Seana Reilly at Whitespace in Atlanta through October 15, 2016
by Arden Cone
I suspected that the gallery had once been a carriage house. It had been. The interior bore the marks of one, but a faint smell of automotive grease touched the air, suggesting the possibility that the building’s use had changed when a new era arrived. Whatever forgotten paraphernalia the building held between then and now, I’m sure it held on to them tight, like a secret, for decades on end.
Historically, this space has had meaning in its function. While gallerists typically try to create spaces devoid of meaning so as not to detract from the art, the institutor of Whitespace has left the gallery’s original use apparent. It is not a white cube, and much character remains in its uneven brick floors and exposed architecture.
I expect that it takes a good exhibition to fill this space. The artist contends with the venue’s personality, which could easily overtake the work itself. The current exhibition of works by Seana Reilly, "Docking on the Orphic Shore," is not encumbered by this. Dive in; it’s an immersion. There in the old carriage house, I got lost in the work, not the space. The gallery’s back room, which contained Reilly’s graphite pours on paper, became the work as much as it transformed the work.
The front room held a few of Reilly’s paintings as well as twenty-four graphite and wax Nocturnes. The numerous Nocturnes were atmospheric, Turner-esque worlds on their own, but, collectively and with their broad white mattes, they didn’t invite intimacy. It was easy to leave the first room, which was made stark by the larger paintings, but it was nearly impossible to leave the second.
The back room beckoned to me kindly, so I walked in. It was not an installation by any means, but it commanded the space as if it were. Covering the expanse of a gray wall to my left was an accordion style book, folded forty times. Its great length entranced me, and I walked stride after stride past the elongated paper’s zigzag form. Each fold was like a separate breath in a meditative practice.
Reilly’s process of dipping paper in liquid graphite keeps Buddhist meditation principles at heart. From the moment she dips the paper, she relinquishes control of her work in progress. Even as the creator, she must remain unattached from the outcome.
The graphite forms on paper, born of happenstance, mimic natural life to an astonishing degree. Some look like life forms beneath the sea. Others resemble lightning, waves, chromosomes, or cascades. The forms bear a flawless likeness to nature, but they are not rendered by the artist’s hand. How could graphite and gravity give way to such perfect structure, I wonder? I underestimate the forces of this earth.
The back room is beautifully and deliberately arranged, with tall graphite works flanking oversized sketchbooks raised on sculpture stands. The white museum gloves on top of the open books indicate that the viewer may page through them, a privilege that adds to the exhibition’s immersive effect. The books might well be sacred texts if they contained text at all. Instead they wooed me with sweet graphite pictures, abstractions that came about on their own accord.
One work, OrphicSonnet, does contain text, but it has been rendered completely illegible by the same mystical force—physics—that makes all of her works happen. For Reilly, it must be an exercise in letting go. To witness the perfect words of a sonnet washing away could feel tragic. We are human, and we are programmed to grieve loss. The painting is so sad and beautiful. I didn’t want to let it go.
Reilly had me convinced. She told me I was on the Orphic shore, and there I was, charmed by the song of Orpheus himself. Standing between the two rooms upon exit, I peered into both. If the back were the Orphic shore, the front was the sea. No wonder I found it uninviting. It all made sense.
Whatever the space had been in the nineteenth century, whatever it would be six weeks from now, I was concerned with neither. Reilly had captured me in the present and taken me to the Orphic shore.
"Docking on the Orphic Shore," with works by Seana Reilly, will be on view at Whitespace until October 15, 2016. For more information, visit the gallery website here.