New York

Christie Neptune, She Fell from Normalcy, 2017, digital video, color, sound, 7 minutes 37 seconds.

Christie Neptune, She Fell from Normalcy, 2017, digital video, color, sound, 7 minutes 37 seconds.

Christie Neptune

Christie Neptune, She Fell from Normalcy, 2017, digital video, color, sound, 7 minutes 37 seconds.

Three boxy Sony televisions sat on white pedestals of diminishing heights, positioned along a diagonal axis within the white cube of the gallery. On each screen, looping video segments depicted another white cube, inside of which two women were trapped. Dressed in white undergarments that contrasted starkly with their dark skin, they moved in sync within their confines, looking alternately up at the ceiling, around at the surrounding walls, or out at the viewer, who was made conscious of her position within a comparably claustrophobic space.

The video piece, She Fell from Normalcy, 2016, is the second component of Christie Neptune’s project “Eye of the Storm,” 2014–16, and was also the centerpiece of her solo show at Rubber Factory. As the title implies, the series is an attempt to understand external chaos from within a tightly delineated inner space, or to apprehend the constrictions around personal experience: “Why can’t I carry on? Why am I not like them?” the narrator asks. For Neptune, those constrictions are the result of the damaging constructions of race, gender, and class: “Black skin is my pain.” The video represents a direct attempt to crack open those mythologies.

Neptune’s work tends more toward the diaristic than the didactic (an inner monologue being the main audio component), but it points to tensions deeply embedded within art history—namely, representation and oppression within gallery spaces. In his 2000 introduction to Brian O’Doherty’s seminal 1986 text Inside the White Cube, Thomas McEvilley notes that the “eternity” of time and aesthetics suggested by the insular white cube also “suggests the eternal ratification of the claims of that caste or group sharing that sensibility. . . . It censors out the world of social variation.” The voice-over in She Fell from Normalcy echoes this sentiment, seemingly coming from everywhere and nowhere, and contributing to a clinical, vaguely dystopian atmosphere. In a discussion of “normalcy,” the narrator defines “conforming to the type” as also “serving to establish a standard: Hegemony.” Amplified within the gallery space, the voice speaks to its surroundings, which, as O’Doherty writes, frame an “exclusive audience, [and] rare objects difficult to comprehend—here we have a social, financial, and intellectual snobbery . . . [modeling] our modes of assigning value, our social habits at large.”

What does it mean, then, to fall from normalcy, to damn or be damned by the white cube? In one sense, Neptune has already been damned and is subverting the gallery’s status simply by having a show in one; a recent City University of New York study identified less than 10 percent of New York gallery artists as black, less than 20 percent as artists of color, and roughly 30 percent as women. O’Doherty (like others since) traced the ironic trajectory of artists coming to see the space around art—its supports, values, and limits—as something to be mirrored or turned inside out; Neptune works at those limits, visually modeling the institution’s fissures and, crucially, showing how its parameters have also been embedded in her own conscience.

Roughly halfway through Neptune’s video, a mechanized voice (a sonic shift away from the inner monologue) instructs the two women to find a crack in the wall. They run in parallel strides toward the breach and look through it, into the abyss of the camera lens. The women’s previously clone-like behavior (an indication of subjection or fetishization: “dark, erotic . . .. incompetent . . . fallacious,” as the voice says) morphs into curious observation. Is the way out through the viewer, who can step outside of the constraints of the white cube? What other worlds might be possible? (Or, as O’Doherty asks, “Is the artist who accepts the gallery space conforming with the social order?”)

She Fell from Normalcy does not provide concrete answers—the women never escape the cube, and the video loops again and again, staggered across its three screens—but its ambiguity is a resolution in itself, suggesting that this psychic damage cannot be solved through reparation or flight.

Mira Dayal