Atlanta-based artist Christina West’s first solo exhibition at CG2 in Nashville is an example of a perfect match between an artist and a gallery. For the uninitiated, CG2 is an offshoot of Nashville’s venerable Cumberland Gallery. The spin-off space gives Cumberland a presence in the city’s hottest arts neighborhood, Wedgewood-Houston. It also gives curator Jason Lascu an opportunity to show the edgier, less commercial work that that art scene is known for. West’s show “UNMET” subverts old school portrait sculpture with a psychedelic take on the classic bust. It’s an irreverent concept and a perfect analog to the gallery’s mission.
West’s busts are cast in pigmented layers of Hydrocal plaster, with the outer layer of this cast of colors being the light, stony gray one typically expects from marble or plaster busts. But when West mutilates her works – slicing off a visage here, scalping a head there – her cross-sections of cranium are revealed as flat planes of chromatic and organic stripes, swirls, and dotted layers.
West’s thorough conceptualizing begins with her medium. Hydrocal is often used for scenery props in theatrical projects, and it’s also a favorite of special effects crews tasked with making molds for latex makeup applications. In this context, the busts are connected to a dramatic suspension of disbelief, and mask-wearing. Through that lens, West’s cuts look like an indictment of the largely unconscious, everyday masks we each create with our hairstyles and our expressions as we play the roles we’ve cast ourselves in: artist, writer, father, mother, spouse, collector, yogi, gamer, gardener, and so on.
West’s works also send up the process of archaeological excavation where the subtraction of materials might reveal significant ephemera and objects, and the information they represent. But, the slices and chunks that West takes from her works only reveal flat planes of abstract color, provoking questions instead of providing answers.
For me, the busts are most readily understood as comments on the viewer’s own reductive projections, pointing to how we oversimplify or even judge people by their outward appearance. West’s abstract, layered interiors remind viewers that surfaces often can’t account for the colorful complexities of character, mentality, and imagination that make up most of a person.
What’s left of these busts’ original details are the faces of average folks, not the statesmen, composers, and authors we usually see given the bust treatment. Some of West’s untitled works grimace and sneer as if they are reacting to being mutilated. These become too cute for me, too silly, too on-the-nose. But, a bust like #3 offers a man with a warm grin and a short but shaggy beard. The top of his head is missing from just below his eyes. There’s an added irony to the works, indicative within expressions that are incongruous to — or even at odds with — their chromatic craniotomies. There is always a place for humor in art, but it only works when it’s genuinely funny.
Some of these works are genuinely funny, but some are mysterious and moving. This is the case with #11, a bust of a middle-aged white woman with long, straight hair. Her eyes are closed peacefully, but West has flattened part of her face, from nose to chin, into a smooth plane of pink and yellow with little red dots. The effect is like a Cheshire Cat in reverse – the appearance of everything but a smile. Its awful gaze evokes the mute horror associated with how the loss of the face results in a loss of identity, the fear of being without being somebody. I’m also reminded of Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without A Face” that’s “got no human grace.” Amen.
“Christina A. West: UNMET” runs through February 26 at CG2 in Nashville.
Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist, and intermedia artist in Nashville. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.