Balancing Acts: Dawn Cerny at Melanie Flood Projects

The artist’s tabletop mobiles and gouache paintings of faces in tears pair together to explore the tensions of human experience.

I recently learned that tightrope walkers are also called funambulists. The word derives from the Latin funis (meaning rope) and ambulare (meaning to walk), but funambulist also conjures up a sense of, well, fun: excitement, daring, a sense of the unknown. The practice dates back to Ancient Greece and is still practiced today. Feats of poise and tension have sparked our interest for a long, long time.

Mobiles can be childlike and gentle, or precarious and uncertain. They’re a bit like miniature versions of a tightrope act—it’s thrilling to watch an object, wobbly and fragile, learn to balance. There’s suspense in suspension. This tension is constant in our lives; we are all learning to balance, endlessly. Dawn Cerny investigates the tensions of everyday life in her solo exhibition, Weeping Willow Folding Chair at Melanie Flood Projects. The eight brightly-colored tabletop mobiles and six gouache paintings use comedy and vulnerability to untangle emotional experiences. Cerny’s knack for construction and her offbeat visual sensibility merge in an exhibition that’s subtly relatable and uniquely human. 

At first glance, Cerny’s mobiles are elaborate appendages, balancing common materials like yarn, popsicle sticks, condiment packets, and old wrappers on wires. It’s as though Cerny has devised the most intricate system possible to store one housekey, or invented a mobile that could contain the contents of her jacket pocket. The longer I examine Cerny’s mobiles, the more complex they become. She’s used systems of twisting, weighing, securing, and suspending to create stability. I think of the small weavings Sheila Hicks made while traveling, joining found materials to create pliable, experimental structures. On Mobile for overwhelming antique sensations, paperclips shimmy gently on thin stems. The movement is familiar, like birds learning to fly. 

In the main gallery room at Melanie Flood Projects, a large white table holds six of Cerny’s sculptures, and gouache paintings hang on each of the surrounding walls. In another room tucked further back in the gallery space, a smaller table holds two sculptures, with one of Cerny’s paintings hanging near it. Her mobiles are heavily detailed, containing small, detailed parts, but the install in the main room still feels airy and light. The smaller room leaves me feeling unstable and clumsy as I negotiate around Cerny’s mobiles, though; I think about their fragility, how I could upset their delicacy with one bump.

Dawn Cerny, Mobile for overwhelming antique sensations (2019-2021). Wood, paperclips, epoxy clay, aqua resin, fiberglass, paint, wire, paper clay, puffballs, twist tie, bread bag clip, paint, hand-blown glass. 15” x 13” x 16”.

Cerny’s interest in construction and perception is longstanding. She launched her artistic practice as a painter and printmaker, looking closely at architectural space and the way we read images in relation to each other. A thread of domesticity weaves through her work, too— furniture, Cerny feels, is a “body/scale relationship,” and home is “the place she imagines art being.” It makes sense, then, that her mobiles are tabletop sculptures. By nature of their construction, they reference both furniture in general and the relative size of a household object, like a toaster or a cookie jar. 

Dawn Cerny, Diner Mobile for Hudson (2021). Wire, wood, plaster cloth, screen material, paper, paint, epoxy clay, paperclip, ketchup packet, yarn, fabric, grommet, rice. 23” x 14” x 7”.

In Cerny’s work, things are not just things, but representations of the anxieties of human experience. She orchestrates tension and hints at conflict effortlessly. Her mobiles are endearing but awkward; they’re technically functional containers, but aren’t ergonomic or overtly useful. (Diner Mobile for Hudson repurposes a kimchi jar, but only holds small, curious cloth and yarn scraps.) Ultimately, the purpose of these mobiles is uncertain, yet they possess a self-consciousness that suggests they know this. They’re grappling with their purpose, their reality, just as humans do. They are imperfect characters in action.

This subtle personification implies a narrative or performance, but Cerny’s works are too loving, too earnest to be totally satirical. A long history of kinetic art predates Cerny’s mobiles, yet much of it lacks her humanity. Bruno Munari called his mobiles useless machines. Jean Tinguely’s Homage to New York was designed to self-destruct. But Cerny’s playful approach celebrates itself—bold colors, low-fi materials, and gloppy forms become gestures, postures, and expressions. If there is a performative aspect to Cerny’s work, she’s like a 21st century Buster Keaton, using slapstick absurdism to respond to universal, felt frictions of identity. Like Keaton, her clever, effervescent aesthetic allows the viewer to find ease in the work’s more serious underlying themes.

Dawn Cerny, Untitled (Santa Barbara) (2020). Gouache. 17” x 28.5”.

Cerny’s gouache paintings are more explicitly emotional; all depict crying figures peering into hand mirrors. In the main gallery room, hung on each wall surrounding the mobiles, the paintings seem to mourn the constant process of balance that’s intrinsic to her sculptures and to the human experience. Cerny rendered each painting in semi-transparent neutrals with a wobbly, intuitive hand, as though they’re self-portraits created by the crying figures themselves. That wavering hand—gestural, imperfect—finds its parallel in Cerny’s mobiles, which contain the same traits.

One painting, Untitled (Pierrot, Pierrot), depicts the famously melancholy clown, heartbroken and foolish. (Pierrot’s story begins with commedia dell’arte, an early form of Italian theater popular from the 16th to 18th centuries. Commedia dell’arte was characterized by the use of improvisation, masks, and pantomiming; Pierrot the clown was one of the most famous masked characters.) Pierrot and Cerny both hint at the anxieties and sadness behind comedy—how it can function as a way of coping with and processing lived experience. What if comedy were a confession? What if it spoke of our disappointments, our little losses? Intuitively, we know this about comedy already. Cerny’s work, like Pierrot’s, makes it clear.

Dawn Cerny, Untitled (Pierrot, Pierrot) (2021). Gouache. 17” x 14”.

In Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke describes love as “two solitudes that protect and border and greet each other.” Love between two figures—like a weeping willow and a folding chair—is complicated, but begins with this acknowledgment of “solitudes,” or differences, “greeting,” or accepting one another. In Cerny’s exhibition, Weeping Willow Folding Chair, the weeping willow, emotive and priceless, “greets” the folding chair, defined by its usefulness and its overlooked presence in our lives. Cerny’s work references household objects, but adds a tender touch; it’s one-of-a-kind, but also contains bits of plastic refuse. In her work, the concepts of the weeping willow and the folding chair “border” each other as well, conjuring associations with the natural versus the manmade, the yielding versus the sturdy, the emotional versus the useful. 

Indeed, Cerny’s work lays bare the dichotomies of our lives and how accidentally funny they can be. But beyond the humor of Weeping Willow Folding Chair is a sense of vulnerability, the show’s ultimate strength. It’s not often that zany, bright-hued sculptures and imagery of crying reflections exist side-by-side, but here, Cerny balances both. Her work assures the viewer that it’s okay to sense tension, to cry, to feel off-kilter. It’s a potent, valuable reminder.

Weeping Willow Folding Chair was on view at Melanie Flood Projects April 23 – May 29, 2021.

About the author

Lindsay Costello is an experimental artist and writer in Portland, Oregon, with an academic background in textile research at the Oregon College of Art and Craft. Her critical writing can also be read at Hyperallergic, Art Papers, Art Practical, 60 Inch Center, this is tomorrow, and Textile: Cloth and Culture, among other places. She is the founder of plant poetics, an herbalism project, and soft surface, a digital poetry journal/residency. She is the co-founder of Critical Viewing, an aggregate of art community happenings in the Pacific NorthwestHer artistic practice centers magic, ecology, and folkways in social practice, writing, sculpture, and installation.

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