Three Questions: Ilenia Madelaire, Virginia Fleming, Marybeth Chew and Curator Matt Klos
Something Wonderful is About to Happen
Exeter Gallery 241 South Exeter Street, Baltimore, MD 21202
October 16- November 30, 2020
Marybeth Chew, Black Narcissus, 24” by 24”, Oil on Canvas, 2020
In the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic and just weeks before the 2020 presidential election, I masked up and ventured out to Something Wonderful is About to Happen, a three woman show featuring paintings by Ilenia Madelaire, Virginia Fleming, and Marybeth Chew, curated by Matt Klos at the Exeter Gallery. After seven months of social isolation, I was lured out to the dangers of this “in real life” gallery reception by the promise and provocation of its title, which speaks so plainly to the anxieties of the present moment.
Curator Matt Klos has described how the show’s title was conceived before the pandemic, with its meaning shifting with the passage of time “from sardonic humor to both an ardent hope and a desperate cry.” Of course, neither the artists nor Klos could’ve anticipated the eerie echoes of the show’s invitation amid the current imperative to find a silver lining in the midst of the pandemic. Yet, the title of a recent article discussing art and the pandemic in The Baltimore Business Journal, “Something wonderful will come out of this,” underscores just how on-the-mark the show’s earnest irony has become. This year has brought us unrelenting challenges from the Coronavirus pandemic, social isolation, and record breaking unemployment, to wildfires, dam failures, and hurricanes, to the racist killings of Ahmaud Arbury, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and armed right-wing gangs disrupting the nationwide protests that followed. In this heightened historical moment our most nightmarish fears could not be laid aside: anything was possible.
Something Wonderful is About to Happen lives up to—and even exceeds—the overburdened promise of its title. On view is a panoply of compelling, disturbing, and magnetic images that speak to the anxieties of the unknown, inviting us to contemplate the possibilities of anticipation, the heighted promises of limbo, and the shifting meanings of the image in real time. The works on view would be formally strong and thematically compelling in an ordinary year, but this show is “wonderful,” in unexpected proportion to the historical present.
Madelaire, Fleming and Chew’s paintings buzz with anxiety, potently visualizing the foreboding and dread that saturate 2020. The eviscerating power of this show in the moment I caught it—just days before the 2020 election—is already over. Yet, the exhibition, originally scheduled to end October 31, has been extended through the end of November, providing unyielding perspective on the way the idea of “something wonderful” continues to shift over time. Has something wonderful already happened? For whom? If President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election and a Coronavirus vaccine on the horizon offer salve to October’s anxieties, President Trump’s refusal to concede the election and the rising Covid-19 death rates across the country remind us that something wonderful is always shifting, subjective, and precarious. Indeed, this is the brilliance and terror of the artist’s chosen title.
The edgy images of Something Wonderful is About to Happen continue to lure, making promises they never had any intention of keeping. Drawn from pop culture, B-movies, cartoons and everyday life, these anxious images insist we continue to watch the moment just before. Each of these artists insists that we look very carefully at gender, sexuality, and the narrative image. Marybeth Chew’s paintings rework cinematic moments in films from the classic Black Narcissist (1947) to Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama (1988). Virgina Fleming’s smooth screenlike surfaces dryly repurpose horror film conventions in the mundane milieu of the everyday. On first glance the figures in Ilenia Madelaire’s paintings might appear to be conventionalized images of women, yet on closer examination these andrygonous bodies refuse to reveal a gender. These representations of the corporeal body with, for example, staplers in the place of nipples, literalize the ubiquitous objectification of the body in contemporary pop culture.
Alone in the empty gallery, I was almost holding my breath as I moved through the images as quickly as possible, these paintings of women’s agonized faces framed too close, of naked grey women’s bodies that can’t decide between pleasure and pain, of flattened mundane scenes in which bodies blur into each other and become indistinguishable, pure pattern. The three bodies of work on display center the white gendered body in this disorienting year–this year in which film producer Harvey Weinstein’s trial and conviction for rape, and the fact that “nothing of consequence” was found in the investigation into Hilary Clinton, seem like very old news. In the wake of Supreme court justice Ruth Badar Ginsberg’s death, on the precipice we call the present, these images of fraught sexuality, tense embodiment, and perpetual terror ask, What comes next? Do not cover your eyes, they warn us; whatever you do, do not look away.
I often question what it means to ask artists to give us words in addition to images; how greedy we are. A critic’s interpretation, or even the artist’s own, is exactly the opposite of the experience of standing face-to-face with one of these works in the gallery. Yet, Something Wonderful is About to Happen provides a heightened opportunity to reflect on the work of art in this moment and the work of artists in this moment, so I emailed the artists and curator of Something Wonderful is About to Happen the questions I was left with after the show.
Kiki Loveday: Tell me about the title of the show. How does it relate to your work in the show? How/has the meaning or feeling of the title changed in relation to everything that is “about to happen,” right now?
