Chris Twomey at the Ramapo College Art Galleries

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14 December 2011

Phenelzine Sulphate, 1979, 16mm short narrative drama
8:00 minutes

ime, Media and Significance, Chris Twomey’s retrospective exhibition at the Ramapo College Art Galleries, spans three decades of the artist’s work. This work addresses a range of issues from individual identity and interpersonal relationships, to depression and psychotropic medications, on to origins through DNA. Her venues include environmental sculpture, installation work and photography along with a tour de force of super 8, sixteen-millimeter film and Portapak video works realized between 1976 and 1984.

Roll #1, an early super 8 short, portrays Twomey trapped in a white cylinder, moving as best she can through a darkened space, righting herself and tripping, jumping, levitating and rolling once again to and fro. She is accompanied by Twomey’s voices that chants “help” dispassionately while the artist again recites an overlapping plaintive scale. The figure recedes and emerges from dark space. Ultimately she lands on her feet, regaining composure, and walks off screen as the music fades.

What’s The Point, 1976, super 8 film, 6:00 minutes

What’s The Point, another work in super 8, juxtaposes male and female subjects wearing triangular costumes who cohabitate in a teepee-like triangular dwelling. To commence, a costumed man emerges from the teepee wearing a pointed hat on a cushion, which he sets on the ground. Grasping the hat ceremoniously from both sides as though it were a crown at a coronation, the man spins it on his forefinger as a lithe women dancer, holding a rose, issues from the dwelling. Her hat is pointed too but more like an admiral’s hat. Outstretching her hand with the rose in paroxysm, she dances about the room with pirouettes and modern movements, sometimes whirling like a Dervish, punctuating grace with forceful, confrontational gestures and pricking herself with the pointed thorns of the rose. Ultimately she collapses before the teepee, smells the rose, and returns inside as her companion replaces the conical crown to its cushion.

Get Ahead, 1976, super 8 film,
2:20 minutes

Get Ahead, a film from this series, plays on themes of transformation, gender-bending identity, sexual aggression, patriotism and other themes. Twomey is the subject throughout, her head framed tightly by the camera, smiling, singing sweetly and combing her hair (while “Get Ahead” is chanted in a layered audio track composed and sung by Twomey). Locks of her hair then begin to levitate up upwards and she caresses her face with a dildo, accompanied by the droning of electric razor sounds, when suddenly she is sporting a moustache. Now her head is on a baby body that marches back and forth waving the American flag. Her clothing becomes an astronaut’s spacesuit and a dildo replaces the flag which s/he waves aggressively like a baton. Twomey’s face once again fills the screen but her prominent eye makeup proves illusory as she leans forward, smudging it against a plate of glass where it had lived autonomously and her feminine face suddenly sports the moustache again. Her adult features regress into a baby face that morphs into different genders and races, growing hair and losing it, having at times the colorful aspect of a Hindu deity or a heavily made-up clown. Then Twomey’s face opens like nested Russian dolls, revealing angst-ridden expressions as headless baby bodies dance behind her. Finally the artist opens her mouth to reveal Twomey’s masculine alter ego within. She devours him noisily and opens her mouth again to reveal the head of a clown.

Fun and Games, 1978, super 8 film, 2:00 minutes

Fun and Games evokes surrealist film while exploring issues of personal identity, femininity and mass culture. At first Twomey, depicted as a line drawing, strides within an animated rectangle, multiplying at times into separate figures, bouncing up and down within the rectangle and then reemerging a as body parts and finally multiple heads. Like a latter day Chien Andalou, we view the artist’s eye resolutely close, calling forth black and white images of women performers and talk show celebrities on television and ultimately the neon caption “Fun and Games”. The television becomes an animated line drawing once again on which the artist’s face runs in montage with a clownish African mask. The television rotates into a window showing the artist walking amongst garbage bags, then in the studio nude amongst her drafting tools, and later clothed but buffeted by moving, overstuffed garbage bags. Finally, a rapid montage through drawings and televised vignettes reveals a drawn woman singer performing which fades to black.

