Abby King / January 29th 2017
What is left in a memory after we revisit it? Is it changed or just retold? Do we leave facts behind to make the narratives we want to keep appear true? What details can you remember when you recall a specific moment? Let’s play a memory game. Don’t peak at your cell phone or search google. Picture a Phillies hat. Can you see that hat as a crisp reproduction of “reality” or is it kind of fuzzy? Do you have the P’s particular serif or is it not quite right? Rather than the symbol do you see your Dad’s smile in the shadow of its brim? Did you put yourself at a baseball game? Have you begun to use your history to tell yourself a story? If the game intrigues you, look no further than the painter Mariel Capanna, an artist actively engaging in this drama of loss and memory.
I play games like these all the time. Each day, I tell myself the 'story of myself'. When I say this I don’t mean I start with something like- 'on July 25th, 1989 an unknown woman gave birth to a human who would later be known as blah blah blah.' I’m referring to my knee jerk reaction of returning to past memories, reconstructing conversations with friends, lovers, and family members. I often return without meaning to, normally when swerving between cabs and reckless buses on my bike. I revisit. I re-narrativize and often argue with myself over their original outcome. This reminds me of my habit of tonguing a sore spot under my bottom lip. I try to stop, attempt to ignore the nuisance, but find I am flicking my tongue over and over again.
Through self-analysis I haven’t deemed the action purely masturbatory (it is a bit) but as a way of putting memories to rest. I wrestle with events I can’t understand and punctuate them with an annoyance at my return. Why do I continue to think about how I dated the boy who almost got me hit by a car, or my overreaction to the girl that inadvertently called me a hillbilly? I go back to hospital bedsides, kitchen tables, wood paneled walls in trailers. I can see the side of her face, the headlights of a white jeep, veiny hands. Until now I’ve never tried to transcribe these private moments into words and wouldn't use them as fodder for my own art practice. But I recognize a similar fragmentation in Mariel Capanna’s painting. I spy a kindred spirit continually trying to understand the present through a reordering of the past.
In Jersey, Jams, Cons, Tree the composition of the painting includes objects edge to edge. A large basketball hovers. No. 1 is scrawled in the top right corner. Its entirety reads as a pile, like the food groups on a picky adolescent's plate. Their edges are close but don’t touch. Jerseys and numbers litter the landscape. I wouldn’t have known the collection of these objects tell the story of the 90’s classic film, Hoop Dreams. Don’t hate me, I haven’t seen it. Though, before trying to google away my ignorance I can at least tell you the painting is set in Chicago. I see you loud and clear, 90’s shorts.
In Gross McCleaf's press release and in person Capanna says she tackles themes of memory and American identity. Such easily digestible ideas, right? I can easily conjure how these notions would be illustrated, or presented in cliches. Her paintings subvert these impulses in their specificity. Her themes are huge but her brush strokes are tiny searching marks. Before interviewing Mariel I wanted to know how she digests the American landscape without presenting us with a pile of trite shit. The process she has concocted for herself provides an honest search into seeing.
Capanna makes work in a self-constructed vacuum. During her studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Capanna started painting while watching movies. Her moving image inspirations include classic Western film, slideshows from her road trip across the country, and most recently drone footage from Standing Rock. Movies can be an escapist form of entertainment in part because they have a beginning and an end. As a viewer we can enter into a world, see it play out across our screens, and then watch it wrap up in a nice little bow. In Mariel’s busy existence while in college, watching movies gave her a confined window of time. She constructs a painting before the movie ends. No pausing. It forces her to capture a moment while watching it flee from her mind. A cat and mouse game.
This process highlights an intrinsic impossibility with painting. Paintings, however realistic, can never truly capture a singular moment in time and it's often true of photography as well. Thus paintings rely heavily on their content and imagery to connect us to truth. Mariel expresses interest in narrative, with a debt to the history of fresco painting and their often public visual form of storytelling. The horizon line is included in almost every artwork but each object has their own rules of gravity. In Homesteading a fence denies the rules of perspective, as if we could peak around its panels and simultaneously hover above them. The grass looks like ice cream scoops, spoonfuls of mint and pistachio. On top of the patterned field are clip art like objects, a coke bottle (pre soda tax I’m sure), a lamp, saw, ladder. Do I spy a hammer hiding in the bushes? The scale of objects also shifts. Like ancient frescoes, Mariel uses hierarchical scale. Is that a hot tub or a tea cup? The size of the blue circle doesn’t help me but the teeny tiny gray ladder below might. As a children’s educator my kids would love the I spy element that’s integral to the experience of these paintings. It reminds me a word cloud where the frequency of your words are visualized from big to little. Each Left on their own.
In our conversation over beers the artist expanded on her interest in telling the story of America. Good luck with that one. Rather than focusing on the places Capanna presents, Mariel talks on how she translates photography into painting. I’ve seen plenty of undergraduate art students (myself included) paint from artsy polaroids in order to display nostalgia or memory. Capanna’s work is furthest from those attempts and denotes more of a Philosopher’s project.
In Roland Barthes canonical work Camera Lucida, he recalls the morning of his mother’s death. While Barthe finds himself sorting through her belongings he comes across photographs of her. He says he has “no hope of finding her” yet gazes at her image. He writes,
“sometimes I recognized a region of her face, a certain relation of nose and forehead, the movement of her arms, her hands. I never recognized her except in fragments, which is to say that I miss her being, and that therefore I missed her altogether."
In the exhibition, Left, we are provided with fragments, enough parts to search through, parts to try and find. Capanna treats the American landscape in a manner similar to Barthes with his deceased mother. She looks for subjects in moving images, finds moments that are here but not in their entirety. Capanna’s paintings forgo complete views on the geography she’s portraying and instead stacks tiny moments, multiple perspectives, into one picture plane. The paintings are built like puzzle pieces, jumbles of objects and signifiers. They have a balanced tactility, thick globs of paint next to thin washes of color. A pair of jean overalls placed next to a Grecian rug. What I’m supposed to make of them in their entirely I’m not sure. Maybe that’s the point.