The two-person exhibition now at Launch LA on La Brea literally and figuratively soars. Curated by MOAH’s Andi Campognone, Beyond/Within features the work of artists Samuelle Richardson and Joy Ray. The exhibition is uniquely paired. Both have utilized paint and fabric, create textile art, and rely on painterly technique. Richardson, whose fabric sculptural work here depicts primarily birds – but also human heads – some with bared teeth, is also a highly skilled artist when working in paint. The grace and fluidity of her sculpture, and its elegant refinement in what is traditionally considered “craft” materials, evokes her background. Using, embracing, and even accentuating the rougher aspects of her fabrics, the pieces recall the fact that they are created, not actual, living birds, while revealing themselves simultaneously to be delicately alive and transcendent. They could fly, if you let their magic in.
Richardson’s figures are so alive, in fact, that the art used to create them appears almost seamless, as if they emerged whole. She utilizes hand-built armature, stretching fabric and stitching it over the form. She says that she considers the fabric itself to serve as a kind of skin that she pulls over the “bones” of each piece. She works in layers, which is something that also links her to a background in life drawing and a strong knowledge of anatomy.
Long before she began working in fabric, Richardson worked with scale models of the human skeleton which she created by hand in clay using a process known as écorché. Her turn from painterly works, both figurative and those elaborately abstract, to dimensional fabric is linked both to this deeply learned sense of dimensionality and form. It is also borne to some extent from a background in the design industry where she she says she learned “to love the feel of fabric” and began to observe the qualities of fine materials that reminded her of the ways in which painters learned and used color. Combining her love of fabric with that of the sculptural form led her to these winged sculptures and startlingly real disembodied heads.
Joy Ray’s “Post-apocalyptic Petroglyphs” serve as fascinatingly mysterious documentation of some other world. Perhaps these textile paintings, with their lines of mysterious codes and echoes of rituals and vanished languages, contain exactly the sort of magic that Richardson’s sculptures await in order to head skyward. Certainly, both artists’ work complement each other, and have a sense of linkage that goes beyond their mutual use of fabric as a primary material.
Ray’s work here is dark, rich, and densely layered; some of the images appear to be ancient rubbings, or petroglyphs peeking through volcanic ash or sand. Patterns and symbols seem to emerge to the viewer’s eye only after careful observation. Her works imply and indeed conjure a sense that there is more beneath the surface, so the viewer must dig deep. The layering she uses has a tension to it which reflects an almost geologic density, an uncovering beneath the surface as one would uncover an artifact long buried underground.
In Ray’s work one can infer multiple layers of meaning and resolve. Yes, look long enough and the viewer may uncover what appears to be an artifact or ancient rubbing, and with it a hidden and profound message still beneath that uncovering. She’s called herself “obsessed with the end of the world,” yet desirous of the ability to leave a mark, one that a future viewer can find. The universal nature of her eerie and lush dark work speaks to this inchoate future. And beyond artifact, there is also the illusion of portals about to open, compelling and alchemic properties about to be revealed. The work merges paint and textiles into a form of secret communication, whether that communication is the casting of enchantments or serving as a record of the past, the language of another planet, or the words of our distant past.
Like Richardson, Ray’s work has evolved over the years. She began working with what she describes as standard embroidery materials but moved on to create not only her own non-traditional stitch work, but to merge that art with mixed media materials that range from the painted to sand and chalk and paper. Regardless of material, she relates that the ritual and intensity of hand-sewing her art for hours at a time and then painting new layers on top creates hidden meanings conveyed via the artist, the art, and through to the viewer. Most recently, she has been shaping her wall art so that it has a sculptural mass, using materials such as construction sand mixed with house paint, creating a raw, animal-skin impression as backdrop, then using yarn and loose wool to make patterns, hieroglyphics, and symbolic shapes. Finally, she paints over all of this. She considers the works to be “textile paintings.” The result is art that resembles petroglyphs if petroglyphs were etched in fabric.
Paired together, the two artists have created an immersive experience at Launch. While Richardson’s palette is more varied, with greys and small hints of color such as large orange beaks here and there, both are essentially monochromatic artists. One sees a hint of red in some of Ray’s pieces.
Ray’s work here evokes the tribal, the ancients, and the volcanic lava of her part-time residence on Hawaii’s Big Island; it is a landscape, an ancient testament, all raw physicality containing an almost seething sense of mystery and hidden meaning. Some of her patterns resemble a language, Sanskrit perhaps; others are geometric shapes, squares, x’s, and cross-hatching. One can imagine the works sliced from a monolithic cliff, or created by an artist on the wall of an ancient cave. But as noted, they also have an other-worldly, almost alien sensibility. Regardless, of where they come from, or whether they are emblematic of the past or the future, they evoke a sense of place, time, and history – it is only the actual time and place they represent that remains hazy.
Richardson’s work seems to capture the immediate. She has created the characters of winged things with over-sized spans, some suspended from the ceiling as if frozen in flight. Some appear at the cusp of flight, in open-mouthed screech and ready to soar, take aim and snatch their prey. Others seem entirely at rest. Among these birds are human heads mounted on narrow, elongated wooden pedestals. Perhaps decapitated, they stand as warnings – perhaps from the birds themselves. The birds, our impression is, have hunted them and this is the detritus that remains. Or, more simply and less dramatically, they are mere memorials of those who have passed, representations of statesmen or poets. Or again they are lasting symbols laid by shamans who have performed a ritual that allowed them to become birds. The mystery in just what these birds are, who these heads represent, makes the experience moving through the exhibition all the richer.
The exhibition’s title, Beyond/Within, says it all. We are beyond our own ability for definition and complete comprehension here, yet we are also compelled to go within and seek a higher wisdom not readily found beyond the gallery walls.