Marybeth Chew: When we planned this in maybe October 2019 the title was originally a joke, a self help mantra. All of our work in the show has a dystopian quality. My own work is mostly of film stills which particularly show moments of dread or horror where the impending moment is unlikely to go well. So originally, the idea of wishing “something wonderful” into existence by just willing it, and in light of our art, was just funny to us. But when we rescheduled and kept the title it was practically using the mantra idea in earnest, like we might as well try it, and encourage others to try it. Though there’s of course also grim humor in the title related to the current moment in a very extensive way.
Virginia Fleming, Woman Gasping, 18” x 24”, digital print on Hahnemühle paper, 2020.
Virginia Fleming: The title Something Wonderful is About to Happen can be incredibly ominous. As someone with an anxiety disorder, self-help mantras can actually be helpful, however, saying “something good may happen” out loud can also lead to an immediate fearful thought. We are all teetering on the edge of abyss. The melodrama around this thinking is also very funny. There is absolutely real anxiety around existential crisis thinking, however the level of drama surrounding it can be funny as well. It’s sort of like “you laugh or you cry, so I will laugh.” I think that is what comes through in the art work. The works are wavering on that edge of “what is happening here?” and what is to come. In my own work these anxieties can almost be friendly if approached with humour. I think there is still a precariousness that lurks in the shift of the title to being more of a genuine call for hope. It is almost desperate, and, I think, like the art work, our country is teetering. The country is on a dangerous brink toward what could be a fascist dictatorship. We have to continue being politically active while also doing direct action locally for our communities.
Ilenia Madelaire: The title refers to a self-help mantra that’s supposed to alleviate some sort of existential anxiety. What I know of the idea behind the mantra is that if you live your life believing that “something wonderful is about to happen”, it will help to shift your thinking to looking for and preparing for the possibilities of wonderful things happening, rather than the opposite. When we were coming up with titles for the show, one of us mentioned this mantra as a joke, then putting it on our list of possible titles. As ideas circulated, we eventually narrowed it down to this title because we saw how much it related to our individual works. I think all of our works deal with a moment, particularly a pause–be it tension-filled, horrific, funny, contemplative, etc.–before something else culminates from it. That was a thread, among other ones, that stood out for me the most when looking at all of our works together.
Before the year 2020, our country’s and global affairs were already bleak, although not as much as now. Since Trump became president, daily or weekly, we’ve been served some horrible, offensive, or shocking news story in relation to something he said or did to further alienate or separate groups of people. To me it’s been a steady pummeling since day one, and since 2020 it’s just ramped up. My feelings since 2020 then have worsened, of course, eventually making it enough to have checked out mentally, and emotionally, and actually seeing the mantra in an earnest way, in hopes that things will shift. That said, looking back on deciding on this title, it has in a way shifted from satirical to more of a hopeful cry.
Kiki Loveday: This is a three woman show — how does it speak to gender and the gendering of artists in this moment? Making art as a woman in this moment?
Virginia Fleming, Something In Your Hair, 9” by 12”, acrylic, ink, and graphite on paper, 2020.
Ilenia Madelaire: I think at this moment in history it’s impossible to avoid, as much as I’d like to, talking about gender. I often have a difficult time answering, even to myself, what it means to inhabit the physicality of a “woman”, to exist in the world as one, or to be perceived as one. This question is something I subconsciously and inevitably weave into my work, but have a hard time resolving. I think a show featuring three women artists at this point could either attract or deter some people, depending on their place in the conversation about gender. I think the conversation about gender is relatively new in the mainstream, and don’t think much has been unpacked – realistically, we have a long way to go. It’s no news that institutions have historically favored art made by men. Although our society is just now beginning to talk about a multitude of genders, I still think that a show featuring only “women” or woman-identifying artists, couldn’t hurt. It becomes a conversation that validates perspectives or experiences specific to “women”, which I think is still relatively undermined or overlooked in our slow-to-evolve, patriarchal society. My ultimate hope is that a three woman show doesn’t alienate anybody, and proves that there is room for other perspectives.
Virginia Fleming: There has always been a strong voyeuristic quality to my work and I think a lot of that has perhaps turned inward like I am spying on myself. I identify with the voyeur.
Ilenia Madelaire, 1,000 Thread Count, 17” x 21”, oil on canvas, 2020
Kiki Loveday: When Marybeth Chew posted Untitled (below) online, one viewer described it as “an image for these times.” How are these three different bodies of work speaking and changing in relation to “these times?”
Marybeth Chew, Untitled, 22” by 22”, Oil on Canvas, 2020
Marybeth Chew: There are a few things in this show that feel very relevant. It’s got a lot of anxiety inherent in the imagery, and an uncertainty of the meaning of images and stories. One person who viewed the show mentioned the number of mouths and teeth, and the intensified experience viewing that now. Our 3 bodies of work also all use some amount of pop cultural reference in ways that are complicating and thwarting. I think especially in the last seven months there has been increasing awareness of limited representations, and of media manipulation. I think these works, and a lot of the current figurative painting movement, also speak to those issues. There is a lot of work in this show about imagery and sexuality, especially with objectification. I wonder whether during Covid even more sexuality is becoming image based, via the internet. It’s also possible in the zoom world that more interactive, rather than image based, online sex could be happening?
