As Ali Osborn sees it, life can be more precarious than we’re generally willing to acknowledge. The power can go out, natural disasters can strike, and even smaller events can upset the equilibrium we often take for granted, giving the lie to phrases like “peace and quiet.”
That idea can have resonance in the art world as well, Osborn notes, and it’s the guiding theory behind a new exhibit he’s curated at PULP Gallery in Holyoke, “Light Accumulation,” which features a variety of artworks that also perch on the edge of stability – where balance could easily be upended, he says, through the addition of just a small image or pen stroke.
“Light Accumulation,” curated by Osborn, features the work of three artists and includes paintings, drawings, sculptures, and videos, all with a distinctive look but thematically linked. From the surreal drawings of Kelly Hain, to the ironic sculptures of Ilana Harris-Babou, to the deceptively peaceful still life paintings of Sarah Pater, there’s a sense of things being a little off-kilter.
“I think the idea is that a lot of the things we take for granted are in reality just barely held in place,” said Osborn, an artist (printmaking, drawing, installation) and educator who lives in New York City.
The exhibit also represents a first for Osborn, and for PULP gallery: It’s the first exhibit Osborn has curated, and it’s the first time PULP has made use of a guest curator. The Holyoke exhibit runs through July 17.
In a recent phone call, Osborn explained that he lived in Northampton for about six years, from 2006-2012, during which time he worked at the former Guild Art Center. There he got to know Dean Brown, the director of PULP Gallery and an artist himself, when Brown used to bring in some of his work to be framed and before he opened his Holyoke gallery.
“We became friendly, and we enjoyed each other’s art,” said Osborn, who went on to earn an MFA in visual arts at Rutgers University in New Jersey and then settled in New York. “We stayed in touch, and then Dean asked me to be part of a two-person exhibit at PULP in 2020.”
When Brown invited him last year to think about curating a show at PULP, Osborn says he had a general idea of exhibiting a variety of work, ideally from a few different artists, “that could offer a kind of counterpoint. Those are the kinds of shows I like, where the art may be different but it speaks the same language. “
He had one artist in mind to start with: Kelly Hain, a fellow New York artist who was also one of Osborn’s students when he taught undergraduate classes at Rutgers while he was earning his masters.
“Her drawings are so evocative and so detailed,” Osborn said. “They really pull you in. From a distance, they maybe don’t seem that unsettling, but when you get up close, you realize how much is going on. “
Indeed, Hain’s drawings – and a video on which you can watch her images move – are dense tableaus, made in ballpoint pen, of numerous mini-dramas and settings, most of them mysterious or surreal, that seem to flow into each other.
In the center of “The Informers,” for instance, three little girls in hoods, like figures from a fairy tale, stare at a grim-faced woman who watches them from the corner of her eyes. Behind the woman, part of the body of some beast is visible – except for its head. Below the woman, a ghostly figure floats between rickety fence posts. Part of a stone structure – a small mausoleum? – can be seen behind the fence.
Osborn discovered the work of two other artists, Harris-Babou and Pater, through their Instagram postings and saw a kinship of sorts with Hain’s work. Harris-Babou, who also lives in New York, creates work that spoofs idealized notions of consumerism, home improvement, and self-help with ceramics, sculpture, video and various installations.
“She really kind of turns the tropes of capitalism on their heads in ways that can be very funny but also pretty jarring,” said Osborn.
For “Light Accumulation,” Harris-Babou has created “Pegboard,” a display of “tools” made of ceramic that imitate a basement or garage display of real tools like hammers, pliers, screwdrivers and chisels. While it’s amusing to think of trying to use a ceramic hammer to try and drive a nail, there’s also something just a little creepy about the colors and mottled look of these “tools,” as if they’ve been dug up after rusting and moldering for years in the dirt.
The exhibit includes one of Harris-Babou’s videos, “Finishing a Raw Basement,” a deadpan satire of home improvement TV shows; she appears with her mother in the clip, as the two unsuccessfully attempt to turn a basement with rough brick walls into a finished room; in one clip, they try to scratch paint off bricks with their fingernails.
Sarah Pater, meantime, who lives in Philadelphia – she studied painting at Boston University and then the Rhode Island School of Design – creates still lifes that at first glance seem peaceful and quiet, generally with just one or two objects on a tabletop or other flat surface: a glass, a pair of plums, a knife and a lemon. Yet the perspective seems off, as these objects are “caught in in flattened, near-abstract space,” as exhibit notes put it.
That combination of somewhat skewed perspective and ordinary objects generally presented with nondescript backgrounds can make the images a bit unsettling. One painting, a mix of oil, acrylic and wax on linen, features two candlesticks on a narrow table that’s draped with a green cloth; on the tablecloth, where one might expect to see some food or drink, five snails can be seen.
Aside from featuring different art that has thematic connections, Osborn said one of the highlights of putting together “Light Accumulation” was actually bringing the artists together. None of them had ever met, he said, and he only know Hain beforehand. “Being able to introduce the artists and in my case to meet two people who I first only knew through their work was one of the best parts of this.”
“Light Accumulation” takes up the larger gallery space at PULP; the smaller front room currently displays a series off 10 graphite drawings on antique ledger paper (from the 1880s) by Brown, the gallery director.
For more information on these exhibits and for visiting hours at PULP Gallery, visit pulpholyoke.com.