A review of Holly Lay and Leon Syfrit, BLOW-OUT/FLOW'r-OUT by D.K. Sole
We drove to BLOW-OUT/FLOW’r-OUT from Nanda Sharif-pour’s MFA thesis show, Implanted Nature, at Donna Beam Fine Art. Someone joked that it was an evening of plants, although the only real ones were Nanda’s. You walked around the lower floor of the Donna Beam and thought it was full though at the same time you saw there were only a few things present; noticing the projectors and the wires, the prism forests shining on the walls, two plants in a terrarium, and an island of grey dirt where a group of unplanned dandelions had seeded themselves. Something existed between the landscape you could feel and the landscape that was around you. That was the work.
I overheard Sharif-pour tell someone that whenever she left the gallery she would find herself automatically paying more attention to the foliage in the garden outside. We went to Core and looked at Leon Syfrit’s photographs in black and white, some of them several feet tall, giant portraits of curated miniature plants (I thought at first glance), with creased wood, landscapes of twigs rising from their pedestals, touched decisively with artificial light. But when I recognised the objects from the pictures strung up from the ceiling behind me they were ruptured car tires. The twigs were wires that had been torn out when they burst.
The gallery didn’t title the hanging tires. Nor were they priced. You realised you were not supposed to want them. “I don’t,” Syfrit explained in an interview with Adore Noir magazine last year, “find the actual sculpture to be very engaging.” Someone nearby said the tires weren’t making any impact on her. Martyred by gravity, they were measuring the distance between the photographer and the work he had produced.
The person next to me said that when he looked at the photographs he remembered a few times when his own tires had blown out. Those were moments of fear. His vision was invisible to me. I couldn’t see it in the work (although I believed he felt it): there was no panic in these photographs, nothing screaming, “Stamp on the brakes!” (that was your immediate emotional reaction, he said, but it was the wrong thing to do and you should fight it off or else your metal rims would grind across the road); anxiety was not valued or expected, only control and balance, and matte ink lying evenly in place on good paper; and the calm stimulus of beauty. (The gallery director Nancy Good mentioned that Eric Beehn at Test Site Projects had done the printing.)
You believe that when Syfrit spots a tire by the side of the road he sees the future. Now us too. Every blown-out tire from this day forward will be waiting for its pedestal. His structured artificiality avoids the immediate present, a different system of appreciation to the one that Sharif-pour sets up when she lays her projectors and wires out in full view, revealing the trick behind the vision so blatantly that our grasping hand reaching out for artifice finds nothing. She might surprise you with her motion-triggered audio (the air cawing as you walk to the stairs), but she does not fool you. Caught offguard on a plane of noticing that is made to shift, we are invited to take things as they are. We don’t have the stability that would encourage us to create change.
Holly Lay, the other artist in the Core Contemporary show, sets up a different kind of shift. The first time I saw her work, years ago, she was splicing computer games with live military footage. Over time that confluence of reality and mimickry has become more compressed, the meeting point more tightly incorporated. Maybe this is a stupid thing to say. What is she making? Latch hooked flower shop plants. The largest ones are suspended over flat-sided caricatures of pedestals. Where is reality here? Her primrose points to a real primrose as an emoji relates to a face. Craft is so often positioned as a tender, hand-touched world, an antidote to the haven of screens.
...But a host of her shaggy-rug “Flower Pots” has been hung so you can see the coding on the backs. The analogue grid is filled in methodically with one knot per unit. I remembered the diagrams of rectangular plant cells we used to look at in biology classes. Is this network of right angles the truest portrait of a plant? Yawning past centuries of bouquets on canvas, the lily embraces the grid, shouting, “Finally, they’ve found me!” But plants, like grids, are mute.
Technology has set its mathematics in your path. You navigate around the “Pots” to reach an alcove of her digital prints. Moving from the fronts to the backs of the rugs you find a coherence of fakeness. The revelation of the “secret” is no closer to natural reality than the thing is conceals.
Good described BLOW-OUT/FLOW'r-OUTas “a dialogue” between Lay and Syfrit, and I’m still trying to work out where to locate that conversation. They are both aware of artifice. Both of them suggest, posessively, that a real thing can be taken and remade. Still, Syfrit’s hanging tires let us know the possession is incomplete. The tires repel insight. They are ineffable in their shabbiness. The crude lines of Lay’s rugs might be read as a criticism of the possessive instinct that reduces the thing to a sketch whenever it tries to take hold of it; they could also be understood as the quick arrogance of the rich possessor who doesn’t need to care. She is less certain than Syfrit of the inevitablitity of beauty in reformed information. She sees the unsublime, the substitute: cuteness. Her pedestals point back to centuries of western fine art history; they are also cartoons. Maybe I could close by finding an argument here. Syfrit proposes that art improves and elevates reality while Lay proposes that art diminishes it. But should you accept cuteness as a diminishment? Or is it an oblique door that leads us into an elaborate, shared, constructed worldview that she hinted at by putting Lisa Frank stickers on the notes to her thesis show? Sharif-pour’s dream of releasing us into the immediacy of live plants feels very far away.
Disclaimer: I offered Wendy Kveck this review without realizing that it would would be a conflict of interest between her role as the UNLV MFA Graduate Coordinator and her other role as the publisher of Settlers + Nomads. I’d like to assert that she had no influence on anything I’ve written here. Also, I work on the UNLV campus at the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art. This fact can be understood as another conflict of interest. I’ve never met Leon Syfrit however, so that’s something.
Photos of Holly Lay and Leon Syfrit’s work courtesy Core Contemporary.
Australian artist D.K. Sole lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, and works at the UNLV Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art where she is in charge of Research and Educational Engagement. She has exhibited in Las Vegas and Denver, Colorado.