Melancholy and the Infinite Sadness

Grieving the past so you won't have to: Celeste Nelms with one of her found objects
Celeste Nelms

Americans are a nation of discarders. We love to get rid of the things that no longer suit us, from oppressive religion and political structures to serviceable but slighty aged downtown buildings, automobiles, and last year's fashions. We've even attempted to discard entire emotional states from our lives. Try to name, for instance, the last time you were allowed just to be sad. Chances are you can't, because in America this emotion has become as unsuitable as singing "God Save the Queen." Even before the whole Prozac/Zoloft revolution, we'd banished movies with sad endings and placed laugh tracks across the TV landscape. We'd taken to encouraging each other to "cheer up," and created entire feel-good industries whose goal is to eradicate sadness. We've made the semi-forced smile an art form in America, and I for one think it's a tragedy.

The latest show at the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program suggests that I'm not the only one ready to reach for the tissue box. My overall impression of "Long Afternoon," the new exhibition of work by Carolyn Swiszcz and Celeste Nelms at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, is that these are two artists more than willing to embrace deep sadness. Their works are dripping with sorrow, practically weeping in my lap as I observe them, though this reaction may say more about my own particular circumstances.

Still, you can judge for yourself. Celeste Nelms's photos, mostly sized 18-by-12 inches, are framed in black and toned in weepy sepia. Something about gelatin silver prints is sad: It's all the middle tones, the grainy, muddy grayish-brown that dominates the images. Brown is probably the most melancholic color; it calls to mind winter and mud, age and decay, death and hardship. And sepia is maybe the saddest type of brown. It has something to do, I suspect, with nostalgia. The only time we see sepia is in old-timey films--war footage, scenes from the Great Depression, home movies of our grandparents who have since passed on.

Whatever your particular association, Nelms's side of the gallery dominates and sets the mood. Her subject matter is sad, too. She depicts objects she has found discarded in thrift stores and yard sales, the kinds of things most Americans look at with revulsion, but which Nelms can't help but feel teary affection for. Nelms takes these found objects--a framed high school photograph, a pair of worn old slippers, a battered suitcase, a wig--and then photographs herself interacting with them in open-air settings (one item, usually, per image). By envisioning a new life for these once cherished, now neglected, objects, Nelms acts something like a fairy godmother to all the nation's castoffs and has-beens. God, that's a melancholic idea, isn't it?

Carolyn Swiszcz's work, meanwhile, is different on the surface from Nelms's, but a closer look reveals it to be examining some of the same sense of loss and disappointment. In this case, Swiszcz presents a kind of installation/tableau of snapshot-like drawings and paintings, mostly on paper, of her hometown of New Bedford, Massachusetts, a place that Swiszcz admits has been "past its prime for over a century." Everyone will recognize these prosaic images, rendered in Swiszcz's own sketchy, Alex Katz-y collage and pastiche style: a vast empty parking lot at the Sunshine Plaza, check-cashing joints, thrift stores and pawn shops, rusted Ford Fairmonts, a U-Haul in a Chinese restaurant parking lot.

These are the sort of sights that we see all over this great country of ours, in places where a once-vibrant community has long ago been discarded. But then maybe the reason we all know the story is that many of us are from such places and have long ago escaped that life for something and someplace better.

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