Question: What’s the longest word in the world?
Answer: the word is “smiles”, because between the two s’s, there’s a mile.
That’s a joke I was told by my father in the parking lot of a Home Depot when I was really young. I have no idea why I remember it, but it’s an appropriate place to begin when talking about the work of Arielle Passenti, a local Philadelphia artist whose thesis exhibition I got to see at the University of the Arts a couple of weeks ago.
I was able to purchase the work that you see at the top of this post. Today, I just wanted to share that piece, some of her other pieces, and my thoughts with all of you.
At it’s core, Passenti’s work deals with time, and its paradox. Think about the joke above. After the punchline, you go back to mulling the word “smiles” again and it just feels different. The joke has expanded the meaning of the very center of the word to comprise a space much bigger than it actually fills.
In her work, Passenti does the same thing with the present. If the past is like that first “s”, and the future is like the second, then the present is represented by that “mile”. By the time that syllable has occupied our lips, it is already gone. Apart from that joke, it occupies no other space than to connect “past” to “present”.
But the joke, and the art, takes this center–this “present”–and expands it, making it into a space we can occupy and ponder, even if only for the briefest of fleeting moments.
Passenti seeks to suspend us between the materials that make up our time and perception. She does this in several ways. She finds subjects from the mid-century modern era of design–an era whose objects reached into the future, and yet seem to just fall short of our own time. She then portrays these objects in a way that finds itself caught between representational (associated with the past) and abstract (associated with the future).
She uses only those colors that are most immediate in the object, un-distorted by light and shadow. This allows us, the viewer, to connect with the piece and it’s subject with utmost immediacy, catching us within the fleeting present. As Passenti wrote in her thesis:
The paintings are complete when they flicker between the real and pure design. Caught in between the wear of the past and the indications of its inevitable future, there is potential for the present.
I love the piece I bought. I can’t tell for the life of me what the original subject for the piece was, but I find the painting’s lines and color, at the same time, both intellectual and playful.
Looking closely, there are parts that seem like “blemishes”: the thin black paint, the un-even lines, and the second canvas stapled to the right side of the original. This can seem like “sloppiness” and yet it has an intentionality to it–an “intelligent design”, if you will–that catches me at once between the realities of both accident and purpose.
The raised gold lines of the string sewed right into the canvas (hearkening, at least to me, the work of Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh), lead right in to lines “depressed” into the black by the back of the paintbrush. This gives an odd sense that the piece is subtly stuck between 2-D and 3-D. Further, the “movement” of the subject is at once dynamic and plateaued.
Perhaps “suspension” is the right word to describe the sense I get when letting this piece get in my head. When seeing it, I feel suspended in a moment of both rest and anxiety; rest as I feel subject/object, color/form, and substance/accidence all gently coalescing into that moment of perfect silence between inhale and exhale, but anxiety as I sense the tenuousness of this brief peace as the contraction of lung and body reaches it’s inevitability.
Or something like that.
Long story short, I love this piece, and you should check out the rest of her work and buy lots of it. You’re welcome.
Here is the opening paragraph of her thesis, which nicely sums up her work and its themes, followed by a gallery of some of her work. You can read her thesis in full here:
At a time when technology has allowed for constant accessibility and a seemingly unending influx of information, it is increasingly difficult to pinpoint the present. Instead of working towards some sort of common end, contemporary society seems to be moving at exponential speeds in all directions, leaving the more passive spectator lost and spinning. According to Heidegger, most of us cannot feel this loss because we have already forgotten how real habitation feels. I have exhausted numerous avenues trying to fulfill my apparently antiquated craving for habitation, but because we are in a constant state of passing, it is fugitive. There are times that I have felt outside of time, but sure enough, it had just left me behind. I then tried ignoring the internal call for habitation, pushing down the ever-growing restlessness. As the anxiety grew, I lowered my expectations. If I could not gain access to this fundamental sense of ease, I would settle for the momentary flickers of it. So began the search for the cause of these “flickers” and means for extending them. Through visual representations of passing and inhabiting, I am attempting to find a moment before it passes, a stillness in the spinning.
[header image credit: David Schrott]