Bodily limitations recast: Panteha Abareshi and Kayley Berezney

The artists' sculptures, paintings, and video works, now on view at Fuller Rosen Gallery, challenge the ableism of the art world

I haven’t left home in a bit, and when I do, it’s like the moment after seeing a matinee: I emerge from the dark theater of my apartment, walk outside, and everything becomes big and bright. Fuller Rosen Gallery is no different. Entering the space, I slather on a layer of their provided hand sanitizer and listen to the mechanical whirring sounds emitting from a video along the gallery’s right wall. To the left, bright lights gleam down onto textural forms. Already I know this exhibition harbors no fear of the senses—mine are fully engaged.

Works by Panteha Abareshi and Kayley Berezney. Image courtesy Fuller Rosen Gallery.

Panteha Abareshi and Kayley Berezney, the two artists featured in NO SANCTUARY at Fuller Rosen, confront the prevalence of ableism in the art world. In both artists’ works, the body becomes more dynamic and versatile—not despite the limitations of disability, but because of them. Neither artist shies away from the fear, isolation, and rapid changes they face as artists with health challenges. Abareshi has Sickle Cell Beta Zero Thalassemia, a genetic condition causing debilitating chronic pain. Her videos feel urgent in their response to this lived experience; they’re severe and coarse, but that atmosphere provides penetrating insight into the dynamics of power and powerlessness within bodily perception. Berezney’s experience with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer is unveiled in her sculptures, which feel like stand-ins for bodies in recovery. They’re enticing, but also feel heavy, fatigued. 

Kayley Berezney, Almonds and Wine (2018). Wine, Ibrance 100mg, almonds, almond oil, salt, plaster of Paris, epoxy. 8″ x 6.5″ x 7″. Image courtesy Fuller Rosen Gallery.

Upon entering the gallery, I’m first drawn to Brooklyn-based Berezney’s sculptures, which are supported by neatly-squared foam armatures on the floor. Although Berezney uses inorganic materials (sealant foam, plaster, and resin) in her works, they lack the sterility and coldness one might associate with hospitals or illness. Her color palette is light and earthy, with blues and pastels blended in. The sculptures are willfully messy and accepting of their own process. A spider is captured in resin, ostensibly by accident. There are bedsheets and lumps and bumps and stickiness. Each form feels almost like a living being, layered and stratic, with its own personality. 

Kayley Berezney, left to right: The Spot (2020), Protects (2018), and Biopsy, (2018). Materials and dimensions vary. Image courtesy Fuller Rosen Gallery.

Inorganic materials forge an energetic relationship with the more intimate feeling of Berezney’s forms. In The Spot, billowing sealant foam is frozen in place. Plaster and resin capture objects like almonds, cold brew keg nozzles, rosemary, paper towels, and Advil Liqui-Gels, giving each sculpture a sense of holding a quick gesture or moment in time. Berezney uses titling to hint at experiences she may have been having during these moments. Titles like Good Mourning, Biopsy, and Anger Study grant me a glimpse of the themes embedded within each work.

Kayley Berezney, Popeye’s (2020). Acrylic painting. 9″ x 12″. Image courtesy Fuller Rosen Gallery.

Berezney’s acrylic paintings, lining an exposed brick wall, feel somewhat disconnected from her sculptures, although I do sense they’re in conversation. The paintings and sculptures share the focus on layered color creating abstracted, weighted forms. Each of Berezney’s eight paintings are small at 9” x 12”, and rendered in more vibrant colors than her sculptures, in a palette of oranges, reds, blues and greens. Titles like Popeye’s and First Impression again suggest the ephemeral, while others like Wall Study and Brush It Under The Rug recall the internal space cultivated in Berezney’s sculptures. 

Installed opposite Berezney’s sculptures, Los Angeles-based artist Abareshi’s video works feel spasmic, scattered, and restless. Between rattling ambient soundscapes, repetitive x-ray imagery, and target shapes radiating in and out, the videos create a palpable feeling of uneasiness that heightens my bodily awareness. I feel eye strain, a light headache. This response is important—in viewing Abareshi’s visual response to her body, I become more keenly aware of my own, and I take note of my privileges. I’m still able to stand in the gallery witnessing this work, whether or not there are moments of discomfort within that experience. 

Panteha Abareshi, stills from (FOR PARTS) (2020) and INTERNAL I (2020). Video. Image courtesy Fuller Rosen Gallery.

INTERNAL I and INTERNAL II create an ongoing dialogue through brief flashes of text. Both videos are approximately three minutes long. Between bursts of skull imagery in INTERNAL I, Abareshi dots in phrases like “TO BE ALIVE IS TO BE DYING”;every breath, a memento mori, a reminder of what the body knows best”; “(destruction)”; and “DO NOT WAIT UNTIL I AM DEAD TO MOURN ME. In INTERNAL II, she continues, but the language feels more intense and metaphorical: “PLEASE take this body for granted;”this is the putrid internal;” “EVERY FUNCTION A MALFUNCTION;” and “THE BODY IS A PERPETUAL SIN AGAIN AND AGAIN.” Some of the phrases flash onscreen so quickly, they feel like subliminal reminders of my mortality. The urgent yet fleeting nature of the language suggests that Abareshi is speaking directly to the viewer, but that these ideas are often hidden or ignored. Both videos feel like direct responses to ableism in this sense.

Panteha Abareshi, still from (FOR PARTS) 2020. Video. 4:33. Image courtesy Fuller Rosen Gallery.

Abareshi’s video (FOR PARTS), centers on crutches, which traditionally aim to emulate the able body’s upright support capabilities. The 4.5 minute film begins with pulsing light and flickering drawings of crutches against a black background. Shots of Abareshi begin to emerge: first she’s on all fours, then she’s twisting backward, and then she’s using the crutches as stilts. Rebecca Horn’s body extensions come to mind, but rather than create new devices as Horn does, Abareshi pushes the possibilities of these preexisting aids. Abareshi’s body becomes both medium and tool. She moves in near-erotic ways, using her own form in tandem with the crutches, rather than being simply supported by them. 

Panteha Abareshi, No Sanctuary (i), (ii), and (iii) (2020). Gelatin capsules. Dimensions vary. Image courtesy Fuller Rosen Gallery.

Abareshi’s house sculptures, No Sanctuary (i), (ii), and (iii), are a show highlight. Each of the tabletop figures are made entirely of brightly-colored pills. There’s an initial quaintness and humor to the little houses that shifts and becomes more serious the longer I look at them. Through these sculptures, Abareshi integrates medicine with a common idea of home; considering those themes together brings up associations with shelter, protection, necessity, isolation, and trapping. I notice an interesting duality between the pill as casing for a drug and the home as casing for the body. Identity is linked to the body, and thus these works propose a question: What happens when our bodily “home” falters, or can’t be trusted?
The interplay between Berezney and Abareshi’s works is at times clashing; it’s also deeply felt. At its core, NO SANCTUARY challenges the viewer to reframe their perceptions of the body, a welcome provocation in light of the art world’s persistent ableism. Each artist successfully depicts bodily experiences that too often go unseen due to able-bodied norms. NO SANCTUARY finds unique visual language to lay bare the complexities of the “sick” body.


Fuller Rosen Gallery is open Thursday-Sunday, 12 PM-5 PM, or by appointment. A maximum of four guests are allowed inside the gallery. Masks and distancing required. NO SANCTUARY is on view through February 4, 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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