Even though spring, the glorious season of new life, is finally here, death is never far away—in fact, it’s on display at Hamiltonian Gallery. Two concurrent shows, “Spread” by Allison Spence and “Hot Water” by Jim Leach, take up death as a powerful creative tool.
For Spence, death is a manic, regenerative force. Her works in “Spread” reflect on two seemingly unrelated entities—aspen forests in Utah and the Japanese horror manga Tomie. South of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains lives the world’s largest living organism—a single quaking aspen that covers 106 acres. Pando, as the organism is affectionately called, is Latin for “I spread.” You wouldn’t know it’s just one tree on first sight; in fact, with 47,000 individual trunks, it looks like any other forest. But this aspen is connected through its root system, which procreated horizontally, sending out subterranean shoots that grew into full-fledged tree forms. Scientists suspect that it reached its enormous size from destructive wildfires that caused growth spurts in their wake.
Tomie, the lead character in the horror manga of the same name, is a beautiful succubus that drives both men and women to insanity. Inevitably killed in each storyline, she is infinitely renewing; she can heal quickly in addition to replicating herself by sprouting from any injured part of her body or her own spilt blood. In fact, she can’t stop her regeneration—even when she is not hurt, mini Tomie tumors bud.
Both Pando and Tomie grow through death and destruction. While spreading seems beautifully organic for Pando, it’s an unnaturally sinister phenomenon in Tomie’s case. But, as Spence’s video installation “Pando,” reveals, they are one in the same. A continuous loop of forest footage, the video’s voiceover interweaves the tales of both spontaneously sprouting organisms. It’s difficult to tell where one story ends and the other starts and, together, they expand into a larger, richer narrative.
The video may provide a helpful backstory for “Spread,” but Spence’s three-dimensional works in the show are strong enough to stand on their own. A series of four, the crumpled creations all bear titles that are bastardizations of Pando, yet with names such as “Pantie Doom” and “A Pain Demo,” they invite broader associations. Made of layers of painted fur and linen, scrunched together and slicked with resin, they hang on the wall at hip-height, as if addressing our genitals—the human source of regeneration—rather than our eyes.
Unlike Spence, who is interested in physical death and the weird new life it can yield, Leach is more concerned with ideological death. His works in “Hot Water” offer a critique of Western art by using old art history standbys: diptychs and readymades. Paintings composed of two equal-sized panels, diptychs have been popular with artists since Ancient Roman times. Readymades—ordinary objects repurposed as art by an artist—became an industry standard after Marcel Duchamp coined the term and made history with his upturned urinal in the early 20th century.
Leach’s sculptural diptychs seem to claim the death of, well, diptychs. For instance, “Take Care #1” is a white resin pour molded on what looks like a quilted mattress; the second panel, “Take Care #2” features a bouquet of roses also covered in white resin. Clearly, something is being laid to rest and, in this case, it’s one of the oldest constructions in the Western art canon.
Unfortunately, Leach doesn’t seem to find new life in death, since he offers no suggestions as to what might succeed the diptych. This dearth of rebirth is especially evident in “Oops,” an assemblage composed of four industrial pressure tanks, each with a letter on it to spell out “oops.” Leach intentionally recalls the Duchampian readymade, which questioned traditional assumptions about what constitutes art and hatched conceptual art as we know it today.
But the tanks’ emptiness implies that this monumental shift in art making was an unplanned, empty ideal. Moreover, in between the pressure tanks sits a Classical bust with a birdhouse taking up half its head—an overt critique of Western rationalism and intellectual curiosity like Duchamp’s (it’s for the birds). However, Leach’s moratorium on art historical convention would be more convincing if his works in “Hot Water” weren’t entirely reliant on the very conventions they were meant to kill off.
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