Saya Woolfalk: Chimera
Emerson Dorsch Gallery, Miami
11 January - 21 February 2014
Review by Shana Beth Mason
Masks can teach, trick, tempt, torture and/or transform us. They help clothe us in ancient rituals and initiate new ones. The way in which we create and inhabit masks define our relationship to the natural environment and each other: some masks are not worn, they are one and the same with our flesh. New York-based artist Saya Woolfalk takes a practical approach to mask-crafting and mask-wearing. The body becomes an extension of the secondary face; the designs and colorful shapes that adorn the mask’s surface are extended onto arms, legs, torsos and backs. Still further, the mask becomes a blueprint for the background. Whatever the mask bears, everything else follows suit. This is the basis for Woolfalk’s solo show at Emerson Dorsch Gallery in Miami, entitled Chimera.
Chimera is the name of a female, mythological creature bearing the head of a lion, a head of a goat rising from its back and the poisonous serpent for a tail. It is currently understood to signify any object, idea or being of hybrid origin. Woolfalk constructs elaborate, seemingly impossible rituals involving one or more individuals adorned in headdresses, tunics and masks in the form of painted faces (with open eyes painted over closed eyelids). Her subjects are part plant, part human species called Emphatics, who are washed in cerulean blues and deep purples. Their clean-cut visages are suspended against backdrops of starry pastel patterns or sets of whitewashed bones neatly arranged on a ceremonial bed. Two vividly-coloured sculptures resembling human skulls, set onto plinths, are juxtaposed with an LCD screen on the opposite wall. A psychedelic, digitally-constructed background spins behind a three-headed humanoid.
Throughout Woolfalks’ varying works, one cannot help but notice the omnipresence of light, benevolent shades offsetting the weirdness of her subjects. Colour and pattern hark back to impressions of childhood: while the markings on both animate and inanimate elements appear to be aligned with the obscured dangers of the occult or tribal varieties, they are also the same kinds of imagery commonly seen on security blankets, baby rattles and bibs.
The cross-breeding of timelines, cultures and modes of visual communication runs parallel to the hybrid monster of the Chimera. But Woolfalk successfully subdues the monstrous into the mysterious, painted over with colours that betray their stereotypes. In the past, Woolfalk has experimented with skulls, bones and ritual objects that more closely resemble children’s toys than visceral entrails. She has streamlined the complex tangents of her practice into a potent statement of the treachery of appearances and the overwhelming power of personal memory.
Her own multicultural background (born in Japan to a native mother and a white/African-American father) serves as a foundation for her series of works; a foundation that, itself, is subject to socio-political ebbs and flows. The exhibition is undoubtedly a delight to behold in its unapologetic theatricality, which is no criticism. Artists who wrangle with the ills of the postmodern condition are often relegated to the edges, teetering on the brink of intellectual coma. Woolfalk proves this need not be the case: the dark truths of modernity can take on multiple faces, multiple bodies and multitudes of brightness.