Co-curators Sso-Rha Kang and Matt Distel first met to begin planning “A New World: Ohio Women to Watch 2023” more than two years ago, at a time when the ongoing coronavirus pandemic still had most everything in a state of flux.
“First, we had to think about what ‘New Worlds’ meant to us and how it could be explored,” Kang said. “It’s a more conceptual concept, and it’s broader, and can be interpreted in different ways. So, we were thinking of it in terms of physical making. And then knowing we were also in the pandemic, we were thinking about people’s studio practices, and how that might be changing based on what we were going through. So, what does that output look like now?”
The two cast a wide net, landing on 11 artists drawn from both cities (Columbus artist Calista Lyon) and small towns (Migiwa Orimo, from Yellow Springs), and whose work stretches from the minimalist drawings of Cathrine Whited to the room-filling mixed-media installation created by Cleveland artist Thu Tran, which allows viewers to watch looped animated shorts from a massage chair decked out like a waterfall, complete with foam rocks and colorful flora.
There are also oversized, playful pieces of pop art (“Airhead,” by Erykah Townsend) and a series of mirrored, sculptural frames by Sharon Koelblinger, portions of which are peeled back, inviting viewers to peer inside and revealing a series of leisurely photographs: garden scenes, a hammock, sun-kissed feet stretched out on a blanket.
“A lot of shows were being canceled or rescheduled [in the early pandemic], so deadlines weren’t as firm. And I think that contributed to people going outside of their craft, to seeking out mediums they weren’t working in before, and that were much more tactile,” said Kang, pointing to a tufted rug piece by Mychaelyn Michalec as one example.
Appropriately, a number of the artists involved in the exhibit, on Saturday, July 29, were in the midst of exploring new worlds when first contacted by the curators, including Orimo, who expressed to Kang a desire to move outside of her physical studio space. “She was talking about needing to go outside, and taking long walks in the woods, and how that branched into her thinking about invasive species,” said Kang. “And then she was doing research around the language that was used to describe invasive species, and how some of those words also related to immigration.”
The resulting mixed-media tapestries stretch across a western wall in the gallery, one dotted with index cards on which printed facts about animals (“Researchers warn that white-tailed deer could become ‘reservoirs’ for the Covid-19 virus and can carry it indefinitely”) echo the type of fear-based language used to describe immigrants .
Tucked in the northwest corner of the gallery is “Breaking Water,” an immersive installation done by Australia-born, Columbus-based artist Calista Lyon in collaboration with Carmen Winant. Encompassing a circle of 15 tube televisions collected from street curbs and online giveaways, the piece incorporates looped video footage of breaking dams and women experiencing water breakage prior to giving birth, accompanied by audio of a voice reading from different texts. “Recently, I had someone compare water in the river to blood in the body,” a voice recited as I slowly turned at the center of the circle, taking in footage of muddy river water rushing over imploded dams spliced with shots of crystal liquid falling from above and splashing on the linoleum tile between two bare feet.
Collaborating with Winant, whose work Lyon said often centers on feminist revolt, drew out different dimensions in both artists, their piece growing from initial conversations between the two in which they discussed the interplay between feminism and the ecological disasters Lyon is prone to explore in her solo work.
“And then we started to discuss our experiences with water, and demonstrations in the world around water, and the complexity of the politics around water,” Lyon said. “And for Carmen, that was through images of water breaking in the body during childbirth. And for me, that was river restoration projects, which are basically these hugely complex collaborations between environmental activists, farmers, businesses, local politicians, Indigenous communities, where people come together to remove a dam and reconnect a river pathway. … And I started to think of dams being exploded during river restoration projects as a way to think about fighting for something other than yourself.”
In spite of the range of styles and approaches on display in "Women to Watch," Kang said she sees through lines that connect all of the works, and in particular the world-building undertaken by each of the artists. But the curator was also surprised by some of the more direct connections that surfaced between pieces.
“Migiwa Orimo and Calista Lyon both have ecological concerns in their work, and I think talking about the environment in relation to ‘New Worlds’ is so important,” Kang said. “Calista is talking about ecological grief, and this sadness that comes with the destruction of the environment. And here’s Migiwa out on her hikes, thinking about invasive species. So, the concepts are different concepts, but they’re both talking about the environment, both moved by it, both inspired by it.”