A compelling uniformity emerges in Main Squeeze, Eleanor Aldrich’s second solo exhibition at Channel to Channel. Previous shows in Nashville have included works in a variety of mediums in the Knoxville-based artist’s repertoire, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially for an artist as versatile as Aldrich. But the ten figurative paintings here offer a particularly lucid distillation of her interest in the relationship between images and materiality, with a particular emphasis on flesh. This focus ultimately serves as an entry point into the larger investigation of the relationships between illusion and reality—in both art and life—that underscores many of her works.
Main Squeeze radiates an ethos of experimentation and chance, a familiar quality in Aldrich’s paintings. Yet these bold, knobby canvases feel more refined and focused than previous iterations of similar works. She has loaded the canvases with a grab-bag variety of mediums—paint, cloth, found paper, felt, and industrial sealants like caulking, silicone, and enamel—which she has combed, piped, painted, and sculpted to create crude verisimilitudes of people lounging in hammocks, lawn chairs, or against chain link fences. These latticed objects dominate the foreground of each work and serve as de facto modernist grids (albeit shabby ones) that are warped by the weight of the figures’ bodies pressing into them with surrealistic force. The works merge painting and sculpture, as well as representation and abstraction, and teeter on the edge of image and object, tricking your perception.
The Reader in a Hammock, one of the most polished, striking paintings in the show, depicts a woman lying in a hammock, looking at a magazine open to a Budweiser advertisement. Clad in short-shorts and a bikini top, she is situated in an idyllic setting, perhaps by a river or lake, with her back to you. Meanwhile, the hammock squishes her flesh, which bulges through the netting and out of the frame like proofing dough, turning an otherwise benign, pedestrian moment into one that’s comic yet slightly unsettling. Similarly, Lawn Chair w/ Pink Sky features a tightly cropped image of a figure sitting in a lawn chair while her flesh grotesquely oozes out of the latticework of straps forming its back. The unhemmed cloth and needle felt used to make the figure’s clothing also reach out of the canvas, further emphasizing its duality as an image-object.
The body, bending the grid, hints at a world that is both ordered and disordered. If not a total fabrication, control is, at most, fleeting. Still, it’s clear that Aldrich understands a fundamental truth about being a painter—her task is to create an illusion—and she seems to revel in accentuating the alchemy and sleight of hand behind the act of creation. She experiments with unconventional, hard-to-use materials, and opts for ones that best mimic the physical properties of her subject matter. Silicone makes passable flesh, for instance, and caulking makes decent vinyl lawn chairs. But the crudeness of her renderings is both deliberate and accidental, which allows her to draw attention to the act of making, its subjectivity, and its power. In this way, her images resonate more powerfully than her subject matter, which exists more or less to as a vehicle for material metaphor.
You can’t, however, downplay the centrality of the figures in Main Squeeze. Aldrich has depicted them with a playfulness and affection that feels deeply personal. Though the show’s title is ambiguous—she could intend it as ironic or genuine, or it could be a literal reference to her squeezing flesh motif—yet it hints at the humanity that emanates from these works. Aldrich grew up in a poor, rural town in Arizona and claims in her artist statement that these works were inspired by memories of the people there. The figures’ back tattoos, studded shorts, and shirts with Country Magic embroidered across the shoulders also feel quintessentially Southern—Aldrich has lived in Knoxville for years. These are people you might run into at local ball game, the lake, a dive bar, or at any number of cheap (if not free) leisure activities typical in rural towns. At the same time, they remain deeply mysterious, an effect Aldrich conveys through her adaptation of the Rückenfigur, a popular device used by nineteenth-century German Romantic artists in which a central figure in a landscape painting is depicted with his back to the viewer as he contemplates a sublime view of nature. All of the figures in Main Squeeze are depicted as Rückenfigurs, allowing us to identify with them, perhaps even join in with what they’re doing or looking at. This technique, however, also emphasizes that we are on the outside, that their feelings are closed to us. For Aldrich, what is sublime is the figure itself—a fleshy body embedded in but somehow escaping the grids and landscapes that would otherwise contain it.
Eleanor Aldrich’s solo exhibition Main Squeeze is on view at Channel to Channel in Nashville, Tennessee, through April 20.