Review: Sarah Emerson’s MOCA GA solo show a cartoon tapestry of apocalypse and renewal

Sarah Emerson: As Above So Below (IV), 2015, acrylic on canvas.
Sarah Emerson: As Above So Below (IV), 2015, acrylic on canvas.
Sarah Emerson: Of Brute Matter (I-VI)  on left;  Where the Light is as Darkness (I-IV)on back wall.
Sarah Emerson: Of Brute Matter (I-VI) on left; Where the Light is as Darkness (I-IV) on back wall.

Sarah Emerson addresses dark, violent themes with a subversively unthreatening, cheery style. The Unbearable Flatness of Being, her Working Artist Project solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, compresses issues of environmentalism, terror and tranquility into flat planes of cartoonish hyperreality.  

The exhibition, which runs through February 6, 2016, features 18 large canvases hung end-to-end on the four walls of MOCA GA’s large gallery. It is conceived as a single panoramic landscape that tells an apocalyptic tale of catastrophe and renewal.

Each wall is a chapter. The world seems shaken up in the paintings in Of Brute Matter (I-VI). Their tight, crowded images and high horizon lines give the impression of being consumed by chaos. In Where the Light is as Darkness (I-IV) the world is settling after an apocalyptic event. This chapter features dark colors, more space for the figures and a lowered horizon. In As Above So Below (I-VI), creatures start to inhabit the world, and the sun slowly returns. Here’s Looking at You Too (I-II) presents a new stasis.

Emerson’s work exists somewhere between the Sunday funnies and Salvador Dali. Like the surrealists, Emerson trades in ambiguity. Single shapes can evoke multiple items — a pair of eyes, a broken rock or Mickey Mouse pants. Is that volcano erupting cyan-tinged goo in the eighth painting or is an orb pouring the goo from up above? Perhaps both. Are those rocks or skulls or ghosts peering down at you? Do the sharp edges of the mouth of the cave signal an explosion?

Sarah Emerson: Of Brute Matter (III), 2015, acrylic on canvas
Sarah Emerson: Of Brute Matter (III), 2015, acrylic on canvas

Composed of large planes of colored shapes, the world that Emerson paints looks as flat as a piece of paper. Though Emerson places dark and light shapes within each other to give figures such as tree trunks and bugs a bit of texture, everything retains a cartoon-cell quality to it.

Just below their cartoony surfaces, however, this world is dark. Trees are spindly and evil-looking: as in Underland, her 2012 exhibit at Whitespace Gallery, she is referencing Japan’s Sea of Trees, a place associated with mythological demons and modern suicides. Equally disturbing are her “army bugs,” a pair of oversized grasshopper-locust-mantis creatures that look like mutant survivors of nuclear winter. Even the rainbows never quite look beautiful. Their toxic colors suggest what you’d see in the sky after an afternoon of acid rain.

There are eyes all over the canvases, but the only actual evidence of humankind is the graffiti tag in the final canvas: Emerson marks a cave with “Kilroy was here,” a tag popularized by American servicemen during WWII.

Sarah Emerson: As Above So Below (IV), 2015, acrylic on canvas.
Sarah Emerson: As Above So Below (IV), 2015, acrylic on canvas.

Yet Emerson also suggests that nature will always find a way to troop forward, even if it’s a world full of toxic-tinged sludge. This ambitious body of work presents an epic tale of disaster and renewal, and shows how humanity is just a speck on the timeline of the world. Emerson’s vision presents this stark, frightening truth in a format that anyone can swallow. This presentation may be the only time the entire body of work is shown together, so catch it while you can. 

Artist talk: 7 p.m. January 26.

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