Review: Artists grapple with invisible disabilities in “Invisible: VisAble” at Abernathy Arts Center

Kathy Meliopoulos: Funnel Chest  (detail of apron),   2015, chamois, leather, pins, marker, thread.
Kathy Meliopoulos: Funnel Chest (detail of apron), 2015, chamois, leather, pins, marker, thread.
Julie L. Sims: Detaxis, 2015, mixed-media and electronics
Julie L. Sims: Detaxis, 2015, mixed-media and electronics.

Invisible:visAble, at Abernathy Arts Center through November 25, is a visually striking exhibition about invisible disabilities that inadvertently illustrates its own premise.

Curator Leisa Rich intends for the show to provoke conversation about the extent to which people with “invisible” disabilities meet with incomprehension and insult to a degree that would never be tolerated in the case of visible disabilities.

The difficulty from which the exhibition suffers is that so much of the symbolism is opaque until the subject matter is identified in explanatory signage. This is, in its own way, a perfect analogy of the challenges these artists meet and overcome in the course of daily living: Their experiences are not readily understood except by sympathetic others willing to accept explanations.

That said, the show is a marvel. Julie Sims’ kinetic sculpture replicates the sense of intense social discomfort by glowing confidently when left to its own devices, but changing into a subdued and muddy color when approached by a viewer.

Rea: Oscillate, 2015, nylon
Rea: Oscillate, 2015, nylon

Deafness is the theme of works by Rea (one name only in this exhibition), which replicate the bones of the inner ear in 3D-printed sculptures (actually large bracelets!), and of Ingrid Knox’s painting. Rich uses thread and Free Motion machine embroidery to produce cascades of 3,500 ears combined with a sound piece murmuring the complaints persons with normal hearing address to the hearing impaired.

A few other artists make use of readily interpretable symbolism. Kathy Abernathy Meliopoulos illustrates physiology more literally, depicting the more unfamiliar condition of funnel chest in embroidered cartoon stories of the humiliations suffered by those afflicted with the condition.

J. Penney Burton analyzes her struggle with chronic depression by incorporating words expressing her feelings of worthlessness into her pedestal sculpture and wall installation. Leah Owenby makes use of the enormous number of insulin syringes that delimit her life as a diabetic. Kelsey Simmen also uses the syringes, but to different ends, growing sugar crystals on them to represent the time when she could not afford to stay on insulin.

Leah Owenby: Dia de los Diabeticos (altar to the sugar gods), 2015, Humalog and Lantus information leaflets, Dove chocolate wrappers, insulin syringes.
Leah Owenby: Dia de los Diabeticos (altar to the sugar gods), 2015, Humalog and Lantus information leaflets, Dove chocolate wrappers, insulin syringes.

In the remaining cases, the art remains strong, but the symbolism might be murky. Katherine Soucie’s tightly wrapped balls of multicolored materials represent the cysts that form in the activity-limiting disorder of polycystic kidney disease. She uses the waste from her studio to create sculptures representing the difficulties with her body’s elimination of waste.

This is not an obvious symbol. Neither are the tangled strands from which Jason Thomson creates sculptures. These rough interweavings are analogous to the dyslexic artist’s difficulties processing language. In other words, viewers are put at the same disadvantage vis-à-vis the art that the artists are put through in encountering everyday life — a valuable consciousness-raising experience.

Jason Thompson: I Cant Read and Read it Over, copper, brass: die formed, electric formed, dapped, etched.
Jason Thomson: I Cant Read and Read it Over, copper, brass: die formed, electric formed, dapped, etched.

The same process of viewer frustration as (pertinent but most likely unintended) analogy for the artists’ painful experience applies to Brooks Harris Stevens’ crocheted pieces, meticulously tagged not just with the origins of the materials but the weight. The wool used in the artworks is a reference to her forced choice of media — the point is that her inability to lift more than 15 pounds has compelled her to abandon her prior studio practice and change her entire process of making.

Michelle Urbanek’s fabric pod-covered dress is another case of gorgeously designed personal symbolism that does not convey the challenges of bulimia and the distractions of bipolar disorder. Once again, a great deal is going on that is visible, but the reasons for all the activity lie hidden from the viewer’s perception, just as it is in daily life.

Although they also are somewhat elusive, Linda Wallace’s tapestries are both symbolic illustrations and literal examples of the process of recovering lost capacities in the wake of brain damage following surgery. We speak glibly of having “a broken mind,” but in this case the breaking was defined and perceptible — loss of the muscle memory that enables weaving, damage to the language centers, and other barriers to the previous functioning of the parts of the brain by which we compose our everyday selves. Wallace has found visual images to serve as analogies for all these internal challenges.

Kathy Meliopoulos: Funnel Chest  (detail of apron),   2015, chamois, leather, pins, marker, thread.
Kathy Meliopoulos: Funnel Chest (detail of apron), 2015, chamois, leather, pins, marker, thread.

Maria Ciavarro and Lauren Sandler are artists who do not suffer from invisible disabilities but who chose to create elegant pieces for this exhibition that relate, in Ciavarro’s case, to the alternate languages of Braille and sign language, and in Sandler’s, to her response to her partner’s neurological disease. Sadly, both sets of passionately committed work fail to communicate the specific situations of the individuals who inspired these artworks, and in the end read as lovely formalist homages rather than objects demanding viewer engagement.

Lynne Lomofsky’s sprawling wall installation, by contrast, engages with her personal struggles in imagery that may leave the viewer as emotionally drained from the viewing experience as Lomofsky has been from her lymphoma followed by a right-brain stroke. Lomofsky makes us see all the consequences of such events that we would prefer not to see, and the result is enlightening.

Rich is to be praised for having assembled this ambitious exhibition. Despite its minor flaws, its successes make it an experience worth seeking out, particularly because Rich has added just enough explanatory text to get the viewer started when elucidation is called for.

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