Synaptic Mimes: The Private Spectacular

An otherwise smart show at the Kelly Writers House has a confusing premise.

By Manya Scheps
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Apr. 13, 2010

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Match point: Building a Ball of Fire is an acrylic on canvas piece.

Photo by Ryan Mrozowski

“Synaptic Mimes: The Private Spectacular” is a show about misrepresentation. Non-sequiturs galore, the exhibit highlights the curious act of art spectatorship.

The show, which marvelously has no correlation to any of the ump-teen art conventions, conferences and festivals in town right now, is on display at KWH Art, the downstairs gallery space at the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania. It features seven artists from New York City. Through various media—photography, painting, drawing and printmaking—the artists engage the act and the idea of a display.

The show moves fluidly and purposefully, but the concept is a bit confusing. Curator Kaegan Sparks puts it most convolutedly in her curatorial essay: “[we] thus relate to the spectacle in question only … as spectators of spectators.” Oh lord. What does that even mean?

Despite an ambiguous starting point, the work is clear. The pieces are unanimous in their sense of intimacy and subdual.

Ryan Mrozowski’s paintings depict odd situations like a man in a suit levitating a cluster of matches with his mind or a riverside baptism of an astronaut. They are coolly awkward, pronounced without being ostentatious.

Nadja Bournonville’s self-portraits are similarly detached and enticing. Her slideshow, The Conscious Act of Forgetting displays a girl holding a small boat made out of matches in her hand. The ship catches fire and burns—an ending that, though obvious, seems obscure because of its simplicity.

The work in this show is exceptionally clever, but it never becomes joke-y. Patricia Smith’s watercolor diagram of an all-purpose mourning stadium is a beautifully rendered quip, detailing the various seating levels from “inconsolable grief” out to the nosebleed “spectacle gazers.”

Other artists play with the process of observation, turning it into a sly gag. Selena Kimball’s photo-etched replica of Yves Klein’s signature Leap Into the Void is a wily appropriation of Klein’s bold (but entirely fabricated) gesture. Matthew Albanese’s Lambda C-Print of a desert landscape is postcard perfect, until one realizes it is not some mystical area in New Mexico but, in fact, a miniature set built with fake fur and clouds made from cotton.

The individuals who already mosey through the Kelly Writers House every day attending classes, lectures and poetry readings are the perfect audience for “Synaptic Mimes.” This show was made for them.

However, it wasn’t made for the show’s space. While nontraditional spaces are almost always preferable to the soulless white cube, the living-room atmosphere of the space pushes the work out of the way. Without signage or distinctive lighting, the art feels decorative.

“Synaptic Mimes” is not meant to be a regional show, but the all-New York City lineup is peculiar. While the artists and their works interact seamlessly with one another, casting a net as wide as “the private spectacular” surely could’ve caught a more geographically diverse group of artists.

Without a text-based work in sight, the show is still very bookish. This is no surprise for KWH Art, curated by Kaegan Sparks. Sparks, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, has organized 16 shows in the gallery in the past three years. She is adept at curating shows that feature literary art—work that is about text, derives from text or uses text as an aesthetic object. The shows spill from the pages of theorists, holding fast to the cultural canon. In her heady, 19-page curatorial essay in the catalog that accompanies the show, Sparks references everyone from Plato to Barthes, Debord to Daedalus.

The curatorial concept may seem lost in a train of thought but that’s what the show is about. From the show’s title, a derivation of a Futurist sound work, to the various layers of perception in the pieces, “Synaptic Mimes” wades through the muddy waters of cerebral connection. The works are aesthetically engaging and Sparks drives an intellectual stake through all of them.

“Synaptic Mimes: The Private Spectacular”

Through June 16. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust St. 215.573.9748. 

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