Strained States

Friday May 17th, 2019

Curated by Jameson Paige

Artists: Elena Ailes, Cameron Clayborn, Rami George, April Martin, Máire Witt O’Neill, Derrick Woods-Morrow

Strained States is a group exhibition that translates the snowballing precariousness of global politics into an operative position of instability, one that attempts to acknowledge new subjectivities and methods for living in a groundless present. Playing with identity, form, and material, the artists included take up transition, ambiguity, and the erosion of limits as core interests in their practices. The show is a gesture towards understanding the complexity of our attachments, as well as the state of instability beyond its negative connotations, seeing it instead as a generative position to occupy with rigor, curiosity, and pleasure.

Like a live wire, the subject channels what’s going on around it in the process of its own self-composition. Formed by the coagulation of intensities, surfaces, sensations, perceptions, and expressions, it’s a thing composed of encounters and the spaces and events it traverses or inhabits.

Things happen. The self moves to react, often pulling itself someplace it didn’t exactly expect to go.

— Kathleen Stewart, “Live Wire,” in Ordinary Affects

Our state of being is always defined in relation to; it is ourselves, others, and how we are attached. We often think of attachments as good for us, objects and people that draw us in, desire and comfort us. However, attachments are just as often volatile, saddening, and end in consequence. They are the unrequited lover, the sick and diminishing parent—once provider, now in need—the stray cat we know but can’t get close to, the indifferent and nonhuman object. We can also consider our immaterial attachments—claimed or assigned signifiers. Notions of identity and how we appear in social and cultural space become ways of attaching to the world, even if we do not agree with how those attachments manifest. What comes to mind are the limits imposed by marginality, or the shameful feeling of an ill-fitting nationality.

Strained States is an exhibition that takes interest in an expanded reading of states of being, i.e. how we move through the world. It looks at how an individual’s various states, ranging from mood, race, body, nationality, etc., are always in a process of negotiation and straining. Being strained connotes a weary and wary fatigue, tension, and anticipation for relief. As a bodily orientation, this can be likened to a twist—twisting to avoid harm or forcibly being twisted by an outside push. Conversely, one can twist or writhe in pleasure as their body strains to reach climax. Twisting is a curling

or bending, a process of adjustment characterized by ongoing movement. Strained States foregrounds the process of being affected and in negotiation, with the prospect of determining what feelings begin to look like as they materialize into forms, keeping in mind the specificity certain orientations towards living require. We are constantly reorienting ourselves; constantly straining in an exercise of ongoing transformation. The artists included take up transition, ambiguity, and the erosion of limits as key concerns in their practices. They are equally attuned to how these processes occur in terms of the muddiness of affect and the flexibility of material, leveraging instances of uncertainty and variability. Each of them is responding to the confused feelings that characterize subjecthood today. They consider how this affective conundrum plays out by constellating form, identity, and material into prismatic openings for inquiry and potential.

Cameron Clayborn investigates how racial and gender performativities might translate into weights, densities, and textures. His supple sculptures imagine how objects relate to one another with familial forms of attachment, while also inciting notions of bodily capacity—how surfaces stretch, fold, and buckle. April Martin experiments with natural processes determined by ongoing change. She plays with our expectations, pointing out how changes in material can be delicate and yet simultaneously quite harsh. Rami George mines his family’s history to understand connections between Lebanese nationalism, the specters of Civil War, family dynamics, and civic rupture, pulling the personal and national into close conversation. His video work assembles footage from multiple sources to show how singular histories are the result of multiple fractured narratives congealing. Máire Witt O’Neill’s sculptural pieces use a softer form of ground, the plushness of a rug, to also show how multiple narratives overlap. The lingering imprints on her woven surfaces show how easily notions of truth are affected and swayed. Derrick Woods-Morrow bridges the gaps between history and the present through material and textual transformations. His work calls upon the complexity of desire to make sense of historical cracks. Elena Ailes explores how affect might be embodied through material in a subtle series of objects that sit between sculpture and drawing. Her contribution outlines the contours of the exhibition by pointing to the intensities between other artists’ works, where they rub each other’s edges, and how the gallery’s architecture itself pushes and pulls us toward certain sensations and states.

All of the artists included in Strained States embrace slipperiness when approaching their work, in content and in form. Artworks that examine socially-defined attachments like race, gender, and sexuality, come into direct conversation with works that probe non-human and material experience. Many works bleed between all of these categories, pointing to the need for more complex readings of how subjectivity, attachment, and materiality overlap. Pulling these artists’ wide-ranging practices together in one exhibition is a chance to consider how identity, form, and material are deeply intertwined and yet remain extraordinarily conditional—each field constantly straining for air time. Strained States is a gesture towards understanding the complexity of attachments, as well as the state of instability beyond its negative connotations, seeing it instead as a generative position to occupy with rigor, curiosity, and pleasure.