It’s not every day that a gallery show dives into some of the deepest, toughest emotions we experience as mortal beings, and then packs up and takes those emotions all the way from New York to Portland to do it all over again. I had the pleasure of speaking to curator Rachael N. Clark before her bicoastal “tapestry of grief,” INERTIA • c a t h a r s i s, hit One Art Space and Brassworks Gallery in New York and Portland respectively. Now that the opening nights on both coasts have come and gone, I wanted to catch up with Clark on how the show went and get to hear from some of the wide pantheon of artists featured in it.
Clark said that the show was a “reinforcement that thematic curation was her creative outlet,” but at the same time wasn’t what she expected at all. As a whole, the concept showcased Clark’s immense precision as a curator—the paintings were arranged by color and theme rather than by artist, and even the title itself has clear, cohesive intention behind it. In her curatorial statement, she wrote: INERTIA in capital letters because grief and trauma can overwhelm all of our other instincts, rendering us powerless to move. When the healing process—the purification of the trauma—finally begins, it is not quick; c a t h a r s i s usually manifests slowly and in subtle ways. Clark left a book for artists and gallerygoers and artists to write their impressions of the show in, so it managed to be both charged with a strong, clear intention and open to the serendipity that always comes with the one-of-a-kind energies that gallerygoers bring to art spaces.
As a retrospective on this ambitious, unique project, UP spoke to four of the artists involved about what the themes of the show meant to them and what it was like to be a part of a communal grieving space.
“When Rachael approached me, I asked her ‘How did you know I was going through this great depression?’ And she said, well, I don’t,” IndividualActivist recalled of the initial conversation that led to her participation in INERTIA • c a t h a r s i s. IA is best known for her work as a human rights activist for causes such as the Free Tibet movement and Ai Weiwei’s incarceration, and her provocative, eye-catching wheatpastes are instantly recognizable to anyone with an eye to New York’s walls. But as she was painting stencils of Ai Weiwei on the sidewalk outside the Chinese consulate in New York and running across the High Line in the dead of night, she had a fruitful career designing interiors for high-end retail stores. “I’d been working since I was sixteen,” she said. “And then with COVID-19, that just stopped. It felt like I’d disappeared off the face of the earth and made me question my work and its value.”
Though IA’s transition into street art has earned her many accolades, losing her professional life caused a disconnect from her sense of self. “My street art was always about getting the word out, and I saw myself as a store designer and an activist first,” she recalled. The grief she drew on for her pieces in INERTIA • c a t h a r s i s was for the loss of a life, a self, and a world she could understand and identify with. Her first piece, fittingly titled “i am here,” is explosively colorful and immediately commands the attention of anyone looking at it, even from a computer screen. Emotion emanates from it. “I’d never painted myself before,” IA said. One side of it is a more photorealistic representation of her, while the other is what she called a “monster person,” a morose funhouse mirror of her emotions. “When I was done, I found myself thinking ‘My face in this is just so full of shock and depression, this piece is so depressing, who’s going to want to look at this?’”
“I’d never painted myself before,” IA said. One side of it is a more photorealistic representation of her, while the other is what she called a “monster person,” a morose funhouse mirror of her emotions. “When I was done, I found myself thinking ‘My face in this is just so full of shock and depression, this piece is so depressing, who’s going to want to look at this?’”
The answer turned out to be that a lot of people wanted to look at it. IA constructed her self-portrait out of real blueprints she’d designed for her former job, and the combination of collage and fine art proved to be a powerful medium for putting raw emotion into her art. Her second piece, “here i am there you are” went a step further by creating a canvas out of her own street art, ripped straight from the walls. “I gathered a ton of them from Freeman’s and places like that,” she said. “I wanted to capture this person the pandemic had forced me to become.” The face in that painting is even less recognizable than the monstrous face in the first—it depicts IA as a silver robot-like figure. The pieces both speak to how loss completely destroys our sense of self, but also leaves us a blank slate for new beginnings. To IA, INERTIA • c a t h a r s i s was a new artistic direction for her, since it was the first time she’d painted on a 24×24 stretched canvas and the first time she’d publicly discussed her personal life. “I wanted to thank Rachael for trusting me,” she said. “I’d really resisted calling myself an artist. But these pieces made me realize that maybe there’s something to this.”
