When I think of ritual, I think of Joan Didion’s travel packing list. Typed neatly on a twice-folded sheet of paper, one can tell it’s been referenced countless times throughout her life. Nightgown, she lists. Typewriter. Cigarettes. I look at it and marvel—how fascinating—but that intensity of feeling derives from the list’s utter normalcy. Even Joan carries deodorant, house keys; she even has to write it down to remember! Sometimes the most interesting rituals are the banal ones. Many of us have learned that over the past year, taking our walks and noticing the little unspoken happenings of the neighborhood.
At PNCA over the last month, five candidates for the Low-Residency MFA in Visual Studies installed work in the Center for Contemporary Art & Culture galleries, one week at a time. That means I listened to five thesis talks and visited the gallery five times: my own kind of ritual. In some rites from a spring reckoning, organized by curator Laurel V. McLaughlin, the artists—Kelsey Hamilton Davis, Ryan Kitson, Madison Queen, Wade Schuster, and Douglas Wiltshire—approach the concept of ritual through sculpture, installation, painting, photography, and more. To varied effect, their works unravel how rituals benefit or encumber us: the experience of them, the memory of them, and the construction of them.
Wade Schuster’s oil paintings are either quiet and modest (most are approx. 11” x 14”, rendered in softened tones) or commanding of space (the largest, Pipe Dream, is 78” x 60”). Schuster uses this contrast in canvas size to expand on two themes for his show, /trəˈvərs/: his smaller works relate to the mind, while the large paintings collect found words and material fragments. Both are inspired by Schuster’s frequent walks in the city. He gathers scraps of words, architecture, and landscape to create abstracted paintings that explore memory, liminality, and consciousness. Handwritten words in Schuster’s paintings also reference protest signs throughout the city, reflecting on gentrification and its impact on our navigation of space. The myth of progress, and how it can be observed by ritualistically traversing the city, seems relevant here.
Schuster’s paintings feel architectural. His strong use of line coupled with a palette of soft grays and blacks conjures steel beams, streets, crosswalks, and ghostly structures. When he does integrate color, it’s still muted, like the rushing, moving world, all shadows and blurs.
The paintings benefit from continuity and repetition. They all feel like visual representations of a walk: the fluid way in which the body moves without thinking, the hardness of concrete, fleeting phrases on signs. Schuster mentions the flaneur in his thesis talk, but I wonder if he’s explored the Dérive (a complex concept of French Marxist theorist Guy Debord, most simply defined as an unplanned journey through a city). The casual walk, with its daydreamy nature and shirking of productivity, can be a subtly political act.
Ryan Kitson’s material sense is strong—he creates sculptures with dried fungi and parts of animals he’s hunted tethered to packs; he casts fish in glass and stores them in plastic buckets lit from below; he shoots bullets in brass. His show, The Four Seasons, is confident in its controversy. It’s no secret that killing animals is contentious, and here, Kitson’s works hint at conventions of masculinity, too: power, trophies, violence. But even in the work’s self-assuredness, I sense contrasts between a need for sustenance and empathy for hunted creatures. Kitson has killed them, but he also elevates the animals in his pack sculptures, centering their heads in a reverent, almost totemic gesture.
Whatever the viewer’s stance on hunting and fishing, The Four Seasons raises compelling questions. I wonder about necessity. How does the ritual of hunting, when not needed for survival, correlate with humanity’s wider inclinations toward excess? I feel an instant connection with the gathered mushrooms in Dehydrated Haul, but they also bring up the trendiness of wildcrafting, and why that might be. What appeals to us about older forms of knowledge, technology, and survival? When we return to “nature,” what happens next? Ultimately, these ponderings don’t land anywhere clear. Kitson begins unpacking these ideas, but his works feel grounded in his own experiences camping in the backcountry, rather than a more universal lens.
Kelsey Hamilton Davis’s In the House of Weird Sisters begins with an overture. Installed outside the gallery, a chunky ceramic sculpture oozing pink glaze holds a sharp bouquet of dead thistle. Next to it, Wishing Well Spell Jar, Hamilton Davis’s collaborative project with Kalaija Mallery, further sets the tone for the show. The written piece describes a “spell for a bird girl, from a decoy”; one performs the wish-spell with a jar, a penny, a lavender sprig, blue wax, and a yellow paper star. The piece speaks to Hamilton Davis’s interest in witchcraft and witch aesthetics, but it also reveals something more elusive—a sense of endearing hope, wonderment, and the ache of childhood memory. These themes combine in her thesis installations of ceramics, decoy ducks, textiles, and found objects.
