There can be something annoying, something overly topical, when it comes to art shows that respond or offer tribute to an historic or catastrophic event, or even a social ill. It often reads as low-hanging fruit to me. It can be obvious subject matter and a convenient way for the artist to evade criticism — to hide behind the valor of tackling the subject matter rather than confronting the quality of the work.
However, the glory of Virginia Lee Montgomery’s SKY LOOP, up now at Lawndale Art Center in Houston, is that it really isn’t about Hurricane Harvey insomuch that she uses the storm as a springboard — a way to think through a universal yet deeply personal preoccupation and curiosity around mortality and destruction in a way that is psychosexual and surreal.
In her big projected videos, Montgomery employs an array of symbols and objects germane to Texas and more specifically Harvey: butterflies, homemade footage of the storm, satellite images, regional honey, and more. But rather than treating these objects as historical or traumatic artifacts, Montgomery — through the pacing and structure of her videos — uses them as some kind of semiotic Morse code that entices us into a dance of tranquility and drowning, of birth and incision, and deeply sublimated but very pregnant anxiety.
Clearly, Montgomery carefully curated her show, because it comes across as a singular installation rather than an amalgamation of singular works. Unlike many video artists who throw their works together in the same space, leading to either a cacophony, or a lot of ill-fitting headphones hanging on hooks, Montgomery links her four video works with a singular soundtrack that is eerily sanguine — save for intermittent sounds of drilling — and replete with rainfall and wind chimes. With the exception of a few spotlights over her sculpture MOM’S CANOE (2020), the gallery is dark and intimate, with projectors emanating vivid Weather Channel blues, and visuals echoing the TV screens that lull us to sleep at night. But the honey is too sparkly, the blue is too vivid. Like a Tinder photo that has been over-filtered, Montgomery signals to us that her theater of communal trauma is not to be trusted. Spinning like the storm itself, her show cycles us through our love affair with cultural memory and collective consciousness, as well as its perversion.
We perhaps feel this cycle most vividly with the video BUTTERFLY BIRTH BED (2020). Other than the disruption of flitting pixels in satellite images churning out an insatiable, even fetishistic sense of destruction, Montgomery’s diorama of cocoons tied to the canopy posts of a miniature Shaker bed are cutesy, and viscerally disturbing. The uncanny clash of the transformative undulation of developing butterflies and this diminutive dollhouse simulation feels both generative and manipulative, drilling to the core of our deepest desires to capture and control, fetishize and fantasize about destruction. We never feel safe in SKY LOOP, but we so desperately want to.
In Montgomery’s syntax, the sound of the drill rings most prominently as a refrain or chorus, or a returning to — a sharp jolt of violence amidst her dreamscape. We sense it everywhere in Montgomery’s work, not only in SKY LOOP but in her other work as well. Machinist penetrations create portals for her to gaze through — and for us to gaze at her gazing. In the video SKY LOOP (2020), her eye rolls to the back of her head. Is Montgomery falling unconscious, or is she writhing in ecstasy?
SKY LOOP is currently installed in the John M. O’Quinn Gallery at Lawndale Art Center, Houston, through April 25, 2020. Please note: Lawndale is temporarily closed due to concerns surrounding the Coronavirus.
See the Five-Minute Tour of Sky Loop here, or below.