“I wanted to thank Rachael for trusting me,” she said. “I’d really resisted calling myself an artist. But these pieces made me realize that maybe there’s something to this.”
Los Angeles-based muralist Kar Part started out internet friends with Clark, and was impressed in by what he described as her “magnanimous spirit.” Like IA, INERTIA • c a t h a r s i s came into his life at a moment when he was processing his own grief. His piece, “I’ll Be Over Here,” draws its title from Alessia Cara’s 2015 hit, “Here,” which after our conversation I found myself re-listening to with trauma and grief in mind. There’s something much more biting about the lyric “I ask myself, what am I doing here?” heard in that context. Kar Part’s painting depicts a little boy who’s “physically removed himself from the hustle and bustle of society and the city” surrounded by wheatpasted pages of Johnny Got His Gun and streaks of watercolor. Beside the boy, three cans of paint sit askew and dripping color off the corners of the pages.
“Everybody will eventually relate to grief,” Kar Part said. “In this show, there are a lot of little nuggets of deep humanity, because it’s something everyone will experience.”
“I took a blade and sliced the canvas down the center to reveal what’s underneath the canvas,” Kar Part said. “It’s this world beneath the surface, and it looks out into the infinite darkness and infinite light that make up society.” The hint of cityscape that shows through where Kar Part cut through the canvas is lit by an enormous moon permeating the buildings, and within each building lit and unlit windows betray what might be going on in each. The painting takes the individual experience of grief, which reduces us to childlike vulnerability, and pairs it with the wide expanse of life around us that goes on regardless of the pain we might feel.
“Everybody will eventually relate to grief,” Kar Part said. “In this show, there are a lot of little nuggets of deep humanity, because it’s something everyone will experience.” There’s something to be said for the fact that both Kar Part and IndividualActivist gravitated towards versions of the statement “I Am Here.” One of the tenets of the show, Clark explained, was that in a grieving process, sometimes just being there at all and getting through the day is an accomplishment. “I lost my father in December and had a very interesting personal journey with grief,” Kar Part said. “I wanted to characterize the isiolation, but also the fact that it’s not just one thing. It’s been a lot of things.”
Chris RWK’s robots are a fixture of New York street art, and one of his signatures is his ability to portray complex, painful topics in simplistic and whimsical character designs. His first piece, “Time for Repair,” depicts the inertia that Clark referenced in the show’s title, inertia that isn’t propelling you forward but rather an inertia that forces you to live your daily life without those you’ve lost. “I hope that people turn loss into a driving force that propels them,” he said. “Sadness is the first emotion people think of when they hear the words grief or loss. But having an outlet like painting or making art can be really helpful.” Despite the tragedy of losing someone, the period of grieving can be a period of intense creative fuel.
“I hope that people turn loss into a driving force that propels them,” he said. “Sadness is the first emotion people think of when they hear the words grief or loss. But having an outlet like painting or making art can be really helpful.”
And Chris RWK is no stranger to loss. “The due date of these pieces were very close to the anniversary of my mother passing away,” he said. Over the past year, he lost his father, his mother-in-law, his dog, and six friends, as well. His openness about it works to make it feel a little more normal, since as Kar Part noted earlier, grief is something every single person will experience, and not acknowledging it only leaves us more ill-prepared for it. And Chris RWK’s approach to it is more generative and nuanced than bleak sadness. His first piece, “Time for Repair” shows the robot holding half of a broken heart, surrounded by faded images of Archie comics, Chris RWK’s other characters, and graffiti text. One of Chris RWK’s greatest strengths as an artist is how his robot conveys intense emotion even when it has no mouth, and this robot’s somber eyes are no exception.
