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Bodzy, Condron, and Topping Star in Dark Storytelling at Kathryn Markel Fine Arts

Installation view of Phantamagoria (Benjamin Hawley and Lesley Bodzy) at Kathryn Markel Fine Arts. Courtesy of the Gallery.  

By QINGYUAN DENG June 3, 2024

As early as the 1770s, the phenomenon of phantasmagoria, in which magic lanterns were deployed to project frightening images onto semi-transparent screens often under the guise of séance, served as a ghostly exercise in capturing incessant interplays and gaps among imagination, memory, and reality. The group exhibition Phantasmagoria at Kathryn Markel Fine Arts borrows from this practice of horror-storytelling to explore the moment of dissociation in the face of contagious risk and mass disruption, which has persisted into our post-pandemic collective consciousness. The exhibition demands an almost masochist enjoyment of the powerless feeling of being unable to tell what is real. Or in the exhibition’s curator Abigail Knight’s words, to overcome the fear of losing touch with one’s reality is to get further away from it: “The only way out was through, and the only way through was to detach and enjoy. For lack of better words, the show is a blissful depiction of the inside of my brain.”

Lesley Bodzy. Relic II and II, 2022. Cast bronze. 11.5 x 7 x 9.5 in.Courtesy of Kathryn Markel Fine Arts

A star of the show is Lesley Bodzy’s cast bronze series Relics. Knight selected Relic I and Relic II, made in 2022, for the show. Bending, combining, and layering thick paper cloth used for cleaning and casting them in foreign-looking bronze, Bodzy defamiliarizes everyday objects into sculptures with an unstable appearance, as if each work was caught up in past movements of collapsing upon itself, only preserved in its current unchanging state by time. The passage of time is so accentuated in both works that they present historical objects from an archeological site. Indeed, both relic works are “an oxymoron of sorts—the forms are dainty and look ready to bloom,” according to Knight, who has been mesmerized by Bodzy’s practice since meeting her. She appreciates the “literal and visual weight to them” and their “industrial yet organic” sensibility which is “hard to solve at first glance” and falls outside our immediate material reality.

In giving an afterlife to sanitary objects deeply associated with domestic labor, Bodzy constructs an alternative history that is both universal and personal, a conceptual project that resonates with Bodzy’s staunchly feminist practice. In her studio, materials and objects that are considered discardable and unserious such as rubber, latex, and nylon are consistently elevated into monumental yet playful forms, eternally memorialized alongside works by other male masters of Pop art.

Jim Condron’s assemblage sculpture Lucy Sante's Things, 2022 anchors the show. Condron’s practice revolves around the impossibility of objects to restore or reveal memories they belong to fully. In Lucy Sante's Things, abandoned objects take center stage in an absurd manner of organization. Found vintage objects such as firecracker, typewriter keyboard, and writing slate are installed together casually and humorously, appearing to have detached from their original function. Abandoned or lost, they take on a second life that only evokes vague traces of their prior life. Condron’s particularly writerly choice of objects is a witty homage to trans-cultural critic Lucy Sante, whose decades-long probing on the persistence of a unified American identity across time becomes increasingly self-referential and autobiographical in recent years, most exemplified in Snate’s 2024 memoir on her journey of coming out and transition ridden with chance events. What can materials tell us about their history? Very little according to Condron, which is exactly their charm.

Nick D'Ornellas. A Last Look series, 2023-24. Various material. 12 x 9 in. each and Geist Topping. Crazed I Undertake This All, 2024. Oil, acrylic, and crayon on canvas. 54 x 38 in. Courtesy of Kathryn Markel Fine Art.

Geist Topping’s painting Crazed, I Undertake This All, 2024 and Nick D’Ornellas’ A Last Look series of life-size screen-prints are outstanding as well. Crazed, I Undertake This All is about the nature of making memories through images, which always already hinges on the permeable border between the artificial and the real. Topping’s airy stroke creates an image of a driving car in an open and mountainous region, which feels both believable and constructed as if taken as a high-resolution screenshot from a contemporary video game. At the same time, Topping uses crayons to disrupt this image, layering color on the borders of the picture plane to reveal the shape of a feline animal in the center and the artifice of the picture plane too. Two strings of memory meet and compete for attention in Topping’s painting. Either one could not overpower the other, signaling how truth is eroded by remembrance and its subsequent mutation through technology. Similarly, D’Ornellas rehearses the same scene of the kitchen in his immigrant home over and over, where signs of the family’s Guyanese background intersect with his memory of them. Both artists carefully investigate how personal memory and political memory are interwoven and cannot be easily separated.

Julia Hames. Seulocia, 2023 oil on canvas 27 x 19 in. and Jim Condron Lucy Sante's Things, 2022. Vintage fire cracker, vintage typewriter keyboard, vintage writing slate, coaster, cotton, oil, wood 12 x 19.5 x 5.5 in. Courtesy of Kathryn Markel Fine Arts.

Elsewhere, Julia Hames and Benjamin Hawley paint impossible or liminal spaces. Hames employs the structure of bilateral symmetry found in arthropods to construct a luminously ethereal metaphysical realm. Hawley’s forms recreate atmospheric feelings of a distance time and place. Arguably Hames’ and Hawley’ interest in the unreal inherits the modernist genealogy of attempting to arrive at spiritual truths through geometric abstraction.

Robert Martin’s painting Breaker Wall (Toward the Stillness of Your Harbor), 2023 is not to be missed as well. Martin’s painting is powered by the remembrance and mourning of someone the artist has never met yet holds dear to his heart, namely his queer uncle who died thirty years ago. Although Martin’s uncle is absent in the painting, the heavenly realm he presumably resides in is meticulously painted with details through a personal and vernacular vocabulary, reconstructed from narratives of the lost uncle told by Martin’s other family members. Kristýna Šormová’s drawing is equally propelled by a painful memory, that of difficult motherhood, defined by the loss of a once familiar coloring technique due to her son’s allergies. In an unrestrained manner, Šormová showcases her vulnerability and raw emotions on a piece of paper punctured by a needle, through obsessive and disturbing pours, trails, and overlays of oil paint.

Phantasmagoria offers no conclusive resolution about our dissipating image of reality but tells us to savor its traces and shadows.

Curated by Abigail Knight, Phantasmagoria is on view through June 15, 2024, at Kathryn Markel Fine Arts, 529 West 20th St. Suite 6W. WM

Qingyuan Deng

Qingyuan Deng is a curator and writer, based between Shanghai and New York City. He is interested in relational aesthetics, experimental filmmaking, and the intersection between literary culture and visual arts.

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