Sadie Laska and Sara Magenheimer
Sara Magenheimer had been watching the pandemic unfold with her young son and partner from their home in Upstate New York. As the experience layered onto other disturbing memories—"children in cages, forced hysterectomies" among them haunting her particularly—she found herself unable to shake a sickening newfound understanding of America as, in her words, "both a very real thing and a form of abstraction and of implicit violence. It implies a boundary, of being from 'here' cut off from 'there.'" And reckoning with "the absurdity of these boundaries and their very real, deadly and violent consequences," she adds, has been a source of ongoing trauma, "on a scale I have never experienced in my lifetime."
In search of a coping mechanism, the artist began composing a poem, directing a stream of pent-up emotion onto paper. "I wrote to America to tell America, and therefore myself, about my experience of living through this waking nightmare, in which I'm raising a toddler and experiencing a lot of joy as well as suffering," says Magenheimer. "Cognitive dissonance is certainly a quality of being alive in America today."
When Sadie Laska read an early draft of the poem, she instantly recognized it as a seed for something greater. Ceysson & Bénétière had approached her to curate an exhibition—but Laska pivoted, proposing instead to put on a two-person presentation with Magenheimer. "I had always wanted to do a collaboration with Sara…[thinking] our individual works would pair well together," she says. "Then, we started to talk, and it evolved into making collaborative works."
Magenheimer attended Bard's MFA program with Laska. The two artists—both musicians and drummers—have remained friends, their rapport strengthened since having young children. In fall, as Magenheimer worked on the poem, Laska had just wrapped up a show of fabric-collaged "flags" at Canada—and, in that body of work, she adds, "There were still some things that were unexplored."
"LuLLabIES" is the culmination of the artists’ efforts—much of which occurred by way of mailing pieces back and forth between one another’s studios in Queens and Upstate, respectively. From this, they jointly produced a series of fabric banners—evolved from Laska's flags, now embracing more of a pronounced chaos in shape and content—as well as items of clothing. Either type of composition incorporates a mix of tidbits and longer passages either lifted directly from, or more generally inspired by, Magenheimer's poem. Take, for instance I want to expand in all directions... (2021) [pictured], a two-piece suit on a hanger, affixed to which is vertically oriented, black lettering printed on elongated white strips of muslin as if dripping words and phrases: "I want to expand in all"/"directions"; "my particles separate"; "My DNA"; "happen"/"when I die"; "so so"; "celestial dust."
In one banner, jagged letters that spell out "EEK" creep atop a picture of Earth—a graphic repeated elsewhere in the fabric collaged works on view. That image, also spotted in Laska's fall show, comes from Blue Marble, the iconic 1972 photograph taken from Apollo 17 during its voyage to the moon, where no human has been since.
Standing in contrast to the relatively rough finish of the textile-based works are sixteen crib-sized mattresses, strewn across the gallery's floor. These are encased in crisply rendered digital prints, patterns that Magenheimer, having produced this series independently, derived from original photographs. "I was thinking about the mattresses almost like little graves in some way, like in the relationship to the body, like the invocation of mortality that this year conjured for everybody," she explains. Among the wide-ranging subject matter therein: a variety of flowers—including Flemish poppies she grew in her studio—grass, fruit, CDs, a child's drawings, and interior scenes revealing, among other things, a desk, a bathtub, and, not least of all, the artist's own drum-set. "I think with the images, I wanted it to be kind of a mundane celebration of life as well as a kind of marker of death. It's both at once," says Magenheimer. "To me, the ultimate death is literalism, the death of poetic association."
Reflecting on the symbolism of two pomegranate halves in The new protest song… (2021), then, is cycling backward in history to classical myth—wherein its seeds incur moral ramifications as nourishment, namely being six points of weakness by which Persephone is condemned to Hell for six months out of every year. The narrative arises from a fantastical explanation concerning seasonal shifts; considering this from present-day, one might imagine the goddess's mandated, semi-annual isolation.
The notion of mortality, as an underlying theme, is rarely explicit in any single works. Even the empty garments have utilitarian value that the living can recognize in the absence of an active wearer. Only in one part of the show, whereby the methodical arrangement of several mattresses, placed side-by-side, below text-less banners etched instead with human silhouettes, does the scene evoke death nearly outright—that is, in something perhaps like an afterlife. Such is the interpretation that Laska intended: "These figures [hang] above the mattresses as if they were spirits departing, or entering a dream-space. It was meant to be a sort of heavy and sad artwork. We had so much death and sadness this past year."
In the sense of the corporeal body—or lack thereof—Magenheimer has found a means to reconcile with the recent past. "American is both something I embody and something that exists outside of my body over which I have no control," she offers. Might each of us find the terms by which we can live with it, gazing forward. —Rachel Small
Sadie Laska & Sara Magenheimer, I want to expand in all directions..., 2021. Stay Press Suit, printed muslin, fabric acrylic paint, 69 x 24.5 inches.