In "slipstream," an exhibition of Mary Ann Peters' works at the James Harris Gallery, this longtime presence on the Seattle art scene turns her energestic imagination to the migration crisis.
This energetic imagination has found a new focus in recent years: the migration crisis. Of Middle Eastern ancestry herself, Peters has extended not only her subject matter but her stylistic approach, using multiple strategies to share her urgent message: pay attention!
Her current exhibition at James Harris Gallery is modest in scale, with just eight pieces; nonetheless, the show packs a powerful punch. The plight of the refugee, and the experience of displacement, is explored in installation; expressive, documentary painting; text based-abstraction; and epic-scaled, textured drawings. Though very different in appearance, these works share the detail and energy of Peter’s earlier paintings, and a sense of worlds in transition, for better or for worse.
One might well say “worse” in response to the star piece of the show, a 10-foot wide, elegiac nightscape entitled “slipstream (by the light of the moon).” Until I saw Peters’ work, I had never thought about the portion of a waterborne migrant’s journey that takes place totally in the dark, but she clearly has. The meticulously crafted, swirling and ominous surface that Peters has created with thousands of strokes of gray and black (from a distance, the painting almost appears to be carved out of wood), envelops and appalls the viewer, sensing themselves adrift and unprotected. The mood of dread and disorientation goes beyond merely the experience of a migrant at sea, to the tormented night of anyone unmoored and afraid. By tapping into such a universally shared state, Peters succeeds in inspiring our empathy for the endangered Mediterranean travelers, whose real-world misfortunes we have become almost numb to absorbing.
Very different is the nearby installation “impossible monument (tell tale),” an actual sail that hangs off the wall and sags onto the floor, pulled down by corroded metal weights and partly covered by the artist with lovely, fragmented patterns based on Islamic motifs. As ambiguous and enigmatic as the “slipstream” is straightforward, “tell tale” seems to be an accounting of cultural dissolution and destruction. The collapsing and structureless sail is eminently unsuited to carry the richness and history that its painted surface suggests, delicate designs that will not survive exile and flight. The decorations are crowded almost carelessly onto one section of the fabric, like hastily-packed family heirlooms.
Three much smaller works present quite another take on the subject. Peters has done on-site research to support her migration series, and though the “storyboard” paintings are based on internet photographs of refugee housing, they are given authenticity and immediacy by Peters’ own investigations.
In “storyboard 6,” we are inside a large, abandoned hut, with unrecognizable debris scattered on the floor and dangling sheets that seem to be the remains of makeshift interior walls. In depicting the structure, Peters employs a highly animated mark-making vocabulary, with tightly-packed lines of watercolor and gouache almost as fluid and swirling as the nearby waves of her seascape. The effect of all this suggested movement — the walls sag and lean as though caught in a gale — is to make this “shelter” seem as threatening, impermanent, and on the verge of collapse, as a storm-tossed raft.
A late inclusion in the show is a stark sculptural work entitled “wayfinder.” A simple, 4-foot X precisely carved out of yellow glycerin, the piece has a geometric texture, like tracery. Is it a hopeful signpost suggesting that tradition and identity will help guide us, or is it a cross representing innocent sacrifice?
The show runs through November 22, 2017 at James Harris Gallery.