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Dawn Cerny: Weeping Willow Folding Chair
April 23, 2021 - May 29, 2021Free
Melanie Flood Projects is proud to present Weeping Willow Folding Chair, a solo exhibition of new works by Seattle, WA-based artist Dawn Cerny and is on view April 23 – May 29, 2021. An essay by Matthew Offenbacher was commissioned to accompany the exhibition.
For several years now, Dawn Cerny has been making colorful sculptures with appendages for holding keys, junk mail, spare coins, lip balm, and other random stuff. These furniture-like sculptures are “container technologies,” as feminist philosopher Zoë Sofia called the things that store and supply the stuff we need (and don’t need) for living. Folding tables are a great example of a container technology: unobtrusive, portable, ecumenical – useful from bake sales to mass vaccination sites. Sofia described container technologies as forming an “extra-uterine matrix” where containment is “not just about what holds or houses us, but what we put our stuff into, and thereby identify with; what of ourselves we can and cannot contain.”
Dawn’s sculptures occupy this zone between psychic and material needs with a forthrightness, both charismatic and awkward. She begins them by building a flimsy, cobbled-together armature, which she then hardens with an accretion of lumpy resin. This process freezes the props and kludges of the underlying structure and the slumping effects of gravity. The result is off-kilter yet good enough to do the work of containing and supporting. Dawn once wrote that her sculptures “are women, waiting to receive their meaning or worth by what people put on them.” Presumably, this is sardonic, as the work makes it clear that holding is not a passive process. Think about things that bind, which often appear in Dawn’s work: paperclips, shoelaces, rubber bands, scrunchies, group text messages. In binding, containment is maintained through a controlled application of pressure, friction, knotting – or, as sociologist Pamela Fishman once put it, “interactional shitwork.”
So, what about these new mobiles? What kind of tech is this? Their bases are containers, but now the stuff to be contained – the popsicle sticks, twisty ties, sponges, and condiment packets of white bohemian-bourgeois home life – is suspended and ready to be set into motion. What does it mean to have things proximate but not touching? The reference to Calder mobiles is perfectly bourgeois and dorky. History looks down on Calder as whimsical and childlike, a kind of jovial uncle to modernist avant-gardes. His mobiles, however, derive from “serious” (i.e., male-associated) devices like planetariums, orreries (mechanical models of the solar system), and clockworks. These technologies use suspension mechanisms keyed to natural phenomena to fix a location in time and space and predict the future.
I think Dawn’s mobiles are like Netflix-binging or obsessively checking pandemic statistics: stuck in a state of suspension, of watching and waiting while things come apart, and trying – but mostly failing – to both predict and forget the future. Arranged together on tables, they make a kind of bonsai garden of weeping willows, as the exhibition title suggests. Willows are a well-known Victorian death symbol. Their downswept posture was thought to resemble mourners overcome with grief, but they also symbolized resurrection and immortality, as willows will grow back when all their branches are cut, and new trees will sprout from a buried snag. This implied mourning is made explicit in the paintings in the exhibition of sobbing faces reflected in hand mirrors, which are composed so that it seems to be your own hand grasping the mirror, and your own face reflected back.
Second-person grief has appeared in Dawn’s work before, as far back as 2008, where, in the exhibition “We’re All Going to Die (Except for You),” she outfitted a museum gallery as a waiting room purgatory, complete with magazines and tissue boxes. This waiting room was a kind of set-piece of deadpan comedy, evoking the desperate hilarity that can arise in bureaucratic situations involving life and death. Lauren Berlant recently said that comedy “is a lot about proceeding in brokenness, and the relation among different kinds of brokenness.” Dawn’s crying paintings aren’t funny, but they seem to borrow their structure from jokes in their doubled, self-fracturing brokenness. Mirrors are maybe the opposite of a container technology, operating by withholding rather than holding: all surface reflection and confusing fragments, offering little hope of balance or comfort. Dawn titled one set of these paintings after the prototypical sad clown Pierrot, whose sadness comes from unending cycles of anxiety, violence, and trauma.
In her essay On Being Ill, Virginia Woolf describes the daily drama of having a body and how being ill and the attendant loss of control encourages quotidian leaps into mysticism. She then discusses sympathy for those who are ill, rhetorically asking whose “job” it is to comfort invalids. Her answer, of course, is women “in whom the obsolete exists so strangely side by side with anarchy and newness.”
Dawn Cerny uses her work to look for aspects of the comedic and tragic aspects of humans’ drive for safety and desire to belong. Art critic Jen Graves described Cerny’s work as “…literary, historical, and political. It’s also messy, pulpy, direct, and poetically profound. Oh, and it’s funny.” Her works on paper, sculptures, plays, and collaborative projects have been exhibited at the Henry Art Gallery, Seattle; Western Bridge, Seattle; Seattle Art Museum; On The Boards Open Studio, Seattle; Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR; Cooper Cole Gallery, Toronto, ON; Derek Eller Gallery, New York; Or Gallery, Vancouver, Canada; and Night Gallery, Los Angeles. Cerny has been a two-time recipient of a Washington State Art Commission Fellowship and the 2020 Betty Bowen Award. Cerny’s exhibitions and work have been written about in Art Forum, Art Week, Art On Paper, The Stranger, and the Seattle Times. Cerny received a BFA in printmaking and painting from Cornish College of the Arts and an MFA in sculpture from Bard College Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts, Annandale-on- Hudson, NY. Currently, she is an adjunct professor in the Department of Art and Art History at Seattle University.
Matthew Offenbacher seeks constructive, positive positions at often difficult intersections of individuals, communities and institutions. His work has been called “freakishly egoless”, vulnerable, funny and queer. Offenbacher grew up in Portland, Oregon and currently lives in Seattle, Washington.