THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by K.A. Letts
Spring 2021 finds us in transition from the isolation of the Covid-19 pandemic to something like the status quo ante. Rachel Pontious’s first solo show at Playground Detroit, “Mise en Abyme,” treats us to an uneasy assessment of where we have just been, and where we are going. In her statement she says, “This body of work has been simmering in my mind for a while and changed many times throughout the past year as we all adjusted to new ways of existing, caring, communicating, coping.”
Installation: “Mise En Abyme,” paintings by Rachel Pontious at Playground Detroit. Photo: Samantha’s List.
The twelve paintings in “Mise en Abyme” mark the unsettled portal in the artist’s mind between present stasis and hazy future. The title of the collection refers to a formal technique, in both literature and visual art, of placing a copy of an image within itself, often suggesting an infinitely recurring sequence--mirrors within mirrors into infinity. In addition to this strategy, Pontious has incorporated imagery derived from her close reading of the Tarot—specifically of the seven cards in the minor arcana (swords, pentacles, cups and wands) which refer to transition, crisis and change. She has incorporated these formal methods and cultural references into a dense matrix of intuitive meaning and emotionally fraught content that describes the artist’s feelings of depression, confusion and isolation. An accompanying ’zine provides detailed commentary on the elaborate literary and art historical underpinnings of the work.
The paintings in the exhibit are rendered within a narrow chromatic band: black, white, and a queasy green. If free-floating anxiety has a color, this murky malachite might be it. Instead of grisaille, perhaps we can refer to it as “greenaille.” The clotted greenish blacks and grays of the four largest paintings suffuse the gallery with an ambiance of dread.
The mise en abyme device and the minor Tarot arcana are central to the imagery and composition of the series of 4 door-size paintings that dominate the gallery. Each painting represents a threshold into a psychological space of slippery intent and shadowed meaning. The first in the series, Seven of Swords, features a slim, vertical band of spiraling stairs resting between two narrow strips of darkness, as if we were looking through a slitted door. The painting has a kind of nightmare quality, with stairs appearing to lead both up and down. A mysterious hallway in the middle leads off to an unknown destination. The mood is one of disorientation. Seven of Pentacles, is, if possible, more claustrophobic and even less formally satisfactory. The monumental canvas looms, a solid wall of dreary architectural decorative painting, stopping us in our tracks. There is no escape; a sense of futility intrudes. While neither of these artworks is particularly pleasant, Pontious has effectively evoked in them the depressive emotional state she seems to be aiming for.
The other two large canvases in the series mark a subtle shift in tone. Seven of Cups makes better compositional use of the large canvas and seems more closely tied to the artist’s personal experience. It is a bar scene, seen from above and behind, as if we are leaving the convivial group, smokes, drinks and all. The well-painted de Chirico-esque mise en abyme (within yet another mise en abyme) positioned high above eye level, gives some sense of opening possibility. The erupting volcano in Seven of Wands finally delivers an explosive payoff for all the confusion and frustration of the first three paintings. The roiling clouds of smoke heave up and out, while the small staircase surrounded by sheltering hands in the lower third of the painting invites us enigmatically down and within.
The mood changes yet again with the four diminutive paintings in Suitmarks, lightening from the anguished histrionics of the larger paintings to something simpler and more hopeful. Each 6 x 6 square refers to a suit of the minor arcana employing images of common bar staples: a plastic cocktail sword, a glass (cup), a coaster (pentacles), a book of matches (wands). Together, they make a pleasing corollary to the impromptu still life at the foot of the larger Seven of Cups. The monochrome green palette, here, pleases the eye in the smaller paintings, the flat white background in each delivering an airy sense of space and light.
Pontious seems at her most comfortable with the imagery and scale of the four 24” x 18” paintings that recapitulate the mise en abyme strategy, but with the inner image filling a larger portion of the overall composition. Rather than dominating or competing, the loosely painted outer surround provides a complementary frame for the images within. In each, a sprightly skeleton incised on gray encaustic (and representing the artist herself) capers through the composition, sometimes alone, sometimes not. These figures, taken from the artist’s sketchbooks, are intimate and appealing—even humorous—and provide some relief from the gloom of the larger scale work.
Pontious says in her artist’s statement: “This past year has felt like a forcible placement into the abyss. A threshold that promises the future actually leads us to forget what we were looking for; it isn’t the future at all.” The paintings in “Mis en abyme” are, in sum, an emotionally eloquent distillation of our COVID-19 year, with its lost time, lost friends, lost creative momentum. They represent one artist’s reflective pause before the present becomes the past and we plunge into the post-pandemic future.
“Mise en Abyme” was on view at Playground Detroit from April 10 to May 15. For more information, go here.
K.A. Letts is the Detroit editor of the New Art Examiner, a working artist (kalettsart.com) and art blogger (rustbeltarts.com). She has shown her paintings and drawing in galleries and museums in Toledo, Detroit, Chicago and New York. She writes frequently about art in the Detroit area.
Rachel Pontious, Strange Chalices of Vision, 2021, oil, pencil and encaustic on panel, 24” x 18”. Photo: Samantha’s List.
Rachel Pontious, Seven of Swords, 2021, oil on canvas, 96” x 60”.
Photo: Samantha’s List
Rachel Pontious, Seven of Pentacles (detail), 2021, oil on canvas. Photo: Samantha’s List.
Rachel Pontious, Suitmarks: Swords, Cups, Pentacles, Wands, 2021, oil on panel, each 6”x 6”. Photo: K.A. Letts.
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