Viewing Lauren Alyssa Howard’s show “How Did I Not See This Coming” is like being caught in a redneck remake of the Wizard of Oz meets Twister with a healthy dose of Coal Miner’s Daughter thrown in. More simply, Howard combines elements of fantasy, tragedy, family history, and ol’ time religion to construct a personal history that is archetypally Southern and rooted equally in the past and the present.
The exhibition is a single-room installation in which vignettes segue from one to another, separated in part by the architecture of the space. Quite fortuitously, the layout of the room includes enough architectural variation to create moments of intimacy through doorways, wall insets, and protrusions, allowing Howard to use these elements to move from one element of the story to the next.
Her works combine wall paintings, vinyl installations, paper cutouts of a range of animals, including crows, armadillos, rattlesnakes and wolves, and what appear to be real bees pinned like entomologists’ specimens directly to the gallery walls. Howard is particularly skillful in her ability to take primarily monochrome pieces and make them work to her advantage through her exquisite use of detail. Against the back wall, there is what can only be described as a tornado of lowbrow Americana. On the left, a bare-breasted woman in a snout mask is essentially the anti-Dorothy. She is trapped in a vortex of cinderblocks, bricks, beer cans, chain link and moonshine jugs while paper birds fly around her. A brief flash of gingham color ruptures the monotony of the monochrome, while the entire scene is covered in a swarm of mosquitoes.
To the right, a stuffed fawn lies curled in the corner. Above it is another paper collage that includes images of bricks, rats, cans and pop-tops – all images that seem at odds with the delicacy of Howard’s drawings. The art historian Thierry de Duve once remarked on the apparent disparity between the detailed nature of some of Duchamp’s works and their seemingly mundane and artisanal nature, and in many ways that attention to detail certainly could apply here. What Howard does particularly well, and what viewers may find disturbing – which merely adds to the wonder of the works – is that the idea of drawing trash, junk, waste, and vermin in such realistic fashion seems at odds with the very idea of aesthetic beauty. So instead of asking the question “Why?,” perhaps one should be asking “Why not?”
Perhaps the most difficult work to decipher is the one that first greets viewers. There, a mantle has tumbled over, spilling contents onto the floor. To the left, on the floor, acrylic boxes hold the signifiers of manhood – a tie, a belt and a shirtsleeve. To the right, spreading towards the ceiling, hymnals lie open to songs that sing the evils of men, including “Saved by Grace” and “Christ Receivith Sinful Men.” In between, what could be perceived as family photos punctuate the work, while deer antlers spill onto the floor. It is difficult to determine if Howard has taken viewers on a journey from the emptiness of space to the complexities of the past or from the intimacies of family to the emptiness of the soul, but either way you encounter something that is both universal and personal in precisely the same moment. Howard does something that is being attempted less and less these days: she takes viewers on a deeply intimate journey using nothing but the stillness of space and, generally, imagery she has constructed and torn from the page. How did she not see this coming indeed?
Lauren Alyssa Howard’s “How Did I Not See This Coming” is at Fieldwork Projects at Auburn University through Saturday July 4.
Brett Levine is an independent curator, writer, and editor based in Birmingham.