less. Other tombstones read “Oh no” and “Oh Boy” or “Wait. What?” recording a whiplashed anxiety that might be a product of the radio news Emerson plays in her studio as she works.
The anesthetizing, flattened language of children’s cartoons is turned on its head to become disorienting, nonsensical chatter. The landscape here is being blown to bits and the volumetric but often abstract pieces burst forth from a center rather than relate coherently to a horizon-line. Like late Edo Japanese woodblock prints capturing waves at their most turbulent, impactful moment with their intricate tendrils and fragmented webs of froth and water, Emerson’s paintings create an unsettled balance between the bursting energy of an evanescent moment and the contemplative, contained, enduring stillness of the artist’s depiction. Emerson embraces this uneasy balance, creating a deliberately absurd disparity between the apocalyptic subject and the ingenuous, childlike, paint-by-numbers style.
Some viewers may argue that the overarching metaphor seems to arrive on one’s plate pre-interpreted, and others may well wonder if this mode reached a sort of apotheosis last year in three large paintings in a black lit room at the Zuckerman Museum, an appealingly brash mash-up of cheesy gimmick and grand artistic gesture. It’s a tough moment to top; perhaps installation and large-scale murals are where Emerson’s humor and style emerge in fullest force. Rhinestones affixed to the canvases replicate the mood to some degree, but not the fullness and grandeur, or the wild unleashed energy, of the larger statements. And overall, the work, though thematically and stylistically cohesive, lacks the amalgamated heft of her museum shows at MOCA GA and the Zuckerman.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, the most effective works are the large paintings, but look also for Snow White’s Dopey in a series of four small, strangely compelling painted panels. Together, the images suggest a comic book-like sequence, though the order doesn’t form a narrative or tell us how or why Dopey’s eyes have, as in a Freudian nightmare, seemingly burst out of his head. Although her inventive use of color remains one of her many strengths, also of interest are a few small studies for the larger works in black ink on paper: that same nervous, frightened energy now condensed into jagged black lines.
O Smithereens! is a memorable show not just for its depiction of downfall but for its sensation of it; the silly, comforting, toss-away pop iconography of our childhood has been twisted around and employed to depict the final, chaotic scramble — our unfunny, unchildlike end.