‘Shine and Seem’, on the work, ‘Canyons of Truths and Illusions’ by Cheryl Papasian
Essay by Cherry Smyth
American poet Mark Doty loves lustre. He’s so attracted to moments of glimmer, sheen and glaze in landscapes, cityscapes, clothes, objects that one critic tired of the brilliance of his ‘hot jewel tones’ and ‘gold flaring’. But what the critic didn’t seem to notice was that even a character in one of Doty’s poem’s itself has ‘had enough of the whole scintillant world’ (1) yet still longs to leave the world in a moment of brilliance.
This paradox is immediately present in Cheryl Papasian’s work ‘Canyons of Truths and Illusions’. What hits you when you approach this stunning installation, is a sudden wave of fatigue, a sensory overload in the face of such a glittery sprawl of objects, set against a dazzling backdrop of metallic gold streamers. There’s an instant glazing over in such a blinding babble of the desire to be noticed and it would be easy to dismiss this profusion of gold and silver, flowing down and under what looks like a dry water sluice, as kitsch clutter, a camp exhilaration of excess, merely there to set off pleasing material sparks from mass-produced ‘treasures’ such as plastic gilded forks, silver scouring pads, fake gold pebbles, silver and gold bun cases and costume diamonds.
But look closer, stay longer and you will notice that the artist has cited bronze and ceramic in her list of materials and then begins the mental, magpie mechanism of discernment and discrimination: can we sort or sift the hand-made from the readymade, the art from the commodity? How do we measure the difference between tat and treasure and isn’t that what we are doing with every display of objects that we encounter? At what point does dismissal become desire, junk become gems? As commodified art has now joined gold as a reliable asset in times of international economic instability, Papasian’s search for how we measure lasting value is particularly apt.
The mix of high and low sculptural material, the wit and joy in materiality remind me of Isa Genzken: the way she moves between the conventional language and material of sculpture and the crass vernacular of popular materialism. Papasian’s piece plays to our desire for spectacle, but makes us question how worth and depth operate amid the constant proliferation of things, surfaces and interfaces that shape the way we live. The constructed display of the work cleverly invokes the gold rush providing a powerful metaphor for the sifting for meaning and value, as well as a socio-economic bite that these kinds of installations too often lack. As Benjamin Buchloh writes of Sarah Sze’s installation ‘Triple Point’, 2013, the work reflects the ‘incessant process of devalorization and exchangeability under the universal rule of spectacle.’ (2)
And of course, as Papasian knows, there is a level on which we want the swinging tinsel of artifice, the burnished surfaces of replicas that mimic riches we will never own. In ‘Canyons of Truths and Illusions’ she has achieved an outstanding, subtle and generative work, replete with pleasurable lure and agency. As Doty would argue:
‘These bright distillates
mirror the day’s
glossed terms –
what’s the world but shine
and seem?’ (3)
(1) From ’Brilliance’ by Mark Doty, My Alexandria, (Cape: London, 1995)
(2) Benjamin Buchloh, ‘The Entropic Enclyclopedia’, Artforum, September 2013, p.315
(3) From ‘Concerning Some Recent Criticism of his Work’, Mark Doty, Sweet Machine, (Cape: London, 1998)