While Jessica Caldas’s solo show at the Arts Exchange, titled Object And Experience, may refer to objects that are fairly straightforward and mundane, the experience is anything but. Caldas uses printmaking and sound installation to create a powerful, domestic-violence remix that explores a terrifying subject without scaring away its audience.
Along with being a printmaker, Caldas works as an advocate for the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, which develops and coordinates programs that provide legal representation, education, and advocacy for at-risk, low-income individuals. Their Domestic Violence Project specifically assists survivors of intimate, partner violence by helping obtain Temporary Protective Orders, counseling, access to shelters, and other resources for victims. It is through this lens that the artwork resonates with harrowing clarity.
The first thing you see when entering the exhibition is a collection of twenty one small prints with images of seemingly mundane and unimportant objects (a chair, a belt, a weapon [gun], a baby monitor, keys, handcuffs, and a bed, for example), grouped into mixed and matched pairs. Through this juxtaposition, the objects lose their banality and take on resounding significance when considered in the context of intimate abuse. Some objects connote violence as their primary purpose: the gun, the knife, handcuffs; others are subtler and raise questions about how universal the potential for violence can be: are keys used as a physical weapon—an improvised brass knuckle—or are they a weapon of control, stranding the victim in their own home?
Along the opposite wall, another collection of small prints repeats the object motif, though this time they’re defined by their absence. Bright-white negative space leaves a colorless hole in a textured color field, leading the viewer to think about what happens when these objects are no longer used in their intended context.
Dissonance abounds in both composition and texture. Throughout the exhibition, colors are muted, though the occasional bright hue pops out: perhaps standing in as vestiges of hope, or maybe the searing intensity experienced from a blow to the head? One image of an idyllic American house is alight in what could be viewed as red flames on a yellow field. It’s titled Not What You’d Call A Home, and perhaps best exemplifies the show’s overall theme. We have romantic ideas about what makes a house a home: family, support, love, growth; but that romantic idea can easily turn deadly, a reality that’s not all that extraordinary. Our house, which should be our sanctuary, our safe place, can quickly become our prison, our burning hell. It’s not the objects that create this hell, it’s the people who redefine their uses.
Viewed as a whole, the prints act in dialogue with one another, begging the viewer to question their relationships. Indeed, viewed individually the prints wouldn’t be as strong; they might even get lost in the crowd. While the repeated imagery culls from the popular lexicons of printmaking—birds, guns, handcuffs, overlapping patterns—this familiarity works to forge and strengthen new connections that are specific, yet vague enough to allow the viewer to personalize each work as he or she narrates his or her own horror stories. Remove the context of violence, however, and one is left with yet another screenprint-type image of guns and handcuffs. Therein lies the danger of using such familiar imagery: it can be too-easily dismissed as just a cool T-shirt idea when stripped of the show’s signifying theme.
Caldas’s most successful works pair language with imagery to delineate a self-contained context. In, Love Notes, she draws portraits in ink over a screen-printed background. They are mugshots for victims, documenting the physical effects of abusive relationships. The graphic black lines are punctuated with red bruising, especially around swollen eyes. One woman looks away, turning her head to reveal strangle marks on her neck. Beside each face Caldas documents the emotional damage each victim has suffered due to verbal abuse, from the controlling, “If you think you’re going to leave me, you’re not,” to the more foreboding, “I wish you would just die.”
This explicit sentiment is echoed in the heart-wrenching sound installation, Vanessa, Age 11. A crude white box that could be a voting booth or a coat closet invites the viewer inside to listen to actual audio recordings of Vanessa’s father abusing her mother. Inside the booth, Caldas has painted a portrait of Vanessa with the toy plastic tape deck and microphone she used to record her father’s threatening words. Overhead speakers play 40 minutes of recorded verbal and physical abuse. According to Caldas, a few weeks after the recording was made, Vanessa’s father killed her mother. Due to the noise outside I couldn’t hear much of what was being said, but I could feel the tone in the man’s voice, and the fear in the woman’s. Once or twice I thought I caught the sound of Vanessa humming a tune to herself, which is perhaps the most frightening aspect of all: that she was so accustomed to witnessing this type of violence, that it became ‘normal’ for her. Abuse wasn’t an unusual, extraordinary event, it was a part of her everyday life. I imagined her sitting at the kitchen table, doing homework, or sitting in the hallway with her tape recorder, calmly observing and recording: a detached journalist if ever there was one.
Viewing all this at the Arts Exchange, a former grade school, only served to reinforce my identification with the victims and the strength of the show. I too had the same Fischer-Price tape recorder that Vanessa used to record her parents during my childhood. I also used mine to record myself humming a tune or two, except mine didn’t have the backing track of mommy crying and daddy yelling that he’s going to kill her.
In my view, effective art makes you think about yourself and how you connect to the world. It opens doors to lines of thought you may not have crossed. It makes new connections between familiar but seemingly disparate ideas. Most of all, it gets in your gut and stays there. This show did all that and more.