You Can Touch the Art, But Only Because it Gave You Permission

Installation view of Amanda Curreri's 'COUNTRY HOUSE_' at Romer Young Gallery. (Courtesy of Romer Young)

Amanda Curreri’s current exhibition at Romer Young Gallery starts with a bit of concrete poetry. In the press release, on three lines, the Cincinnati-based artist selectively eliminates letters from the phrase “COUNTRY HOUSES,” alternately spelling out “TRY,” “CRY” and “ON US.”

Just who is offering up a shoulder (or surface) to cry on isn’t identified, but hazarding a guess, it’s likely Currerri’s textile works, which hang stretched and draped throughout the gallery space. These fabric “paintings” and large-scale banners blend fine finishing with raw edges in combinations of disparate materials, textures and prints. Several pieces become all the more personified with the attachment of dog-toy eyes.

Amanda Curreri, 'Horz.,' 2018.
Amanda Curreri, 'Horz.,' 2018. (Courtesy of Romer Young)

Upon closer inspection these textile pieces, which look familiar and comforting (or simply soft), often conceal hidden messages, pockets and small embellishments that speak to Curreri’s engagement with feminist principles and queer histories as sources of strength in the midst of the current political climate.

“What can we make (different/ly) from the tools we’ve got at hand?” the press release goes on to ask. Looking at Curreri’s materials list, those tools include old books and magazines, taken-apart flags, deconstructed denim jeans, hand-dyeing techniques, tablecloths, sequins and thread. Curreri distills materials to their most basic elements—color, pattern and form—in order to build new structures and new surfaces to cry upon.

As might be expected from all of the above, the exhibition has a slightly somber feel. Small splashes of color punctuate the show, but the predominant palette is blacks, grays and indigos. The most playful elements come from Curreri’s wordplay—or in the combinations of clever titles and visual puns. (The exhibition name comes from a book page that formerly read “COUNTRY HOUSES,” but in one of her collages, Curreri eliminates the “O,” “RY” and final “S”.)

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Toucher Trouble, Poison Ivy is the artist’s response to the 2005 recording of Donald Trump bragging to Access Hollywood host Billy Bush that when you’re a star, “you can do anything” to women. Hung at crotch-height on the gallery wall, the canvas is covered with colorful strips of fabric that summon memories of shag carpeting. Visitors are encouraged to brush their hands across the ruffled surface to uncover delicate prints of poison ivy leaves. With each brush, stringy threads of the synthetic material fall like noxious confetti to the floor.

Amanda Curreri, 'Toucher Trouble, Poison Ivy,' 2018.
Amanda Curreri, 'Toucher Trouble, Poison Ivy,' 2018. (Courtesy of Romer Young)

Curreri, who relocated from the Bay Area to Cincinnati in 2015, has increasingly shifted her practice from painting and printmaking to textile work. For her, fabric—especially used fabric—raises questions about history, labor, class and identity. It carries its history of use and the history of its making. In keeping with the theme of making new things with old tools, many of the dyeing and stitching techniques Curreri uses in the show are traditional Japanese methods like shibori, katazomi and sashiko stitching.

Against the back wall of the gallery, the banner-style piece I Belong to a Closed Group With No Name* draws its title and lines of screenprinted text from a T-shirt Curreri found in the Samois collection in San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society archives. (Samois was an influential lesbian sadomasochism group founded in San Francisco in 1978.) The banner is mostly black, with bits of flag nylon, leather, printed cotton and canvas layered over each other and periodically top-stitched into place. At the center of the piece is a small gap in fabric, a window (or hole) to the wall behind—a motif repeated in the showstopper Homo-Hime, which hangs from the ceiling in the center of the gallery.

Amanda Curreri, detail of 'I Belong to a Closed Group with No Name*,' 2018.
Amanda Curreri, detail of
'I Belong to a Closed Group with No Name*,' 2018. (Courtesy of Romer Young)

The Samois reference is information gallery director Joey Piziali will eagerly relate to visitors, but the source material is unremarked-upon on the exhibition list—it’s coded knowledge, identifiable upon first glance only to those who might have been members of a specific subgroup. Other pieces in the show require similar effort: the lift of a flap on one of Curreri’s paper collages reveals two women in each others arms; and the handmade jacket hanging near the front of the gallery can be tried on, revealing embroidered letters spelling “WHAT WE WANT IS FREE” in the lining. (This text is a reference to late artist and educator Ted Purves’ 2004 book about generosity in contemporary art.)

Curreri’s work invites engagement atypical in the gallery world, where touching the art is usually verboten, but it does so formally, establishing a dynamic of consent from the opening of the exhibition’s statement. Inside COUNTRY HOUSE_, Curreri models a social contract so lacking in the outside world, and does so not by inventing a completely new space, but by creating one with lessons gleaned from the past, with the tools and materials we already have.

'COUNTRY HOUSE_' is on view at Romer Young Gallery in San Francisco through Oct. 27. Details here.

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