Solei kneels on the concrete floor of the Piano Craft Gallery, her legs tucked neatly under her. The backdrop is a giant blue and green splatter so symmetric it recalls a Rorschach, and it makes her, wearing a canary dress and mustard cardigan, pop like a yellow tang in the sea. The audience stands cross-armed or sits cross-legged, watching her intently. She holds a microphone close to her lips. There is a small, black machine at her knees: the TC Helicon Voicelive Touch, a vocal effects processor that she uses to loop her vocals and hums into a track, and to alter her voice as she tells us about her art, hanging on the white walls around us. At times, the sound is distorted and carries a feeling of foreboding, which gives me the chills; at other times, it is so autotuned, it sounds like an alien transmission; but mostly, the sound is airy and ethereal, and invokes in me a deep longing for something unnamed. She begins her presentation by talking about origins and shared histories; she tells us that the room we’re in was once a room for pianos. There is, in fact, a piano in the short hallway by the bathrooms.
To put it simply, her artwork is the product of splatter-and-trace. She drops her paint onto a canvas, and paints around the splashes’ edges, making all of the colors more vibrant. The act of tracing seems like an attempt to contain the paint, an ironic endeavor considering that splattering paint precludes any control. She does recognize this, admiring the way the colors miscegenate. She repeats this process, the splatter-and-trace, over and over again, with drastically variant results. Solei tells us that circles are sacred shapes, symbols of harmony, never-ending cycles; her artistic process is a cyclical engagement. It is repetition that undergirds the entire collection, reconciling that conflict between the splatter and trace, between chaos and control. It becomes a means of acceptance, of working with things as they are, of acknowledging their shapes and moving forward with, rather than against, them.
From a distance, the splatters are abstractly and visually captivating, but the traces bring with them something deeper than a striking image. Solei describes how the act revealed whole worlds in the tiniest spaces between the smallest sploshes, and standing up close to one of her paintings, there is a feeling of transportation to another world. Many of her works feature cutouts of people dancing, smiling, posing, just generally being human. Sometimes these people are missing a face; sometimes, the only image is a disembodied hand. All of them are dressed for another decade. The lack of context and technicolor backgrounds make her work both eerie and familiar; it’s like a vague memory of something that happened in a universe hovering a foot above our own.
One of her paintings, perhaps my favorite, features a man slouching in a wicker chair with his legs stretched out in front of him and his arms folded across his belly. His lips are tight in a determined grin and his brow is furrowed. He is positioned on the right half of what I imagine was an open record jacket and has become Solei’s canvas. He is backdropped by sea-green concentric circles and there is a beam of white shooting from his eyes, opening up on the left half, which is the splatter half. The splash is a magnificent mix of magenta and gold. I can’t tell you what the painting means, but to me, it aptly summares the emotional texture of the show: a particular sense of transportation and celebration.
Tracing is an act of replication, a way of imitating and simulating something that already is. It’s an act of near-consummation, and at the same time, an assertion of independence and separateness. So, in a broad sense, Solei’s art represents the way we live our lives as individual beings, while at the same time participating in a great iteration of the single human drama played out many times before. We, too, join the cycle; we, too, repeat. And maybe that is why despite the art’s strangeness, there is a prevailing feeling of peace.
The space itself, the Piano Craft Gallery, had a hand in facilitating this feeling. The room is big and airy, so airy the walls may be breathing. There are weathered, wooden beams and pillars made of chipped, flaked rock slabs, which arouses in me the suspicion that this room was excavated and not built. There is a dark wooden bench, two armchairs, and a few other seats scattered throughout the space. There is a lamp with a neck bent at an angle that worries me, and another lamp with a paint-splashed shade. I couldn’t tell if the furniture was part of the exhibit. But the feeling it elicited–the room being so large and the furniture so sparse–gave me the impression of walking through the dream of a living room, where things are almost, but not quite, real, which seems in keeping with the artwork.
Solei tells us, in her natural and vulnerable voice, that we are always tracing. Traces of everything we encounter remain with us and are inextricable from the people we become. We stand and sit in a room that has always been for artists and, in fact, some members of the audience have been living in the building for decades, before they let non-artists move in upstairs. It seems too perfect. We can’t touch or experience what it was like then, but the spirit lingers; we navigate its edges and add another ring of color to our lives. Sitting on the floor, I had the distinct feeling of being gathered with family to witness an event both sublime and human–a feeling evoked, perhaps, by simply being gathered, that ephemeral sense of harmony that, for a single beat, can feel palpable.
One of the last things Solei says to us is, “We did not choose this, but it is making us.” This phrase plays on repeat in my head during the car ride home, and I catch myself tapping my fingers on my thigh, as though playing the piano.
TRACE is on view at the Piano Craft Gallery until March 25th
793 Tremont St
Boston, MA 02118
Gallery hours: Friday 6-8, Sat & Sun 12-5
Closing Reception: Piano Party >> March 24th 6-9