Kelly Boehmer’s Heart Out at Centre Gallery
I find myself continually distracted when watching a Hallmark movie, distracted by sentimentality. Rather than viewing it like any other film, I can’t stop giving attention to the narrative’s mechanisms of emotional manipulation and trying not to get suckered by the emotional cheap shots. Similarly with visual art, you’ll often find yourself experiencing the piece from without and the art bare of impact. However, given all of the definite sounding statements above, steering clear of sentimentality while not also emptying a piece of emotional authenticity is still a challenging needle to thread. It is a challenge artist Kelly Boehmer seems to be meeting with skill.
The last time I had seen Boehmer’s work had been over a year ago at the Dunedin Fine Art Center’s Contain It! show – an exhibit of PODS installations. Had I known the challenges of storage unit installations that I do now, I likely wouldn’t have been so hard on the show. That said, her work at the Contain It! exhibit had a certain near syrupy nostalgia that was difficult to see beyond. This syrupy nostalgia, however, is not to be found in Heart Out, her current solo exhibit at USF’s Centre Gallery.
The gallery space is installed with three sculptural works. Flamingo Harpy and the Alligator’s Heart dominates the space as the show’s largest piece. As with the bulk of her work, the piece is composed many contrasting textiles. Knotty tangles of fabric pile up to create recognizable forms. A flamingo appears to be pulling the heart out of an alligator, the reptile’s innards caught in the bird’s foot. The harpy takes its classically mythological form of a bird’s body topped with a woman’s head. Despite the classical allusion, the scene is clearly that of a lover’s quarrel, albeit a bizarrely Floridian interspecies one.
Near the rear of the gallery is Unicorn Pegasus (Emotional Rescue). The form of a unicorn type figure is depicted, but not in its typically idyllic way. Rather, the figure is limp on the cold floor as if it were a carcass that had been heaved across the gallery and dumped. The feeling of death in the piece is underscored by the animals teeth. They are not fabric as the rest of the body. Instead the teeth are real and from the head of an alligator buried in the “mouth” of the unicorn. As the alligator and flamingo respectively had human-like hair and face, the unicorn possesses exposed human-like breasts. An atmosphere of animalistic violence further continues into this piece.
On the wall hung the aptly titled Gaudy Gold Frame. While the piece is a shiny gold, this too is constructed from irregularly stitched fabric. I found this piece to be the most subtly interesting of the show. In a way, its quietly meta quality made it the introvert of the bunch: easy to pass over in favor of its louder companions but also concurrently more contemplative. Interestingly, Boehmer’s “frame” isn’t framing anything at all. Rather the apparatus for setting an art object’s context, becomes the art object itself. The piece is pleasantly confusing as it draws attention to an object frequently created with the intention of not drawing attention.
It may also be this last piece that illustrates Boehmer’s skillfully precise use of bathos in this exhibit. Heart Out threatens to venture into cheesy sappiness with each step. However, it never quite does so. Indeed she says in her artist statement, “Fears of death and heartbreak are reduced to silly scenarios with taxidermy and soft sculpture animals.” Don’t let this fool you – she doesn’t stop taking her artwork seriously in Heart Out. As Susan Sontag once pointed out the difference between kitsch and camp is a set of quotation marks. Navigating this tenuous distinction is a challenging course for artists and a troubling one for viewers. It is difficult to discern when Kelly Boehmer is holding up air quotes, when she is operating with a certain self-awareness and when we’re being had. But it is a welcome difficulty that too often many local artists don’t trust their audience with.
There will be a closing reception for the show Fri 9/27 7pm-9pm