56 Henry Street
January 13 - February 19
If reality television took the romance out of rehab, then Cynthia Talmadge’s “Leaves of Absence” pumps it back in. Her installation, Leaves of Absence: McLean, 2017, based on Harvard Medical School’s psychiatric facility, can be seen from the street—but only those who enter get to take in the full picture. The artist envisions rehab as a kind of Ivy League dormitory outfitted with the requisite gear: a mug, a tote, a sweatshirt. It is a scene that belongs to Hollywood, perhaps in a Wes Anderson remake of Mark Robson’s 1967 movie, Valley of the Dolls.
The pastel dream doesn’t last long. The impossible neatness of the room suggests a kind of compulsion on the part of its maker. The cyclical nature of addiction and depression becomes the glue that marries the artist’s process with her concept. A matching print shows the room in a different colorway, with another treatment center emblazoned on its collegiate accessories (Hazelden [Winter], 2016).
Talmadge uses repetition and humor to discredit herself, but like any unreliable narrator there is something about the ambiguity that drags one deeper into the fantasy. The vacuousness of her one-size-fits-all bedroom has the same effect. Big enough to hold the viewer’s projections but too small for comfort, the installation encourages one to flirt with the threshold between sanity and madness. In Sylvia Plath’s semiautobiographical novel The Bell Jar (1963), her unraveling heroine, Esther Greenwood, muses: “I wondered at what point in space the silly, sham blue of the sky turned black.” Talmadge’s hospital-corner hyperrealism brings the viewer to this same precipice.