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Issue 132

Raque Ford, Tiziana La Melia, Maryse Larivière, Athena Papadopoulos, Megan Rooney: A Pool is Water
by Nancy Webb

The name of the exhibition A Pool is Water is excerpted from a Joan Didion essay about wealth and drought. When Didion writes “a pool is water,” she means that swimming pools are symbolic. In California, they have always signalled affluence and leisure. But to Didion, pools represent order: they stand for the mastery and control achieved by cutting a hole in the ground and filling it with water that stays there until we drain it. Even though that water is undrinkable, even though it’s in limited supply, we’ve tamed it and claimed it. Four words, equally terse and poetic, convey all this.

Everything in this show is on trend – not a curatorial diminishment, but a nod toward the acuteness of the selection – from Didion, to the rosé palette, to poetry.

Poetry has become irresistible to the art world in the past few years, to which the proliferation of essays and exhibitions devoted to this topic (including a recent poetry-themed issue of this magazine) attest. One theory is that poetry is penniless, defies commodification, prefers to live underneath the cool dark of a rock, and so appears to the contemporary art world as a salve for its own vulgarity. Poetry adds vulnerability and integrity.

A Pool is Water also seems tailored to a specific audience of young feminists – the kind who read poets like Ariana Reines, who read Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, who get stoned and watch torrented episodes of Transparent in bed. While defining a variety of feminism by the commodifiable media that surrounds it is a bit bleak, it’s a reality.

The five artists in this exhibition give form to this very specific matrix of cultural influences; it’s a pleasingly self-aware combination of agitated sensuality, parodied “girlishness” and a razor-sharp dexterity with language.

Megan Rooney – who often folds poetic audio components and performances into her work – exposes the awkwardness of performing mainstream femininity. Layering paint, marker, pastel and ink over a two-page spread from Topshop magazine, she conjures a goofy sexuality. She pares catalogue models down to basic parts – red lips, fluffy eye blobs, pillowy breasts – so that they appear as smiling ghosts, sad and creaturely. Her Untitled floor snake, like the skinniest bed-worn T-shirt stuffed with birdseed, rests coiled and flaccid in the exhibition’s second room. Kissed and smudged with paint, its body is propped up by a dense clay head whose eye-less sockets communicate the same kind of banal, sweet numb as the figures in Rooney’s paintings.

In a similar coil, poetic verses from Tiziana La Melia’s From staring at the ceiling seeing d.o.g spiral down a wall in a ʼ90s-reminiscent bubble flower typeface: “no sweat my pet, butter lettuce in the breeze eating your garnish.” La Melia combines lethargic texting shorthand (e.g. “yr” instead of “your”) with a rounded tone, smoothed at the edges and bouncy like baby talk. Following the poem’s meanders, a self-assertive blow strikes: “just trying to get an ordinary pleasure.” One of La Melia’s paintings features disjointed muscle men in white tanks collapsing into one another at the hips. Sliding down the painting’s border is an orange-tinted spermy figure– masculinity’s final trickle.

Propped against the gallery wall is Athena Papadopoulos’ S & B, III: a disembodied pair of high-heeled legs, stuffed tightly and red-stained with hair dye and wine. Papadopoulos’s work is alluring in same way that the bedroom of the girl that made you steal lipstick from the pharmacy in grade school was. Her large-scale painting soils the surface of a bed sheet with lipstick, nail polish, Pepto-Bismol, witchy spiders and bat pins, wild women, snakeskin and the words “Hoochie Mama” in animal-print letters. Her works labour against the sterilizing effect of Division’s white walls; the rouged surfaces reassert that stains can be intentional, productive even. Papadopoulos’ painting has a gravitational effect on the room, drawing everything inward toward its heart. It hangs facing, but slightly askew from, a similar-sized square hole that’s been ruggedly carved out of the gallery wall, making it seem as though the work blasted through the drywall on its way in.

Across the room, Raque Ford’s The Devil is in the Details rewrites the narrative of Georgia Brown, a character from the 1940 musical Cabin in the Sky, which featured Broadway’s first all-Black cast. Produced and scored by white writers, Cabin was, unsurprisingly, a fantasy-driven appropriation of life in the rural South, loaded with cultural and religious stereotypes. Ford’s crisp acrylic surfaces are engraved with Brown’s words, reimagining the doomed, money-driven seductress trope as a complex, searching voice. In the original musical, Brown sings: “If there’s honey in the honeycomb then, baby, Look out! ’Cause oh, there’s love in me.” In a hand- drawn style, Ford carves out honeybees and cartoonish devils alongside her own lyrics: “Dear Devil, I want to be alone, but I don’t want to be lonely. Do you ever feel like that? Sincerely, Georgia Brown.” Another of Ford’s acrylic surfaces is like brittle honey in a milky yellow; it seems like it would be fragrant if not for its obvious rigidity and sealed-in glossiness. Ford’s works read as inquisitive devotions to the intense intellectual and emotional lives of women who have been written into one-dimensional narratives.

Published in tandem with the exhibition is a book of poetry by Maryse Larivière entitled Hummzinger, which is steeped in yearning. The textural quality of Larivière’s ode to missing someone resonates with the exhibition’s material sensibility: “A hummingbird, in between my lips, Puffy frills and ruffles, Buzzing thick on my tongue, Like an ice cream sandwich, In black velour.” Hummingbirds inform her other works in the show too – the delicacy of her collages, the pageantry of the shimmering red bird baffle at the gallery’s entrance. Taken together, Larivière’s works embody a nectar-thick need to be closer, and that unabashed vulnerability speaks to a complicated feminist interiority that pervades the exhibition – maroon days inside a blistering emotional landscape of watered-down oppression. But here, vulnerability is speculated upon, celebrated, parodied, claimed. A Pool is Water is thrilling because its artists deliver a bastion of unexploited feminist terrain, all coiled up and wine-stained and flowing out in endless sticky verses. Ford, La Melia, Larivière, Papadopoulos and Rooney all in turn alchemize a worn-out formula with the fluidity and ease of Didion’s title assertion.

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