On display in The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts Alumni Gallery from November 27, 2018 – March 03, 2019 is the two artist show Held Dear featuring works by Chelsea Nader and Melissa Joseph. The show was an open call and was organized through Morgan Hobbs in PAFA’s Student Services department. Hobbs is also a MFA graduate at PAFA and is a member of Philadelphia’s Automat artist collective.
I had the personal pleasure of being a student in the MFA program at the academy with both Chelsea and Melissa. Being able to see their growth as artists up close was a wonderful experience but it was even more thrilling to see the current manifestations of their artistic practices in Held Dear.
The choice of Held Dear for the title of the show makes perfect sense in relation to the works of both artists. Memory is a connecting thread in their works as they utilize personal narrative to share their memory with the audience, in hope to create an impromptu exercise on empathy for the audience as well. It’s interesting to sift through personal memories to see what we hold on to especially cause these held memories, whether we are aware of it or not, shape and inform our present. This can especially seen through held trauma in individuals who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder.
The power of making work and sharing this with others is monumental and potentially healing if the memories are negative. As stated before, the moment to offer a chance to practice empathy is on display here. Because these memories are on display for all to see, in a way, the artists themselves are coming to terms with what these mean to them. They are no longer afraid to be judged by others for what they present. Often times when an artist presents work that is personal to them for others to see, they receive criticism about the relevance of this work. To those critics I say that you are the problem because of course this is relevant! Memory is what forms the hypothesis of our world. And to better understand our memories in open conversation with others will strengthen our ability to navigate the world as well.
Chelsea Nader’s work is a beautiful investigation of navigating between chaos and order. The first piece on the wall directly to the left of the entrance to the gallery space is a diptych with the left side being one of her prints. This piece sets the tone for the work. The print depicts organic imagery similar to what you would see under a microscope or of outer space. No color is used in these pieces leaving a just a dichotomy of black forms on a white ground. On the right, the organic imagery is still present but have now become contained in what looks like pill bottles on a bathroom vanity mirror cabinet. The dialogue is rich here between freedom and domestication as well as toxin and medicine where the role of benefactor and malefactor switch between sides of the diptych. This makes me believe that the artist is trying to navigate through these polar forces and values both sides of the coin.
The larger piece in the back of the room echos these themes but puts them in the same environment. The backdrop is the free organic interpretation while what resembles the mirrors are the contained organic images. The use of the mirror in this piece now shift the onus of who is negotiating freedom and comfort onto the viewer. As the viewer gazes into the mirror they see a glimpse of their freedom but are also at a distance from it.
The miniature sculptures of domestic settings continue to rhyme with the theme as many have to deal with the ongoing presence of a psychic conundrum of freedom and comfort, chaos and control. The narrative could be that of a personal childhood memory of the artist. The constant conversation between domestic and wild can also be reinforced by the artist’s relationship to their parent’s struggle with this dichotomy as well. This in fact could be where the artist draws support for comfortable domestic life but now those lessons of that memory no longer map onto how the artist feels.
This dissonance is what feels present. How can I manage what was socially imprinted onto me in my youth with how I feel now? Did my parents feel this way? Did they do what is best for them? What is best for me? All these valuable questions arise in viewing Nader’s work.
Melissa Joseph’s interactive installation investigates the weight of sharing your past with others. Her installation consists of various rocks she collected while in Germany covered in cloth, with what I assume has printed images of her family on them, laid about on and around several cinder blocks. The audience is encouraged to interact and move the cloth covered stones around.
Immediately I’m confronted by an anxious feeling in approaching the work. I am aware of my body in relation to others while everyone is first timid to interact with the piece. As soon as someone summons the courage then more people interact. The first thing I notice while interacting with the piece is that I am moving what others have moved. This moment offers a brief lesson in other’s personal histories and how they have been shaped by others. Usually this molding occurs in private or isn’t seen. This piece exposes that process rather successfully.
The next, and my personal favorite, moment happens when I pick up a rock. The weight of the object is masked by the cloth covering it, throwing me off guard for a split second until my muscles adapt to the correct weight. This moment is so brief that one could easily miss it but it’s such an important moment. That split second of being caught off guard reminds us of the weight these memories have and how our immediate perception of them is probably false. Even after knowing that the weight will be different than what I expect, this moment recurs when I pick up another rock because it size is different, the cloth is a different color, the rock is denser, etc. Overall, this installation makes me reevaluate what I am now holding dear.