New York

Gerald Slota, Untitled (Pegboard), 2018, digital C-print, 44 × 37 1⁄2".

Gerald Slota, Untitled (Pegboard), 2018, digital C-print, 44 × 37 1⁄2".

Gerald Slota

If one didn’t know that the ten digital C-prints in this exhibition were dedicated to Gerald Slota’s dead father, one would have thought they were merely surreal. The eccentric, collage-like compositions featured timeworn items from his late parent’s home (crusty wallpaper, shabby kitchen tiles, a misshapen pegboard) in sensational colors (electric yellows, lurid greens, lambent blues). The pieces were strangely abstract—the pegboard, for instance, became a Color Field painting, the bit of wire dangling from it an expressive gesture. The images had a certain naive and clumsy charm, a quality we would expect from the art of an autodidact. But Slota is no such thing. Though his pictures have a hesitant sophistication, they demonstrate an acquaintance with reified modernist ideas of artmaking. The works are built step-by-step—indeed, they are a via dolorosa of mourning—and bring with them the conviction that art has healing power.

Straightforwardly and perhaps unsurprisingly titled “After,” the exhibition, a sort of tour in and around Slota’s father’s house, was also a memento mori. An image of a black handrail with twisting, curving balusters had a certain Baroque flair. Another print with a crumbling birdbath implied that he may have had a fondness for nature. Both photos—Untitled (Railing) and Untitled (Birdbath) (all works 2018)—had a figurative presence, suggesting they were symbolic embodiments of Slota’s father. Was the artist’s paterfamilias an aesthete manqué, as Untitled (Basement), a blurred photograph of the titular space—and an obvious metaphor for the unconscious—seemed to imply? 

A parent is “a secure base,” the psychologist John Bowlby famously argued. Losing a mother or father is a profoundly traumatic event, all the more so because he or she is an inescapable, permanent, influential part of one’s identity—a so-called internal object. The unconscious is comprised of internal objects, and having one disappear is a disaster for the self. Bowlby remarks that this exodus is typically met with “anger, directed at third parties, the self, and sometimes at the person lost, disbelief that the loss has occurred (misleadingly termed denial), and a tendency, often though not always unconscious, to search for the lost person in the hope of reunion.” These aspects are involved in “healthy mourning”—as opposed to the unhealthy kind, in which one cannot let go of or separate from the object and instead unintentionally clings to it by resentfully blaming it for all that is wrong with one’s life (as Freud’s theory of melancholia, distinct from grieving, argues). Untitled (Hook), a tight shot of a latch on a closed door, led one to believe that the artist was not keen to let go of his father quite yet, while Untitled (Thumbprint Mask) indicated that Slota had been indelibly marked with the memory of him, now just a ghost of a once treasured reality. To my eye and mind, these images were the enigmatic masterpieces of the exhibition. Though Slota showed us that art can help us deal with suffering by assimilating and aesthetically transforming it, the work was, nonetheless, inconsolably tragic. In the spirit of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (1922), the artist had shored his father’s fragments against his own ruin.

Donald Kuspit