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No Safe Harbor

Laura Amussen’s first solo show in seven years is awash in tension

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A still from the video “Adrift”


Laura Amussen: AFLOAT

through Nov. 23 At the Creative Alliance at the Patterson

 

“DO NOT touch the salt” reads a warning sitting in front of one of Laura Amussen’s mixed-media installations in the Creative Alliance’s first-floor gallery. Another commands: “DO NOT touch the sand.” They sit next to large, floor-installed sculptures made of copious amounts of the untouchable materials. I have no idea if these admonitions are always there, but their presence made perfect sense during a stop by the Highlandtown community arts organization on one of its weekend family days, when young kids hurried around and curious hands might wonder how art feels. The signs prevented kids from disturbing those designated pieces but not the titular “AFLOAT,” a mixed-media sculpture featuring a pile of bright-orange life preservers atop a swimming hole’s rectangular wooden raft, sitting in the middle of the gallery. While a line of kids were led through the gallery to the restrooms, one kid stopped by “AFLOAT,” picked a life jacket up, and started to put it on before looking around apprehensively and returning it to the pile. Almost on cue, a woman walked across the gallery to the adjoining theater carrying a pair of those safety-yellow floor placards that warn “CAUTION wet floor.”

While this coincidental series of events made the gallery feel a bit like a Marx Brothers movie, it provided a surprisingly spot-on entryway into the unvarnished emotions Amussen displays in her first solo exhibition in seven years. From the all-caps imperative verbs and monolithic nouns used by the show’s and the artworks’ titles—see: sculptural installations “AFLOAT,” “DRYLAND,” and “WEIGHT,” or videos “TREAD” and “ADRIFT”—to the intimate tensions and personal uncertainties they explore, AFLOAT is an exhibition wrestling with unforgiving questions. It’s adult in the way of Ingmar Bergman dramas and Russian novels, slow to get to know but harsh once you alight on what’s going on, and it confronts those blunt facts of life that parents often want to protect children from for as long as possible.

That mood just won’t be instantly gleaned. The 10 pieces here—this writer missed the performance that accompanied the show’s Oct. 12 opening—quietly fill the gallery. The large floor pieces—the life jackets and raft “AFLOAT,” the sand rectangle that makes up “DRYLAND,” the salt rectangle that goes with and “TANDEM/ANCHOR”—immediately grab the eyes, but it might be more helpful to spend some time with the 14 untitled photos mounted as a set on one wall at first. They’re deceptively revealing. They show a nude woman (presumably the artist, though her face is never clearly visible) in what appears to be a swimming pool, but there’s nothing about the imagery that feels like a playful summer frolic. In one, the woman floats face down, a life jacket nearby. In another she’s face up, the preserver held in a hand. In another she’s submerged, swimming through the water. In yet another she’s coming up for air, her head breaking through the surface. In many, she’s maybe submerged, maybe swimming, maybe sunk, maybe trying to come toward the surface.

The photos are arranged in two rows of seven, but there’s nothing serial about the sequencing. They don’t seem to tell a story, or if they do, the arrangement is presented with such discord that the implied story is something more turbulent, perhaps frames from a short film about almost drowning, presented out of order. Slowly, you notice that, though it’s clear the photos were taken at a pool, they’re composed in such a way that the water swallows the frame: There is no visible avenue of escape. These are images of a human lost at sea with no safe harbor in sight.

That mood dusts a patina of survivalist’s desperation over the remainder of the works. Of course the video of the woman treading water in place is titled with the all-caps command “TREAD” instead of the less insistent gerund “Treading”—she actively has to keep her head above water. The video “ADRIFT,” in which the woman lies aboard what appears to be the life jacket-covered raft “AFLOAT,” is similarly emphatic about the unmoored movement of the title. Installed next to “TREAD,” it feels like a temporary respite from immediate danger but also directionless, off course, still subjected to external forces.

Those forces aren’t subtle. “WEIGHT,” a mixed-media sculpture of rust-covered floats, ropes, and pulleys, is an iceberg of dread. A single rope extends up the wall, like a vine crawling upward. Toward the floor the rope runs into a knot of other lines which are connected to rusted floats that sit in a pile on the floor. It looks like something reclaimed from a naval graveyard and it conveys an overwhelming heaviness, and not merely as a pun: the rust indicative of something that has endured what life has tossed at the cost of how it looks, the puddle of flotation devices on the floor implying a tarnished buoyancy.

The scars of time and emotional weight echo through the works, from the beguiling “SHIFT” (10 panels gorgeously barnacled with vines and tissue paper) to the sand rectangle “DRYLAND” (which is less a Wolfgang Laib-esque environmental immersion in natural materials than a declaration of solid ground’s physical limitations). These are deceptively dense pieces, where Amussen’s mass use of small materials—sand, salt, the gross of metal rim tags that create an ocean in “VAST”—sneakily reiterate her explorations of opposing forces, a person fighting against the pull of time or gravity.

Or the pull of somebody else, which gets the most devastating articulation in the show. “TANDEM/ANCHOR” uses a rectangle of salt on the floor to create a white beach screen, onto which a pair of ceiling mounted projectors stream images of water’s surface. Embedded in the salt sand is an anchor, a single line tethers it to a pair of life jackets sewn together. The untitled photos and the videos present a single character involved in the world Amussen creates for this exhibition; this piece is the only one where the suggestion of another person enters the picture. And it’s not quite clear how that other figures into the struggle: Is that other the person keeping you from drowning or the one pulling you down? “TANDEM/ANCHOR” doesn’t say, but what it implies about relationships is pretty obvious to anybody who has spent any time in an unhealthy one. At some point you’re going to have to decide: hold on for dear life or save yourself and cut the rope.

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