Gelah Penn’s Way Into Her Work is Through Materials

Installation view, Gelah Penn, Notes on Clarissa & Stele #10

WM Staff March, 2020

Known for stretching the dimensions of what constitutes, painting, sculpture, drawing, and installation, New York-based artist Gelah Penn’s way into her work is through the materials. In using a focus on materials to actually reveal elements of line, Penn’s works isolate human objects to bring forth new sequences and relationships between shadow, line, composition, and form. Applying abstraction to open a poetic vein out of Mylar, plastic bags, thermal insulation, staples, polyester, foam rubber, and mosquito netting, Penn’s latest exhibition, “Uneasy Terms,” creates intense personal moments by means of rules and omissions.

The works on display are on the one hand, soft and beautiful, delicate and gentle, yet at a closer look reveal themselves to be hard synthetic fabrications of plastic construction. In the three installations currently on display at Undercurrent Gallery in Brooklyn, Penn’s use of quotidian, recognizable elements reveal multilayered images in which the fragility and instability of our seemingly certain reality is questioned. The distinctly inorganic choice of materials is in direct contradiction to the ephemeral nature of the impermanence of her spatial compositions. By merely hinting at recognizable form without following logical criteria, the results are deconstructed to the extent that meaning is shifted and possible interpretation becomes multifaceted, inciting the viewer to make new personal associations as they meander through the transformed gallery.

Installation detail, Gelah Penn, Clarissa & Stele 

And meander you must to savor the sense of quiet progression and messy movement in the 33-foot-long Prologue. In varying textures of black, white, and gray, with thin bursts of bold red and neon greens, Prologue is a site-specific installation that snakes its way suspended along Undercurrent’s stairway wall in Penn’s characteristic knotting, looping, and lurching style only to dramatically arrive at the sharp verticality of Stele. Both works manipulate the medium of drawing from sculptural material so that compression, subduction, and morphogenesis burst through three-dimensional forms to create a perceptual experience for the viewer as she explores primary design principles. With translucent materials that cast shadows of formal lines in drawing, the included pieces from her ongoing Stele series exude an ethereal nature that reflects Penn’s personal obsession with both film and fiction that encapsulate mood over narrative.

If the grisaille play with light and dark in Stele subtly complement Penn’s love of film noir, the 99 small collages that make up Notes on Clarissa (Volume 1) disregard with subtlety altogether to reference Samuel Richardson’s 18th century epistolary masterpiece that details a young woman’s seduction, betrayal, and ultimate tragedy. Strikingly, however, the sentiment-rich letters of the famed novel have been replaced with specific collaged images on 4x6-inch exhibition cards of Penn’s recent installation, Ebb Tide at ODETTA/Chelsea earlier this year. With the improvisational feeling of the 22-foot installation, Penn has used photographic representations of her own work to reference each of the letters from the novel, revealing the uneasy terms between original sentiments and the projection of memory thereafter. This is the duality of this exhibition, one whose concreteness dangles by a literal thread with the shadowy possibility of implantation in the viewer’s mind. WM



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