Unmoved is a Portapak video work of 1978 which earned the artist a Ford Foundation grant. To support her work as an artist, Twomey drew idealized homes for a real estate broker and these renderings emerge as symbols of commitment and stability for the protagonists of Unmoved who are trying to decide if they should move in together. The work opens at the artist’s drafting table where just such a house is taking form to the accompaniment of symphonic music. Suddenly the action cuts to a young man emerging from beneath the covers of his bed to the sound of a ticking clock. The off-camera voice of a woman questions whether she should move in with him and they discuss pros and cons. From here the film evolves into symbolic imagery of the woman painting a house and gesticulating from within the fantasy home she has drawn. The man asserts that they should go out and look for an apartment together while the image of a man, filmed from behind, runs in place. The woman chants, “tempo, rate of speed, movement, time, measure.” After a cleansing bath, the woman affirms that she will move in.

Phenelzine Sulphate, 1979, 16mm short narrative drama, 8:00 minutes
Phenelzine Sulphate, 1979

“My life depends on a swallow” begins Phenelzine Sulfate, a moving 16-millimeter film about the implications and consequences of taking an antidepressant. Effects of this “chemical armor” are reflected in the image of a woman running toward the camera, happily throwing aside her bonnet and cape which dissolves to an image of the same woman nude in a fetal position, superimposed over a grove of trees. This cuts to subjective camera from the woman’s perspective among trees, which moves laterally among the leaves to gradually stand erect, righting the camera, as she wanders through Dantesque woods. From here, we see a physician in lab coat wandering through a sterile “forest” of whitewashed stalactites, ultimately proffering a pill to the camera. This is followed by a humorously dry radio transmission on the nature of depression and antideppresants. At last, the same woman emerges as two identical rock-and-roll women sharing the same frame, donning punk attire with microphones who admonish viewers to “spit it out” and “throw it up” because “there’s no cure for life.”

Madonna Series, Haplogroup L2, Haplogroup B, acrylic, ultrachrome ink, graphite on canvas, 30 x 40 inches, 2006

Other interesting works from the exhibition include the Madonna Series of 2006, which consists of DVDs, paintings and prints featuring a racially diverse group of mothers holding babies. Outwardly hearkening back to a Renaissance painterly tradition, the images also include DNA haplogroup information that takes the form of trees, branching out behind the figures. Informed by the artist’s experience of giving birth and mothering children along with a brush with mortality in being diagnosed with breast cancer, they wed arcane DNA sequences with the mystery and innocence of a newborn child. Like Twomey’s earlier film work that explores questions of individual identity, acculturation and chemical influence, these works address the genetic foundation of our being that is highly specific to each one of us but also reflects the breadth of our human continuum. Some works make use of color filters and multiple exposures to suggest temporal movement and transformation beyond the traditional stasis of a religious icon.

Astral Fluff: Carnal Bodies in Celestial Orbit (installation view), 2010

Astral Fluff: Carnal Bodies in Celestial Orbit, 2010 is a sculptural installation animated by five small flat-screen monitors which play concurrently, each with its own documentary focus. The architectural space of Astral Fluff envelops the viewer in a cave or grotto, covered with billows of gauze-like fabric that resemble clouds. Perched on the billows are video monitors that play looped scenes of daily life – a child’s hand chopping a pepper in the kitchen, a young girl practicing dance steps, a woman’s bare back viewed as she exercises, lifting a heavy barbell in repetitions. Other loops are more sensual, tightly framing a man and woman as they kiss and a woman caressing her thigh. The genesis of this work was Twomey’s diagnosis with breast cancer and uncertain relationship to the future. We Westerners often live outside the present, focusing on brighter days ahead while enduring the present rather than savoring it as a finite and precious resource. Astral Fluff reflects on the illusory nature of desire and mysterious web of circumstance and contingencies that govern our lives.

Writing Credits: Daniel Rothbart is an artist and writer. A former Fulbright Scholar, Rothbart is the author of Jewish Metaphysics As Generative Principle in American Art (Ulisse e Calipso) and The Phoenix (Ulisse e Calipso). His work can be found in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Orsini Foundation in Milan and numerous public and private collections.

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