By Haplin Hills
I’m sitting on the floor in Keller Art Gallery on Monday evening at 5:33 pm. It is empty except for five angels and the tree of life. The angels wear uniforms of pink robes with hoods; their bodies consist of white rebar skeletons and the occasional set of plaster knees, which were cast from my roommate Stephen.
With the help of Senior art major Ryan Shoemaker, this room has been made into a monastery for the next two weeks, in a show entitled, “Welcome to the Afterlife.”
These angels look like they’re really starting to settle in nicely here. Two of them relax on a glowing white wooden bench suspended by cables that run up to the ceiling with Saint Augustine and Plato. Two more stand huddled in the corner conversing over ceramic cups of fiberglass coffee and Friedrich Nietzsche’s “thus spoke Zarathustra”–it’s the exact copy I had been ‘reading’ until Shoemaker told me he “needed it back.” I assume the angels are getting a lot more out of it than I or Shoemaker have, and who knows what they will be reading the next time I visit them.
The last angel stands by itself leaning against the wall, coffee in hand, gazing at the centerpiece of the room, the tree of life. A stained wooden hexagonal canopy of six panels hangs just a foot or so below the ceiling, and from it hang over 850 white ceramic leaves on 54 wire branches. Below them sits what i imagine to be the roots: a 12 panel basin that compliments the canopy filled to the brim with oobleck, an odd cream colored substance consisting of roughly 50 lbs of cornstarch and 30 gallons of water. Finally, running through the center of of the tree is a long and bright cylindrical fluorescent light.
There are some notable exceptions of sharpness in the room (namely this center light, as well as some of the rebar) yet for the most part these elements have in common a painful softness to their look. the ceramic leaves look like Salvador Dali’s clocks; the oobleck, like frosting; the monastic robes, like sheets on the bed of a small princess. Nietzsche, or ‘deep philosophy’ in general, being the apparent object of these angels’ thoughts and discourse seems so odd–I’m used to Strauss’ representation of that struggle. They’re somewhere in between unaware of themselves and their ridiculousness, and hyper aware; somewhere between a Joycean image of the dead and a flailing assertion that ‘real men wear pink’; somewhere in between deep thinkers and just that faux ‘deep thinker’ vibe that comes with a privileged access to irony. At any rate, “Welcome to the Afterlife” certainly dives deep into Shoemaker’s own privileged access to irony–these pink, grim reaper-like dementors scream out (if nothing else) a reference to the music of Deafheaven, a contemporary metal band notorious for injecting its dark and minor genre with poppy major key interludes, as well as other pop metal.
In the artist statement, Shoemaker reflects, “The times where [he] has felt the most satisfied have been the times where he forgot to pay attention to what was supposed to be happening and entered into a place of unwinding.” This may very well be such an unwinding, but perhaps ‘ironic’ is a bit of a surface word with which to leave the gallery. With a color like pink–and there is no color quite like pink–dominating the space, “because it’s ironic” is inches short of abysmal in terms of analysis. but what else really is there? A sense of grappling? An invitation to join the angels in their attempts to make sense of life? to gaze at the tree and take in all the details?
This art is obviously so far from ignorant of camusian ideas of absurdity, but it doesn’t stop there. Even if it doesn’t know what quite else there is to move on to, it doesn’t stop there. The ironic philosophy students reach with the branches of the tree and the cables of the bench and canopy for some kind of transcendence, flirting with an infinitely thin line that separates failure in measurement, and an authentic success that simply refuses to be measured or analyzed at all.
I get the feeling that the angels all came out in pink this week for different reasons. One because it thought pink would make a statement, one because pink is really its favorite color, one to express a commitment to gender nonconformity (because of course it’s sensitive the the fact that it was modeled after a 6’8” male), one to promote awareness of breast cancer, and one because it just hadn’t done laundry in a few weeks and these were the only clean robes it had. all fluidly ironic and genuine at the same time.
All these projections lead me to reexamine myself in good ways, but maybe i’m tempted to dwell for too long on what it is in my life I’m wearing, reading, drinking, etc. because whatever their reasons were, the angels seem to have forgotten them by now. They’re much too busy genuinely enjoying themselves and each other to be anything but comfortable in their own rebar skin. and though they started looking so out of place on PLNU’s campus, it’s like I said: They’re really starting to settle in nicely here.
“Welcome to the Afterlife” is open for the next two weeks. There will be a reception at keller art gallery on Tuesday, October 11th at 6 pm