As Ali Osborn sees it, life can be more precarious than we are generally willing to admit. Power can go out, natural disasters can strike, and even minor events can upset the balance we often take for granted and belie phrases like “peace and tranquility.”
That idea may have resonance in the art world, too, Osborn notes, and it’s the guiding theory behind a new exhibition he’s curating at Holyoke’s PULP Gallery, Light Accumulation, which features a variety of artworks that are also on the fringe stand stability — where balance could easily be upset, he says, with the addition of just a small image or pen stroke.
Curated by Osborn, Light Accumulation features the work of three artists and includes paintings, drawings, sculptures and videos, each with a distinctive look but linked thematically. From Kelly Hain’s surreal drawings to Ilana Harris-Babou’s wry sculptures to Sarah Pater’s deceptively peaceful still lifes, there’s a sense that things are a little off-kilter.
“I think the idea is that a lot of the things that we take for granted are actually barely held in place,” said Osborn, an artist (printmaking, drawing, installation) and educator living in New York City lives.
The exhibition also marks a first for Osborn and for the PULP gallery: it is the first exhibition Osborn has curated and it is the first time that PULP is bringing in a guest curator. The Holyoke Exhibition runs until July 17th.
In a recent phone call, Osborn explained that he lived in Northampton for about six years from 2006 to 2012, during which time he worked at the former Guild Art Center. There he met Dean Brown, director of the PULP Gallery and an artist himself, when Brown was getting some of his work framed and before he opened his Holyoke gallery.
“We became friends and enjoyed each other’s art,” said Osborn, who later earned an MFA in fine arts from Rutgers University in New Jersey and then settled in New York. “We kept in touch, and then Dean asked me to take part in a two-person exhibition at PULP in 2020.”
When Brown invited him to consider curating an exhibition at PULP last year, Osborn said he had a general idea of showing a variety of work, ideally by a few different artists, “that could provide a kind of counterpoint. Those are the kind of shows I like, where the art might be different but speaks the same language.”
He had one artist in mind for starters: Kelly Hain, a fellow New York artist who was also one of Osborn’s students while he was teaching elementary school classes at Rutgers during his master’s degree.
“Your drawings are so impressive and so detailed,” Osborn said. “They really pull you in. From a distance they might not seem that disturbing, but when you get closer you realize how busy it is.”
Indeed, Hain’s drawings – and a video showing her images moving – are dense, pen-filled tableaux of numerous mini-dramas and settings, most of them mysterious or surreal, that seem to flow into one another.
For example, at the center of The Informars, three hooded little girls stare like fairytale characters at a fierce-faced woman watching them out of the corner of her eye. Part of an animal’s body is visible behind the woman – except for its head. Below the woman, a ghostly figure hovers between rickety fence posts. Part of a stone structure – a small mausoleum? — can be seen behind the fence.
Osborn discovered the work of two other artists, Harris-Babou and Pater, through their Instagram posts and saw a kind of kinship with Hain’s work. Harris-Babou, also based in New York, creates work that mimics idealized notions of consumerism, DIY, and self-help through ceramics, sculpture, video, and various installations.
“She turns the tropes of capitalism upside down in a way that can be very funny but also quite harrowing,” Osborn said.
For Light Accumulation, Harris-Babou created Pegboard, a ceramic “tools” display that mimics a basement or garage display with real tools such as hammers, pliers, screwdrivers, and chisels. While it’s amusing to imagine using a ceramic hammer to try and drive in a nail, there’s also something sinister about the colors and mottled appearance of these “tools,” as if they’ve been dug up for years in the dirt after rust and mold .
The exhibit includes one of Harris-Babou’s videos, “Finishing a Raw Basement,” a deadpan satire on home improvement TV shows; She appears in the clip with her mother as the two unsuccessfully try to convert a rough brick basement into a finished room. in one clip they try to scrape paint off bricks with their fingernails.
Sarah Pater, who now lives in Philadelphia – she studied painting at Boston University and then the Rhode Island School of Design – creates still lifes that at first appear peaceful and tranquil, usually with just one or two objects on a tabletop or another flat surface: a glass, a pair of plums, a knife and a lemon. But the perspective seems wrong, as these objects are “trapped in a flattened, almost abstract space,” according to the exhibition notes.
This combination of slightly distorted perspective and ordinary objects, generally presented with nondescript backgrounds, can make the images a little unsettling. A painting, a mixture of oil, acrylic and wax on linen, shows two candlesticks on a narrow table draped with a green cloth; Five snails can be seen on the tablecloth where one might expect something to eat or drink.
Aside from showcasing diverse art that has thematic connections, Osborn said one of the highlights of putting together Light Accumulation was actually bringing the artists together. Neither of them had ever met, he said, and he only knew Hain before. “Being able to introduce the artists and, in my case, meeting two people I only knew from their work at first was one of the best parts of it.”
“Light Accumulation” occupies the larger gallery space at PULP; The smaller front room currently displays a series of 10 graphite drawings on antique ledger paper (dating to the 1880s) by Brown, the gallery’s director.
Visit pulpholyoke.com for more information on these exhibitions and PULP Gallery opening hours.