TROY — The latest exhibit at Collar Works asks unsettling questions and eschews any simplistic answers.
Called “Collective Health,” the exhibition reflects on the ripple effects of the United States’ community health crisis and delves into what it really means to be “all in this together.” Curated by Valery Jung Estabrook and Rachel Frank, it includes works from more than 20 artists, all grappling with different aspects of this current crisis, as well as those that are more deeply rooted in the country’s politics and health care system.
Disquieting works from Julie Ann Nagle are some of the first works to confront viewers. In one, titled “Heartbeats,” a sculpture of a woman, painted from head to toe with green leafy patterns, gives birth to something plant-like, bathed in neon purple light. Dirt covers the floor below her as she holds the bundle about to tumble out of her stomach.
Just beyond that piece is a vivid painting, with a fire blazing in the foreground and a plume of blue and purple smoke rising in the background. The piece, also by Nagle, lends an apocalyptic mood to the exhibit.
Further on, works from Georgia Lale ground the exhibit in the present. In one, a hospital gown with the words “Wisdom Justice Moderation” stitched on the front, perhaps reflecting on a lack of access to medical care. Not too far away is an American flag made out of hospital gowns bearing the title “404,770 on Inauguration Day.”
In her artist statement, Lale writes “Since my cancer diagnosis, I have been producing a body of work that addresses the social invisibility, stigma, ostracism and trauma that patients experience during their diagnosis, treatment and recovery. My medium palette is characterized by the conceptual minimalistic use of emotionally charged objects such as life vests, emergency heat blankets and hospital gowns. I use performance, public interventions, sculpture and language in order to advocate for social justice and the right to healthcare coverage.”
Close by, artist KS Brewer strikes a similar note with “Post-Chronic Divisionations.” The unnerving piece features two faces, connected yet facing opposite directions. They are mounted on a wall with an unfurled dress positioned directly underneath. The piece is accompanied by a hair-raising soundtrack peppered with the sound of crying.
“My interdisciplinary work explores trauma’s sources and impacts through experiential and multi-sensory combinations of time-based tech, sculpture, and installation,” writes the artist. “Confrontational and uncanny, queering assumptions of space, time and being, I aim to connect and collaborate with audiences on an intuitive, visceral, and emotional level that can equally engender discomfort or validation.”
Nagle and Brewer’s works would have seemed relevant well before the pandemic, but they’ve taken on a greater sense of immediacy today, in the midst of the pandemic.
A sculpture from Stephanie Palazeke on view in another part of the exhibit reflects on the maltreatment of Asian people sparked by rhetoric politicians and others used when talking about the pandemic. In “Teacher Example: How has the pandemic been surreal?” a fan is unfurled with the words “Chinese coronavirus” (Corona is crossed out) across it. Pieces of origami dangle from each side of the fan, which is held up by a pale clay hand. Though it’s small, the work has an outsized impact, reminding viewers of the undue and unfounded blame that’s been shifted onto Asian people during the pandemic.
Elsewhere in the exhibit, artists explore several other underlying societal issues which the pandemic pushed to the forefront. Taking labels from Clorox cleaners, as well as Amazon packaging and the Candy Land board game Eleanor Aldrich created shoes, including flats, heels and others. Nearby is a collection of sponges topped with illustrations of dollar bills.
“My work is a taxonomy of remade cleaning and personal products. The act of cleaning is materially transformational, like art-making, and it is where the mess meets the [traditionally female] body,” writes Aldrich in her artist statement. “Sponges support drawings of bills, linking the labor of cleaning to low wages.”
“Collective Health” is wide-ranging in scope, offering a deeper look not only at how this current health crisis has impacted us but at the fault lines that have long plagued the country.
It’s on view at Collar Works through May 16. For more information visit collarworks.org.
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