A color photograph of a corner in a dark gallery room with painted black walls and a ceiling lit with several track lights. On either side of the corner are a pair of paintings, one smaller colorful on the left, and one larger and monochrome on the right.
Above: Installation view of The Big Sleep: Meditations on Death & Grieving. Image courtesy of Snide Hotel.

The Big Sleep: Meditations on Death & Grieving


Review


Paradoxically evoking both beginnings and endings, The Big Sleep: Meditations on Death & Grieving at Snide Hotel is an arresting inaugural exhibition for the artist-run gallery in Louisville, Kentucky. Stepping into the space affords an immediate departure from East Broadway. Inside, the gallery’s black walls loom tall; there is a sensation as if they are pressing in on the viewer, enabling an intimate encounter with eight artists’ perspectives on death.

Human life is ephemeral. While astral bodies, geological features, and some plants persist for thousands or even millions of years, our own time on Earth is much shorter. Artist Taylor Hayes emphasizes this reality through a process that fades, cracks, and obscures the images she works with. A collection of five cyanotypes greet the viewer as they walk into the space. The images themselves are beautiful, if not mundane: a wide view of tumultuous-looking clouds, a river cutting through woods, and a figure with their back towards the camera. Hayes' unique process alters the way we view these images, however, as a layer of soy wax creates fissures on the surface of the photographs; the effect resembles rock that has worn down over time. The artist does not simply recreate the photographs in cyanotype, but transforms them into hazy and distorted memories that suggest the inevitable passing of all living things.

Likewise, Aaron Storm’s delicate anthotypes–images created using photosensitive material from plants–bear marks of decay. This process creates unstable images that fade and distort as they are exposed to light; even between the start and end of The Big Sleep, the work will have changed drastically. The lifespan of these images reflects our own bodies as they slowly succumb to old age, a comparison that the artist thrusts to the forefront with body print 1 (lindsley park, 1 hour and 31 minutes). Storm used his own body to create this print, its deterioration a microcosm of his own mortality. The work bears little resemblance to a human and appears more like a discarded cocoon, a notion that aligns with the cross-cultural religious belief of the body as a vessel for the immortal soul.

In more visceral and gestural work, Raven Burns-Gibson depicts the body in states of decomposition. The figures each lie in a fetal position, mirroring the way we came into this world, and are surrounded by leaves and other natural materials. Burns-Gibson uses the collagraph process to create this triptych and incorporates found objects such as fallen leaves, insect exoskeletons, and the body of a lizard. Throughout all three prints, reds and greens dominate the composition and suggest the coalescence of blood and earth. The Self Decomposition series could be seen as a natural burial, where the body is allowed to decompose and is recycled into the ecosystem. This process stands in stark contrast with contemporary funerary practices, where chemicals and makeup create an illusion that the deceased is merely resting. In Burns-Gibson’s work, death is as natural as leaves falling from a tree; much of the mystique and facade surrounding the process are dispelled as the viewer is left with its simple reality.

Even though a person is alive for only a discrete period of time, their presence reverberates into the future through memories. Two works by Chelsea Harris explore this notion through luminous depictions of friends lost to opioid addiction; her work draws upon traditions of portraiture, but also feel as if they are plucked directly from the artist’s mind. Harris uses the subject’s sight lines to draw the viewer into the scene, making one feel like a participant rather than an observer. In an artist statement, she says, “Repeatedly I tell their stories, summon their image, enact my own recreation of the ones I love. I am compelled by a desperate hope that I may somehow, impossibly, bring them back to life.” At base, this is the duty of portraiture: to conjure the image of someone without their physical presence.

Honoring the deceased in another way, Manuel Hernandez Sanchez renders an altar to his grandfather in paint. Altar Para mi Abuelo depicts candles, an image of a man with a child, an illustration of the Virgin Mary, dog figurines, and several jars. These objects come together to form an image of the man for Hernandez Sanchez, but offer the viewer only snippets. By thrusting this altar into the public space, the artist elucidates modes of remembrance and mourning that are intrinsic to his culture. This instance or private-turned-public reminds the viewer that mourning is a collective rite: friends and family come together to remember the deceased, form new bonds, and support each other through difficult times. Death represents the end of one journey, but the initiation of many others.

The perspectives on death presented in The Big Sleep are as diverse as the artists themselves. At the heart of each project, however, is an emphasis on dying not as something to be feared, but part of a natural cycle. Snide Hotel feels like an appropriate venue for this conversation, as artist-run spaces like it have routinely come and gone from Louisville’s art landscape, as if adhering to their own natural order. A conversation with proprietor Nina Kersey reminds me just how precarious these endeavors are; gentrification and rising rent prices in the neighborhood may threaten the gallery’s longevity before it can cement itself in the larger conversation. Just as these eight artists capture the ephemeral nature of life, so too is it the role of journals like Ruckus to catalog the energy of spaces like Snide Hotel.

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Notes:

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5.12.22

Kevin Warth (he/him) is a Louisville-based artist and art historian whose research emphasizes queer identity, alternate temporalities, and hauntology.
A grouping of 5 blue cyanotype photos of different shapes and sizes on white paper hung in a loose grid on a black painted wall.
Taylor Hayes, Untitled (Between Here and There). Cyanotype with soy wax.


A dim color photograph of a dirty wall with a sculpture pinned to it that resembles something between used tissue paper and dried skin.

Aaron Storm, body print 1 (lindsley park, 1 hour and 31 minutes). Chlorophyll on silk mawata and cellulose ether.


A dim color photograph of a dirty square cloth or rag with the faint words “when all this is over.” written in all caps. It is hung from pins on a dirty wall.
Aaron Storm, when this is all over. Chlorophyll on silk mawata. Image courtesy of Snide Hotel.


A relief print that uses desaturated colors of red and green and grey to depict a mass of blotches, lines, and shapes that resembles a flattened humanoid skeleton, as if fossilized.
Raven Burns-Gibson, Self-Decomposition 1. Fibers, dried leaves, bug and lizard corpses, ink and acrylic glue on paper.


A colorful painting of four figures with light skin tones, arranged in a line in an outdoor, nighttime scene. The two rightmost figures are partially embraced and have their hands together on one of their chests, and the other figures on the left are shown with one carrying the other from behind, as if too drunk to walk. All of the figures are smiling or smirking slightly.
Chelsea Harris, Right There. Oil on birch panel. Image courtesy of the artist.


A colorful painting of an small tabletop altar to a family member utilizing some christian symbolism, melted candles, an an abundance of the color orange.
Manuel Hernandez Sanchez, Altar Para mi Abuelo. Oil on linen. 



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