“DADDY,” on view at after/time collective, is all about its title. This exhibition, created by Jenn Sova (alternating they/she pronouns) and co-curated by Graham Feyl and Laurel V. McLaughlin, tugs at the tenuous concept of paternity. DADDY activates the gallery with personal archives and ephemera, inviting a consideration of containers—“spaces for what we want in our lives and what we don’t.” The show also refers to death and suicide, so please be forewarned and read on with care. (In fact, the exhibition currently houses the ashes of Sova’s estranged father—but I will get to that later.)
Upon entering the gallery, light grows soft and pink, landing on untitled reflection, a 4’x3’ mirror smeared in Vaseline except for the word “DADDY” at its center. The dull layer of Vaseline tempts me to confirm its viscous, cringeworthy texture with my touch. I am familiar enough with this messy bathroom staple to be awed by the way Sova has used it to render stylized text through negation, so that the reflective surface of the mirror shines through only where I see the word “DADDY.”
Metaphors are ripe for reading. Am I to see DADDY when I look at myself here?
“DADDY” conjures the many ghosts of daddy-figures while tapping into Sova’s own process of grief: Not even a year ago, Sova learned that their estranged father had committed suicide, leaving them with the social responsibility of next of kin. They resolved to travel from Oregon to their father’s last home in Appelton, Wisconsin—the site of his death. “I didn’t really have much time to consider if I should go or not,” Sova shares with me. “It was a strange gut instinct more than a decision in some ways, almost as if now that he was gone, I could afford to be curious and get close.” Out of this tragic ordeal, “DADDY” was born.
Estrangement and loss bites, whether it is an active choice or an unavoidable reality. “How do we grieve something we have already grieved?” the exhibition text asks. “When we live in a culture that is dominated by fantasies and expectations of kin, of families, of father, what does it mean to navigate outside of that?”
Beyond the exhibition’s entryway lies a corridor of media projected on the gallery walls. A video of an infant in an electric baby swing catches my attention. Of course, it is young Sova, swaying peacefully amidst nostalgic clips of the iconic late 80s/early 90s sitcom Full House and the music video for “Addicted to Love” by Robert Palmer. A computerized voice interrupts my thoughts to read an intimate story detailing Sova’s birth, which—she tells me—was emailed to her by her father out of the blue ten years prior.
I find myself drawn across the way by a bright projection of TV static, which is tempered with clips of the 80s sitcom Family Ties. When I ask Sova about this, I learn their parents actually chose their first and middle names—Jennifer Elise—from the names of two Family Ties characters. I realize that this is not just a dated pop culture reference. This is personal, a fictional family with nostalgic and dissonant relationship to Sova’s own. In this sense, Sova’s use of archival media sets the stage for fragmented reality that brims with possibilities otherwise.
As I move deeper into the gallery, “DADDY” gets messy. Sova doubles down on sensorial play in her Remants #1-98, a visceral series that covers a gallery wall from top to bottom. Splatters and pools of brown, yellow, and gray pigment stain sheets of paper, as if liquid-filled jars have broken loose and bled out upon them. Colors bring to mind formaldehyde, fermentation, and bodily fluids. Their messiness suggests the volatility of containers designed to preserve or hide decaying matter—which will spill or seep out eventually.
I look down. On the ground near my feet lies a rainbow made of salt, eggshell, dried violets and lavender, stones and hair. Beyond this rests a row of surgical gloves encircling a clear bag full of Sova’s father’s ashes. Shudder. The whole of this composition, entitled Gray Matter, was installed by Sova on the exhibition’s opening night in a ritual performance.
As I stare at the plastic bag of ashes, I feel my own cognitive dissonance looming. I am surprised I am not surprised by the presence of this person’s remains. Given all the other dead, decaying, and inanimate things on the floor, his ashes seem almost at home.
While Sova delivers sensory spectacle through their larger installations, they also pull in unexpected ephemera and minutia that coheres across the exhibition. In Portrait of Us, I find a backlit collection: their father’s old pill case, medical paperwork, dentures in a container, cigarette butts, and a vial of Sova’s spit, among other oddities. Back at the entrance of the gallery hangs Found floorplan, an inconspicuous hand-drawn layout of the apartment where Sova’s father died. And, outside the gallery, Sova displays a graphite rubbing of the number “7” from his apartment door. These elements trace the way he had existed, providing evidence of some kind of a life lived, but in their wake I am left with feelings of profound absence and unknowing.
I wonder, where is daddy, anyway? Anecdotes, memorabilia, and cultural contexts abound, but they lead me nowhere.
“What can be built from loss?” In the soothing pink light of the gallery, I catch this stand-alone quote from the exhibition text, and I think about how “DADDY” plays on the failed ideology of paternity, offering up plenty of insufficient containers for its uncontainable fallout. In the midst of this failure, Sova invites me to imagine the container that would suit me most instead—to demarcate my relationship to all that is “DADDY” for myself.
“DADDY” is on view at after/time Sundays 1-4PM through May 29. The gallery is located at 707 NE Broadway, Suite 205.