Every week, a new artist receives keys to ACRE Projects and is given complete artistic license within the space. The following story details one such exhibit created by artist Jessye McDowell.
There was no way to prepare for it. Two thick black curtains lined the windows of ACRE Projects, rejecting any hopes of catching a glimpse into the visual story lying just on the other side.Â Upon entering the dark room, artist Jessye McDowell immediately directed you into your own role as the active spectator of the show. An old television relic, the illuminated “Applause” sign, sat chest-level on a pedestal facing the doorway. Above it, two projectors cast bands of colored light onto a spinning chandelier-of-sorts. Plastered with shards of reflective glass, this hanging fixture in turn spewed bits of light across the room, converting the space into a dark, creepy kaleidoscope.
“All About You Forever,” by McDowell, a North-Carolina-via-New-York video artist, was last week’s showcase at ACRE’s intimate gallery space on the northwestern edge of Pilsen. In humble digs no larger than 400 square-feet, McDowell created a layered and dark exploration into the tenuous divide between video and viewer.
The prismatic effect of the projectors provided more than just an unusual luminescent cohesion to the exhibit. This visual trinket was in fact central to McDowell’s examination of what she called in my chat with her the viewer’s “virtual, but nonetheless emotionally real, experience.” Hooked up to the projectors, a handheld camcorder hung at knee-level on the far wall; beneath it, a monitor displayed the static image of a small audience seated in a green void. McDowell guided viewers to crouch and smile for the camera–as it recognized each person’s face, the animated audience awakened with courteous applause. At the same time, the camera transported the participant’s bemused expression through the projector, the glass, and onto the lit-up walls. It felt uncomfortable–nobody deserves that kind of attention. But that was the artist’s intent: the participant was the viewer and the viewed.
Off in the opposite corner of the tight space and about eight feet in the air, another mounted monitor rested, looping a seven-minute video of the artist’s creation entitled “How High Is Up?” Despite the change in elevation, the nagging voyeuristic effect remained. The video was composed solely of five-to-ten second splices from horror and action movies, precisely in the moments when characters stare up into the mile-long spaceship, the swirling tornado, the impending doom. However, only these images of upturned faces were projected, gaping at their apocalyptic fates. So the viewer stood awkwardly–just as they did, staring into the horrifying unknown. In this clever and effective way, McDowell went beyond eliciting empathy by engaging the viewer’s physical presence.
“All About You Forever” contained some pieces from non-video mediums as well, all equally interested in the investigation of the imaging process. With “Merrythought,” a four-foot mounted wishbone carved from painted wood, the versatile McDowell presented the ideal result from an age-old “domestic mythology” known for its unpredictability. Here, the giant bone was broken in two, so that both wishers won. In the image of the wishbone, the artist noted, “you impart real, perpetuated desires.” For McDowell, this is the reason people always “keep coming back to the virtual realm”–clearly a realm in which the artist herself feels at home.
Given a week at ACRE Projects, McDowell conjured more than enough dark ambition in “All About You Forever” to fill the small Pilsen gallery–in fact, she could use quite a bit more room. But it would be up to the viewer to handle it.
ACRE Projects, 1913 W. 17th St.Â Sunday, 4-8pm; Monday, noon-4pm. acreresidency.org/acre-projects. This week, Madeleine Bailey takes over the space.