"The first pic we took was going down into the L.A. metro," recounts Corrie Slawson during our recent visit at the Cleveland Institute of Art's print shop. We are discussing her aptly titled solo exhibition, It's hard to explain, but it happened slowly, the transition, currently on view at Shaheen Modern and Contemporary Art. "I work photographically. I try to record my movement through wherever places and spaces and then sort of create these composites and landscapes through that."
Slawson and writer Marc Lefkowitz had been invited by Zygote Press Creative Fusion artists Mely Barragan and Daniel Ruanova to complete a month-long family residency in Mexico, something that is extremely out of the ordinary for artists. So they brought their son with them and journeyed into Tijuana. The result was an ongoing, loose collaboration between the two. All the titles in the show are from Marc Lefkowitz' upcoming book Borderlands, which drops at Shaheen on July 20. At that time, the couple will discuss the connections between the book and the exhibition.
"It took a year to parse through with less of a journalistic narrative and to approach it with creative writing," she says. "Then I started the sci-fi research at home, because pretty much it's always a hospital or a parking garage here. It's like, what is this dystopia, what is all of this? All of this is kind of like me running through and finally admitting this is a huge part of why I'm making the color separations I am, the way we associate these kind of images, and then I started to build the work. The development is evident through Instagram under #scifiresearchtrip."
The exhibition comprises nine horizontal mixed-media works that employ various materials and techniques drawn from printmaking and painting. "The gestalt of what I think sci-fi is is kind of what I was going for," she says. "And I started making plates and started research and spent a long time with CMYK separations that didn't make it into the show. The work at Shaheen is baroque in its over-the-top quality, with a hotter sci-fi palette going on. Looking at this fake world I've made, which is that it mustn't be real, but it could be dangerous. This could be bad. It could be really seductive and beautiful, but it's not safe. It's not healthy. The sky is orange. You can't breathe that."
Slawson, who received her BFA from the Parsons School of Design and went on to Kent State to earn her master's degree, is a meticulously technical artist. Using an array of specific media, she controls the surface of her work, and the sense of foreboding is real.
In the piece "Crossing the border, it has long been the most armored place on the continent," we encounter a child quietly fishing while his environment implodes. This slight and powerful figure reminds me of Mayberry, U.S.A. We are observers and the observed surrounded by murky waters, acrid skies and dystopian architecture. We're in a dream, a strange film which we haven't figured out how to navigate. The orange sky that Slawson speaks of is here and we are face to face with it. A chandelier vignette hints at the colonialism that may have wreaked this havoc.
"I was responding as quickly and sensitively as I could to a place that's not mine," she explains. "The last time I did that was in Dresden, but that was different than in Tijuana because of the U.S. relationship. The way it felt to be passing through that space ... I didn't want to be a charlatan, I didn't want to act like a hack, I didn't want to feel like a colonialist. There were so many things wrapped up in how I wanted to approach that work."
As we move to the center of the gallery, we are drawn to the only unframed piece, one that is larger than the others and titled, "We moved suddenly to the ideological brink where we could no longer stand each other. We heaped a great inferno into the ocean where it boiled over to form this new world." In the opposing upper corners there is a bright and warm bouquet of flowers facing its frigid metallic counterpart. The laser cut patterns along the bottom almost hint at gears or even Ferris wheels in a deranged amusement park. It is mechanical and psychedelic at once. The gold-leafed element could be a building or the sky holding back red danger; within three round panels a horse attempts escape.
Arguably the most achieved piece in this muscular show is "I look up to where a tower has appeared on the cliffside. It is tall and ornately carved and near the top raining rays of light down on the beach." We are truly transported into another reality. Highlighter pinks, bronzes, oranges, and golds — we are in a secondary color world with no hope of escape.
Despite the two-dimensional surfaces and disorienting fields, Slawson gives us a sense of grounding. The layers in these mixed-media works are literal in their relief cutouts and embossing, as well in plane and psychology. We are reading a story of a society deprived of reason and the oblong format enforces that feel. Lefkowitz's titles introduce a unique dialogue with Slawson's work that require more rumination than if the pieces would have just been labeled "Untitled." I cannot emphasize enough that this show needs to be seen in person. When you leave, you may view things a bit differently going forward.
It's hard to explain, but it happened slowly, the transition is on view through July 28 at Shaheen Modern and Contemporary Art in downtown Cleveland. You can check out the development of the work on Instagram at #scifiresearchtrip. For more information and gallery hours, go to shaheengallery.com.