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Review: “Territories/Kingdoms” menaces and beckons viewers into darkness

"Monarch" oil on canvas. 60" x 814."
"Monarch" oil on canvas. 60" x 814."
"Monarch" oil on canvas. 60" x 814."
Monarch, oil on canvas. 60 x 814.

Mimi Hart Silver’s aggressive, violent works beckon the viewer into darkness. There’s something sinister in Territories/Kingdoms at Whitespace. Silence of the Lambs is evoked; it’s easy to imagine Hart Silver gazing down upon her artwork in the studio, demanding “It rubs the lotion on the skin, or else it gets the hose again,” as Buffalo Bill did, then drowning her innocent blocks of paper in strongly brewed tea, staining them deep with pigment.

Silver’s mixed media compositions on cut paper, which intentionally resemble human hide, are especially evocative of the iconic horror film. Again the aesthetic of Buffalo Bill is conjured — the paper is stitched together with thread. One piece, Lineage, looks like a necklace of human skin. It’s not a stretch to imagine the serial killer draping this piece around his neck, posing threats to his camcorder. But maybe the most shocking aspect of these works: They are just paper. Looking at them can be stomach churning if you aren’t sure what they represent, but an up close examination reveals intricate details in these pieces Silver calls “drawings.”

"sow" 21x35. Mixed media on paper.
Sow, 21 x 35. Mixed media on paper.

Give in to the intrigue of how Silver has worked these paper pieces — ivory white artist paper is dyed with tea and other natural materials, the dye job uneven. Natural veins and patches form like marks across flayed skin. Paint, dirt, pigment, grease and grime are ground into the paper, forming freckly bits of color. Shades of green, pink, blue and yellow are buried amidst the brown-beige blocks of paper. Here, Silver mimics the natural variation of human skin undertone — warm pinks all the way to cool blues, just like our differing flesh tones. The shapes of paper Silver cuts out are reminiscent of eagle-eyed geography, resembling farm fields exactingly cut from straight-edged bread basket states. Most of these cutouts are sewn together with loose bits of brown thread. One piece used red thread, a further evocation of blood and veins in the body of work.

Though these paper works are undoubtedly stirring, the true stars of this show are the oil paintings. Silver’s technique is so precise and smooth that at a glance they’d appear to be photographs — they are void of impasto, gesture, drippage or any other sort of imprecise mark. Unlike her dye-work on other pieces, everything is rendered completely evenly with a opalescent sheen. The subject matter is abstracted images of a hunting trip. The artist grew up with family who liked to hunt on their land, and images like flayed skin, blood letting and defeathering are incorporated into her works.

"Harrowing" 48" x 42." Oil on canvas.
Harrowing, 48 x 42. Oil on canvas.

This is not the first time Silver has drawn from these experiences to inform her work, but in Silver’s previous show at Whitespace the works were much more literal: a hunter’s hand cut away skin to reveal the organs of his game; a white bucket caught dripping blood; blue and red veins throbbed through the painting, revealing organs inside of the flayed animals. This former body of work was lit with an intense light, almost like a Baroque painting. The light and dark spots balanced each other out with their intensity.

This collection is a continuation of those images of hunting trips, but Hart Silver further abstracts them — they are void of blood and bile, the game is alluded to but obscured. In fact, the images in Territories/Kingdoms look more like fire and flora than fauna. Their loose, leaping shapes bring forward a nefarious and feral beauty. Fur and feathers transform into pure forms of light and dance across the darkened canvas. The extreme contrast between inky black background and brilliantly lit subject matter brings to mind a Caravaggio painting. This extreme chiaroscuro creates an almost heavenly illumination shining down on Silver’s subjects. The angels and demons hiding in the work are evoked thanks to her expert balance of extremes.

The carnivorousness of her subjects — dead animals and human hide — are unyielding, something that patrons of the exhibit should come prepared for. By packaging these haunting subjects in pieces that are lovingly rendered, Silver diffuses our cultural achluophobia. The sacrifice of innocence and the pain of life are transformed into pure light and color in Territories/Kingdoms.

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Territories/Kingdomws may be viewed at Whitespace through February 13.

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