“These pieces and the theme were huge for me in dealing with a lot of these feelings,” Chris RWK said. “My dad always said ‘I’ll be dead a long time,’ which has become a sort of mantra for me lately.”
In Chris RWK’s second piece, “Keep Moving,” the robot is seen making art, with the broken heart replaced by a can of spraypaint. The spraypainted figures and letters cover up collages of the ‘O’ page of the dictionary, which brings to mind how grief forces everyone to redefine the context of their lives and what life means. “These pieces and the theme were huge for me in dealing with a lot of these feelings,” Chris RWK said. “My dad always said ‘I’ll be dead a long time,’ which has become a sort of mantra for me lately.”
While most of the artists in INERTIA • c a t h a r s i s, focused on personal loss, California street artist Amy Smith interpreted “inertia” in an entirely different and almost more foreboding context: Climate change. “It felt like something weighing us down that we’re powerless to stop,” Smith said. “I had trouble at first thinking about how my work would translate to this theme, but I have this anxiety about where we’re going and what we’re doing to the planet. It was personal to me and I didn’t want to explain it to anybody else.” Smith’s pieces are both made up of a background of recycled magazines, and the first, “The Weight of It All,” features a self-portrait of Smith carrying a wheatpasted globe on her shoulders. The pose pays homage to the iconic Atlas statue in New York, and the figure looks out at the viewer with a grave, long-suffering look. “I have a son, and I think about climate change from that perspective and feel this personal grieving for everything we’re doing,” she said.
“I have a son, and I think about climate change from that perspective and feel this personal grieving for everything we’re doing,” she said.
But her second piece, “Is as Light as Letting Go,” shows the same self-portrait with a much smaller wheatpasted globe in her hand, still looking slightly perturbed but much more serene. In “Is as Light as Letting Go,” Smith depicts herself sitting with the discomfort and grief and letting it pass. “We could see it as something heavy or see it as something we have some control over,” she said, speaking to the ways in which catastrophizing climate anxiety sometimes keeps us from taking tangible action to improve the planet. “That mindset also carries over to dealing with other kinds of traumas,” Smith noted. The vibrant turquoise acrylic background of both pieces is hardly doom and gloom, and while she depicted one of the most existentially frightening issues on the horizon, neither over-dramatize it.
“It’s something that’s happening to all of us,” she said. “So, how do we deal with this as an entire collective?”
Smith’s pieces blend the micro personal experience with the macro of collective experience and ask the question of how we can continue to live our individual lives in the face of mass catastrophe. “It’s something that’s happening to all of us,” she said. “So, how do we deal with this as an entire collective?” Though her approach was different than losing a parent or losing your sense of self, the grief she explored was in some ways the most relatable of any in the show. Who, since March 2020, hasn’t felt sheer hopelessness and despair in the face of uncontrollable change at some point?
Part of INERTIA • c a t h a r s i s’s thesis is that grief is less scary when experienced together. “I wanted to explore art as a part of this human experience, specifically capturing the stagnation caused by the wounds, and the path toward eventual healing,” Clark wrote in her curatorial statement. “I had no choice but to speak with every artist I invited to share the show’s painful origin story and attempt to articulate my vision: capturing how grief and trauma overpower basic instincts and leave you inert, complemented by a glimpse of what you will become when you regain self-determination.”
“I had no choice but to speak with every artist I invited to share the show’s painful origin story and attempt to articulate my vision: capturing how grief and trauma overpower basic instincts and leave you inert, complemented by a glimpse of what you will become when you regain self-determination.”
The show is dedicated to Clark’s father, Robert C. Clark (1943-2020) a fierce support of her business, Queen of Hearts Global. As a personal note, I’ve covered quite a lot of art shows in my time as a fine arts journalist, and I can say with complete honesty that this one’s emotional candidacy and complexity shows the power art has more than any other concept I’ve encountered. Though its concept draws from the desolation and sadness of death, INERTIA • c a t h a r s i s is vivacious and full of life.
INERTIA • c a t h a r s i s is on view at Brassworks Gallery (3022 NE Gilsan St) in Portland, OR until May 29.