Misery loves company in news shows at Denvers Rule Gallery

It is fashionable these days to put your pain on the table and dish it out to others in heaping helpings. “Soft Mirror” and “Rupture,” two exhibitions currently at Rule Gallery, serve up a feast.

The shows indulge in victimhood, no matter how you come to suffer it. One artist explores what happened years ago when he was bullied in school. Another rehashes the inter-generational trauma that resulted when his grandfather survived the nuclear bombing at Hiroshima.  Another delves into the psychological damage that results from viewing too much violence in the media.

It’s a lot, as they say.

There’s a part of me that wants to respond coldly to the excess, partly because the notion that we are all damaged goods is delivered so casually. If everybody hurts in their own way, and at the same volume, do we really need to share? Maybe self-care is something you should do on your own. If television violence disturbs you, for example, just turn off the TV.

But curator Britland Tracy gives us some cause to linger. She takes us through dark narratives in the pieces she selected as curator of “Soft Mirror,” which is installed in Rule’s main first-floor space, and as an exhibitor herself in “Rupture,” the solo show curated by the gallery and installed one level up.

The good news, though, is that she leaves us with satisfying endings — not happy endings; that never seems feasible in this world where we are all doomed to bleed. But she does suggest that there are ways to cope and these artists have found them.

Their solution: the work itself. Each of the artists here — and that includes Kei Ito, Dionne Lee, Rafael Soldi and Tabitha Soren — use the process of making photo-based art as their way to move forward.  We see them working out their stuff right there on the walls. Their troubles may be unique but there is a common way they cope through their art, and in that way, the shows come tougher cohesively.

There are not so many objects in these exhibitions, maybe a dozen-plus, but they are heartfelt and, in a way, confrontational with trauma itself. No one is turning off the TV here; they are tuning in, pumping up the volume and staring hard.

The artist Tabitha Soren, for example, presents two large prints that are actually photos of digital images as viewed through her electronic devices. This is where Soren encounters her news and information of the world, a place where images arrive and transmit into the brain faster than a speeding train.

The scenes she captures — using an oversized camera — are a bit mysterious and and the details are murky. One seems to be a place on fire, another may be underwater. Who knows the context of these images or the stories behind them; it does not matter because they represent all of the visuals we consume, non-stop all day. Staring and trying to decipher the details is not the point.

These pieces feel more about accepting this as part of our reality, and taking control of them. Soren’s photos do that in two ways:  First, they contain the action. Instead of being surrounded by it, Soren stops it and frames it, which puts limits on it.

Second, she personalizes it. You can see in these pieces the smudges and goo that are on the surface of her hand-held tablet; they become part of the picture. By making her own marks — her fingerprints — a part of the scene, she takes ownership of it. Implied in that is a responsibility for consuming the info and for contributing to its abundance as part of the consumer world, but also some ability to master it.

Artist Rafael Soldi takes a similar path. His piece “Cargamontón” pulls together four monochromatic prints (they are photogravures), each capturing a scene from a Cargamontón, a ritual in his native Peru where adolescents harass and bully a weaker classmate in school. It is a rite of punching and piling-on, where boys discover each others’ strengths and weaknesses — and bodies. Soldi, who grew up gay in a conservative Catholic school, remembers this act well.

For this piece, he found the video footage on the internet and used that as source material. He does not know the players, but it feels gritty and real and personal. Once again, the action is reigned in and retaken so that the artist has power over it.

With the solo show “Rupture,” Tracy has her own method of containment. She explores the “residue of trauma” from long exposure to violent imagery in mass media film and television. Her process is a little complicated. She turns on a violent scene on a video monitor and then points her camera at it. The length of her exposure corresponds exactly to the length of the scene. She titles her pieces by borrowing the last line uttered by the actors in the video. One of her pieces is called, “I Didn’t Want It to Be Like This.” Another is “No, No, No, No.”

What she ends up with is a blur of overlapped colors and images.  You can barely make out any objects, maybe a lamp or an arm, but what you do experience is the cumulative effect of witnessing the scene. Things fog together, in the same way we form and keep many of our memories.

What is interesting about this work, and all of the work in these shows, is that it is not full of judgment. Sure, it implies we live in a world of darkness and stress and vulnerability, but this is not a call to stop the action, or change or clean up the world. Rather, there is an acknowledgment that the world will go on, sometimes badly, and we will live in it, absorb it, feel it.

We can also try to contain it, and consider it deeply without being victims, at least not all of the time. We can exercise our way through it with whatever method we choose — these people are artists, they choose art-making — and with enough effort we can make our own “Soft Mirror” to see it in. This is a small, smart show.


“Soft Mirror” and “Rupture” continue through May 6 at Rule Gallery, 808 Santa Fe Drive. They are free. Info: rulegallery.com.

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