2019 - reenactments of a perpetual cycle

Finite Bodies in Infinite Time // An Essay by Allison Klion

Rachel Wolfson Smith’s immersive drawings of the renowned  Dutch landscape architect, Piet Oudolf’s personal garden, Hummelo, the artist explains, reflect her interest in deconstructing complicated patterns as a way to arrive at higher truths. Working from dozens of source images taken during a visit to Hummelo last year, shortly before it closed to the public, scribbling notes and thoughts on the paper as they arrive to her, erasing selectively as she works, Wolfson Smith makes no attempt to meticulously recreate a picture of the garden exactly as it was. Instead, she writes, “the thought processes becomes marked as a record of time on the page.” More than this, each one of Wolfson Smith’s drawings does not reproduce a place in time, but is, to borrow from the art critic John Berger, “an autobiographical record of [her] discovery of an event—seen, remembered, or imagined.” 

Best known as an art critic and writer—though he trained as a painter as well—Berger wrote extensively and passionately on drawing, articulating both the act and the object with the intimacy of a lifelong practitioner. “For the artist,” Berger reminds readers, “drawing is discovery.” A drawn mark, more than recording what is, serves as a guide to lead the artist to see further. “Each confirmation or denial brings you closer to the object, until finally you are, as it were, inside of it: the contours you have drawn no longer marking the edge of what you have seen, but the edge of what you have become.” The act of drawing quite literally merges artist and drawn image together—a shared subjectivity. 

Standing before these immense graphite drawings, I become acutely aware of my body in space.  I have two distinct sensations either in rapid succession or simultaneously, it’s difficult to say for sure. First—an acute awareness of perceiving a drawing and its construction. I recognize the formal techniques used to create an illusionistic space, as well as gestures that disrupt the coherence of that illusion. To put it less pretentiously, I could see that the artist had drawn things that I could recognize, erased parts of the drawing, and scribbled notes on the paper’s surface at random. Second—something akin to deja vu, a sense that I had seen this place before, knew its sun-warmed smell, had once asked myself if I should push aside wide leaves and explore more deeply. But the drawing, for all its illusory facility, could not quite transport me to edge of this wildly overgrown landscape exactly, but rather to a memory of it, or a place like it. There, inside of an erased void, I can stand and see this landscape as Rachel Wolfson Smith did, and bear perpetual witness to its potential as a drawing. 

If, for Rachel Wolfson Smith,  human movement  and presence in the landscape manifests itself through the restless effort to pin down a sense of the place, Edison Peñafiel is more interested in the literal movement of bodies through space. His complex installation of video projections  and collaged sound references recurrent patterns of human migrations. Looped in an endless procession, absurd, yet highly sympathetic characters trudge across an animated landscape. The terrain slowly shifts between grassland, ocean, desert, and mountain range, only for the travelers to appear back where they started again, looping back on an eternal journey to nowhere. Though Peñafiel’s masked characters continually traverse the landscapes they encounter, they leave no visible index of their passage, and as such, they seem doomed to repeat themselves again and again. At the same time, the identity of the characters remains temporally and culturally ambiguous—some seem without gender or without age. Papier-mâché masks primarily from artisans in Peñafiel’s native Ecuador, and unspecific costuming transform them into archetypal representatives of any diasporic population. The first wave of immigrants charts the path for the next, whose journey in reality might take a different shape, but the obstacles are largely the same. Though the characters rarely interact with each other, they seem to inherent some kind of spatial knowledge from their predecessors. There are no tentative steps—no one hesitates as solid ground transforms into water. Undoubtedly their bodies reveal their exhaustion, but each one—stooped old women and pigtailed children alike—drives onward relentlessly. 

Peñafiel’s installation occupies a room in 100W once used for secret rites and performances by the Independent Order of the Odd Fellows, including reenactments of Old Testament stories and the Royal Purple Degree—a highly theatrical ritual designed to gently shepherd blindfolded initiates through an elaborate mock pilgrimage to a High Priest, metaphorically representing their triumphant passage through the “journey of life.” Great pains are taken by the Order, to assure that their candidates appear triumphant and remain safe during the entire ritual, despite loaded warnings of dire troubles ahead. The pilgrims in the Royal Purple Degree, however, always complete their journey, victorious over vice and conveniently protected from the perils natural world. Peñafiel’s travelers have no oak tree of hospitality or “bright rainbow of promise” to remind them of their “covenant-keeping Father.” Though there are no provisions against rough roads or annoyingly suspended rushes on their journey, Peñafiel’s travelers appear to walk on water.