Ilenia Madelaire: So much has happened in our country this year, for individual people as well as for the whole of our society. I think the works all still speak to our individual experiences from when we made the paintings, and I think maybe have changed “for these times” in the sense that they now hold a more concrete stance on what a year ago seemed a less dire conversation.
Kiki Loveday: Can you talk about the decision to open in real life and how you felt about it? The best art is always risky, but the pandemic creates a different set of risks in relation to showing work in real space—or viewing it. As so much is made accessible virtually, what is lost—or gained—from the shift toward virtual space, particularly in relation to the work in this show? How does the real space environment create an encounter between the work and the viewer that can’t be replicated online?
Marybeth Chew: I think we were all aware mounting this show that very few people would see it in person, but it felt important to still have this show. I expected to find this exclusively depressing, but the interactions that did happen, both in person and online, were more supportive and personal than normal. It felt like the art was more meaningful to other people than normal, so it was actually very encouraging to keep showing art. Art making since Covid has definitely shifted. For me and other artists I’ve discussed this with, it feels like you’re on a different planet now, so the meaning of art is now different. For the first few months of the pandemic I couldn’t make a finished piece at all and it really emphasized for me how much art is based on interacting. I think artists are more focused on that, maybe, the deeper communications in their art.
Virginia Fleming: There is no way to really replicate being around art in person. However, I think the shift to more online galleries or different ways of showing work has been important and can elevate art works in a different way. Having work online also makes it so much more accessible to viewers. I think that we have learned a lot more about how to navigate public spaces more safely during this pandemic and are using those tools in order to make it as safe as possible for ourselves and others. There is no purely safe way, however, of showing in a public space, and everyone has to make a call as to what is good for them. I know that we had initially thought not to hold any kind of opening and to just have it be available to show through appointment only. But, I think with the information around masks, staying outside and only being inside with one or two people at a time helped with planning an opening with outside seating and only allowing a few people in at a time. It does make it much more of an intimate viewing experience.
I was extremely fortunate to be able to make work while I was furloughed from my two jobs, which was a perk of a horrible pandemic. My studio is in my house so I was able to focus on making work.
Ilenia Madelaire: Showing work in a real space in real time during a pandemic is of course very risky. As a group we decided to postpone the show to a more appropriate time. Originally, the show was to happen in May, but was moved to late September. After months of following CDC prompts, and a summer of lowered COVID-19 cases here in Baltimore, we collectively felt that a show in late September, with all risks considered and safety guidelines in place, could be achieved.
For me, continuing to make art during this time was a natural response to the current events. Making and showing work during this time means the gears are turning, people are curious, evoked, alert, engaged, and not deterred from talking about difficult things.
To me there’s no alternative to experiencing the totality of a painting in person versus on-line. The colors, size, mood, textures, lighting, dimensions, etc. can easily be lost in an on-line platform. Even the quietude, architecture of the space the artwork inhabits, the natural lighting… everything has an impact on the viewer’s experience. Looking through a 2D LED screen could never replicate the experience of looking in person, despite some of these works culling from a 2D, screen-aided consumption of pop culture. In particular, looking at these works in person makes them more imperative, pressing; they can’t be scrolled away. On the other hand, an online exhibit would reach a wider, larger audience. Either way, I think it’s important that people have access to the conversations these paintings generate. My hope was and always is to make people aware these works exist – that they deserve to exist.
Matt Kloss: First, I want to say that I’m thrilled with the quality of work and the way in which this show hung together. It’s a terrific project and the first proposal accepted by Exeter, this being our 16th exhibition in Baltimore since 2017. As the pandemic worsened, we discussed many scenarios for showcasing this work, both digitally and IRL and the artists endured several short notice adjustments to IRL engagements, with great enthusiasm and flexibility, thankfully! The gallery began in-person appointments again in late June. Initially, we reopened by appointment only but decided to try a few events with “Something Wonderful.” Many precautions were taken exceeding CDC guidelines and both events went off smoothly. They were small intimate affairs, although the risks are real, and I won’t diminish the fact that we took a chance.
I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the risks we’ve all been taking (they’re practically unavoidable) and it’s funny the hypocrisy, I for one, indulge. I’ll chat with my wife on evening walks and will be quick to point out the risky behavior of a family member as seen on social media, or a friend and their recent vacation, or neighbor, or friend’s child, etc.! Yet it’s so easy to gloss over my own riskiness. Why is that!? I hope that all who did venture out and spend a bit of safety capital visiting this exhibition at Exeter went away duly inspired. These paintings are powerful and the messages they transmit, questions they ask, mysteries they keep, allowed me to get beyond the daily grind for a bit. The slower, physical interaction with the work, and the magic of the give and take between viewer and artifact, is precisely the spiritual salve that art can offer us in our time of need.
Ilenia Madelaire, Dulce, 24” x 30”, oil on canvas, 2020
————————————————————————————————————All images courtesy of the artists.