by Jen Dragon
Saugerties, NY – Debra Priestly’s latest solo exhibition of new paintings, drawings, and sculpture along with an immersive site-specific installation explores the color black in many different ways including as pigment, symbol and potential object. As a pigment, black richly glows as a matte finish on black vessels 1-3. Free standing in the gallery, these urn-shaped sculptures serve as elegiac cenotaphs with small, modeled faces emerging from around the mouthpiece under a matte black shroud. In other works, totem 1-3, and hymn, black is a bold, symbolic object that participates in its own geometry and asserts a solid, non-negotiable presence.
Apart from the metaphysics of the color black, Priestly considers the reductive symbols that are possible in a black and white world. One recurring leit-motif is the humble canning jar. This ubiquitous kitchen container, used to preserve food over winter and thwart decay, the jar resonates with the analogy of the living body containing the soul, or of the mind preserving memory. In mattoon 17.1-17.9, Debra Priestly places black cut paper silhouettes of mundane objects in a square of paper lace meticulously cut with traditional floral patterns and encompassing the form of this canning jar. The black objects set inside the jar can be identified as a vinyl record, a cup, a roll of string, or an egg, but are so redacted that they emerge as the essential symbols of larger meaning. The flat 78 rpm record can represent the geometry of a planet’s circumnavigation; the cup becomes a symbol of offering and the string, the gyration of objects in response to gravity. These mysterious objects placed on an intricate representation of handmade lace references the clarity of overall design carefully balanced on the realities of painstaking execution – and the delicate dance between what is and what is not.
The most open-ended of Priestly’s works are the studies for black totem 1 -3 and her large, site-specific installation, black. The 12” x 9” inch multiple studies for black totem 1-3 are the scaffolding for a proposed group of three 7-foot high free-standing pillars made from ceramic components. Reduced to simple black and gray geometric shapes, this “blueprint” has gaps which invite the viewer to complete with their mind. The depth of the spaces created by the totems oscillates from near to far creating a physical sensation within the viewer as they experience proposed objects of towering height. Standing alone, these inked sheets of paper record the process of symbol to eventual substance.
black is a site-specific installation unique to Jane St. Art Center. This elegant, light-filled performance space has been completely darkened with the smallest illumination perceptible at the farthest end of the stage. The strange smell of tar paper guides the viewer’s bared feet towards a miniature display supporting a circle of tiny sculpture stands, each displaying a miniature form. These minute turntables encircle the smallest one in the center of the diorama and seem to give it their full attention. The drama of the low light and the naturally enveloping black environment make for mysterious interpretations with a simultaneous sense of both utter vastness and particular miniaturization. In this installation, black serves as a comforting presence as an invisible audience is slowly imagined while the tiny theater itself slowly evolves.
Debra Priestly’s artwork is ultimately about dimensional shifts and associative illusions to create the magic of space. What may sum up the entire exhibition is the mixed media on panel, patoka hill 26. The only painting in this exhibition, pakota hill 26 depicts the ancient game of snakes and ladders. The game was originally a game of morality where snakes represent “envy” and “jealousy”, (vices) while ladders represent virtues such as “charity” and “kindness”. In this ubiquitous child’s game, the roll of the dice can send the player up the ladder to win and another roll can just as easily send that player all the way back to the beginning via the snakes – and throughout these ups and downs in Priestly’s painting are the attendant canning jars that simultaneously hold all memory, space and being.
Debra Priestly: black (September 17 – October 23, 2022) at Jane St. Art Center, 11 Jane Street Suite A, Saugerties NY 12477 (845) 217-5715. www.janestreetartcenter.com