Hamilton Davis’s show is perhaps the most conceptually balanced; it’s backed by both robust research and a delicate personal sensibility. A lush tableau of fruit, ducks, candles, ceramics, and flowers are arranged on pallets; the installation reads like a celebratory altar. Her lengthy titles (ex. Hand-Stitched Tapestry with Her Pajamas, Her Own Bedding from Ikea, and Fabric That She Got In Argentina at The Marketplace Selling Textiles, Mostly from China, But Which Reminded Her of New England) tell stories, but also add humor. Her collection of decoy ducks does, too.
In her thesis talk, Hamilton Davis mentions some reference points for her work: cottagecore, contemporary witch aesthetics, the slippery notion of “slow living,” Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, trios of witches (a trope that stretches from Hocus Pocus all the way back to Macbeth). These nods to pop culture are smart symbols of our preoccupations with pre-capitalist ways of life and casting women as Other. Despite her interests in ritual, spellmaking, and the history of feminine spirituality, Hamilton Davis doesn’t quite land anywhere primordial or Goddess-like in her show. The effect is closer to exploring an estate sale at the home of a mysterious elderly woman, in the best way. It’s human.
Like Kelsey Hamilton Davis, Madison Queen also researched pop culture for her show, The Gallery of Metamorphics. Specifically, Queen is interested in the digital avatar. We find avatars on Facebook, Reddit, Second Life, and so on; they became ubiquitous within digital culture decades ago. (Avatar: “a manifestation of a deity or released soul in bodily form on earth,” according to Merriam-Webster. A word once associated with the gods now applies to personal expression.)
The Gallery of Metamorphics emphasizes artifice, particularly concerning sexuality. There’s an anatomically correct torso of a blow-up doll, and plastic tinsel streams down from a pedestal. A series of photographs feature artificial body parts like hands holding whips and mannequin feet; they’re centered in each image, on display as if in a catalog. Queen cultivates a subtle unease by surrounding the viewer with simulation. I’m fascinated by this combination of fear and desire, beauty and fetish, trickery and falsehood.
Overall, though, these themes could have been pushed further. I want to see the eerie skin textures of the sex toys in person, rather than in photographs. Since Queen spoke about digital avatars in her thesis talk, I sought more references to the strangeness of sexuality in the digital realm (one of Queen’s most successful pieces is You are the 999,999th visitor: Congratulations you WON! Click here to claim, seen above). The Gallery of Metamorphics feels like the beginning of an interesting direction for Queen, one that takes guts and a sense of humor to investigate fully. I sense that she is up to the task, even if it isn’t fully realized here.
The installation of Douglas Wiltshire’s Cocooning, the final show of the thesis series, was no easy feat. For Chrysalis (above), Wiltshire bisected a full-sized car, and the institution was concerned about the safety of hanging it from the ceiling as he’d planned. Wiltshire was able to find an impressive final-hour solution, but the piece was still kept behind a gate and caution tape.
Wiltshire’s diverse background as a jeweler and a funeral worker who completed “first calls” coalesces in his thesis work. Cocooning focuses on death, particularly vehicular deaths, as well as the apotropaic quality often ascribed to jewelry. To these ends, Wiltshire created a series of jewelry from small car parts and sculptures from larger bisections of destroyed vehicles, exploring how spirit imbues objects. The works also suggest the temporality of our bodies and of the objects we trust to protect us. Two caskets installed on the gallery walls signal death’s inevitability, but Wiltshire assures the viewer that death is sacred, too. The bisected car in Chrysalis points skyward, as if ascending to heaven. Wiltshire’s Chrysalis feels like the crescendo of the thesis exhibitions.
The artists’ thesis year fell during an incredibly turbulent, uncertain time, and they made it work. Although their exhibition series is titled some rites from a spring reckoning, I sense less of spring’s renewal and more of a study of place, groundedness, and the body here. The artists balance on the wobbly unknowns that interrupt our otherwise ritualistic lives: death, sex, heritage, gender, nature, environment. Each artist visualizes these concepts within which we find complexity, but also our sense of identity, our groundedness. Perhaps spring’s promise of new life isn’t possible at the moment. In the meantime, we have our rituals.
some rites from a spring reckoning is presented by the Pacific Northwest College of Art’s Hallie Ford School of Graduate Studies for the Low-Residency MFA in Visual Studies and is organized by independent curator Laurel V. McLaughlin, with support from Aeron Bergman, Chair and Associate Professor of the Low-Residency MFA Program in Visual Studies, and Erin Dengerink, Program Coordinator for the MA in Critical Studies and the Low-Residency MFA Program in Visual Studies.
The five exhibitions in some rites from a spring reckoning were installed at the Center for Contemporary Art & Culture from July 20–August 22, 2021. The complete archive of works is now available online.