“Help Me, I'm Hurt” Is Painful

And that's just the point.

Pain is a universal experience that (more often than not) we'd rather not talk about. So curator Suzanne Beal asked five artists to create new work that openly confronts pain and suffering. The result is "Help Me, I'm Hurt," a show that thankfully avoids the tired cliché of the tortured artist. "I don't know any artists," she says, "that are suffering any more than anyone else." The exhibit is full of pleasure, in strongly realized pieces and carefully considered work.

Step inside the Kirkland Arts Center and you'll be greeted by a life-size watercolor of Mary Todd Lincoln, manifesting Dawn Cerny's ongoing fascination with historical figures. A young, serene-looking Mary Todd (blushing and lovely, as she may have appeared when she first met Abe) is overpainted with a darker, stern-faced, older figure, aged from years of depression. (If you're not as big a history buff as Cerny, a quick online search will reveal that Mary Todd Lincoln was the mother of four sons, only one of whom outlived her. And we all know what happened to her husband.) Next to this First Lady is depicted a 6-foot-4-inch pile of anchors, exactly Abe Lincoln's height. As Beal (who has written for Seattle Weekly) tells me, anchors are a symbol of mourning. They also seem to indicate the weight and pull of a relationship, as well as how one might be tethered to the inescapable responsibility of being a public figure.

Gretchen Bennett takes a more intimate tack, using objects from her own life to put intimations of a consumer culture (and maybe mild self-medication) at the forefront. Pretty, ice-chunk-shaped water bottles are stacked like bricks of snow to create a plastic-skinned igloo in the center of the gallery. The igloo keeps company with works that depict local mountains (Mount Hood, Mount St. Helens, the Three Sisters) configured from the mountains illustrating Toblerone chocolate, Full Sail Pale Ale, and Ricola cough drop packaging (familiar from Bennett's recent work). Bennett's pieces record a pattern of hand-to-mouth pleasures, transforming evidence of what some might consider indulgent habits into not-so-soft-edged landscape portraits. Perhaps the crafting of the work itself, all the careful cutting out of those iconic mountains, is another way to deal with the ills of the world?

In Susan Robb's self-portrait, The Challenge Nature Provides, the artist is shown reclining, her face turned away, exposing several raw cuts (created with movie makeup) on the inside of her arm. The narrative is ambiguous, though the mood of the photograph is faintly illicit, maybe ominous. Is she in bed or on an examination table? Are the wounds self-inflicted or the result of some kind of attack? This piece reminds me of Robb's work in the 2002 "Gene(sis)" exhibition at the Henry: photographs of microorganisms composed of what appeared to be moss and scraps of fabric. Here, the artist's body acts as an artificial landscape, manipulating ideas of the real, another theme common in Robb's work. Is her photograph the re-enactment of a nightmare, or some sort of fantasy, a playing out of fears? I'm not quite sure what the piece is getting at, though I was tempted to peer closely at the wound, in what felt like a decidedly voyeuristic impulse.

Upstairs you'll hear the respiration of a stitched-up weather balloon hooked to an air compressor. Recent UW MFA grad Camille Slack created this sculpture as a sort of ode to a man who shot himself in the face and survived. The balloon is sewn up and sagging in its hammock, a body that bears witness to its own delicate nature, and yet may be stronger than it looks. Just as the skin of a healed wound is thicker and stronger than unharmed skin, the mended balloon might actually be stronger than an intact one. The latex and the rough, sealed stitching are highly evocative, giving off a hospital scent, bringing to mind a convalescent patient. As with Robb's work, we are put in the position of observing constructed suffering, yet it's more uncomfortable to be in the room with Slack's animated piece.

Occupying an upstairs wall, Samantha Scherer's 52 miniature portraits offer a more literal, if technically fictional, look at pain. You may remember the artist's watercolor series of facial features seen a few years ago at SOIL: Angelina Jolie's lips, John Kerry's eyes. This time, using film stills from Law and Order, Scherer paints a series of tiny, black-and-white, watercolor portraits of the victims on this TV series. Each face fills one rectangle of paper, named only with the season and episode number. This wall of tiny, monochrome faces reads like a collection of commissioned mug shots. It's too much to take in. And maybe that's what Scherer means: There is too much of this TV show to watch (in never-ending spin-offs and repeats), too many victims to look into all of their faces, and perhaps (extrapolating here) too much misery in the world to give it such prolonged attention. For the artist, it seems this TV show might function both as a distraction from pain as well as a meditation on the subject.


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