Jody Kuehner and Donna dance company perform in Cherdonna Shinatra: Ditch

The Frye Art Museum’s main fall exhibition, Group Therapy, a 12-artist group show, left me largely cold. Much of it was conceptual and concerned with social causes, but in ways that largely felt pat and didactic. The Frye’s current offerings—four individual shows that work like a group show—are also conceptual and also socially engaged. But they are among the strongest work, both curatorially and individually, that the museum has presented in the past year. 

Air, the Free or Unconfined Space Above the Surface of the Earth
The quietest show, tucked in the back gallery, is from local artist Gretchen Frances Bennett. She takes photos and video stills—from, say, Gus van Sant’s Last Days or a snapshot from a family trip to Bratislava, Slovakia—and renders them as ethereal pencil drawings, including the source media’s imperfections: lens flares, tears in the paper, digital video grain. The technique’s effects are curious and resonant. The images take on the gauzy remove of memory, yet it’s a remove not from the actual memory, but our documentation of it through another superficially objective medium: the photo. Air mimics the way memory melds different realms—public and private, fictional and factual—into something simultaneous and constantly shifting. 

Tschabalala Self
Proceed to the next gallery and you'll find the first solo museum exhibition from Tschabalala Self, a young painter from Harlem. On canvases that mix oil painting with stitched patches of fabrics, Self exaggerates bodies (mostly black, mostly female) and their parts (butts, thighs) in ways that refute how U.S. culture depicts black bodies. It’s idiosyncratic, celebratory, playful exaggeration—a way of reclaiming both the act of depicting bodies and the act of imagining them.   

A still from Rokni Haerizadeh's Letter!

The Rain Doesn’t Know Friends from Foes 
In the next room over, elements from both Self’s and Bennett’s shows coalesce in The Rain Doesn’t Know Friends from Foes. Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh, Hesam Rahmanian—three artists who live together in Dubai—work as a collective, taking news videos and painting each frame with phantasmagoric imagery. The reassembled videos are projected onto various screens hanging in the gallery. Here Self’s hyperbole and Bennett’s reimagining of other media takes on an altered effect. Reign of Winter adapts Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding, while other pieces reimagine protests or ISIS militants toppling statues. You get to engage with the lurid effects of media coverage—its mesmeric hold on the viewer, these events as a type of grotesque performance in the context of the camera—in a way nearly abstracted from any actual event. I looked at Reign of Winter for probably a minute before I started to glean what the actual source footage was.   

Cherdonna Shinatra: Ditch
If you start in the back gallery and move forward through the exhibitions, you end with Ditch, Jody Kuehner’s pathologically colorful, manic dance installation. Ditch is perhaps what you’d get if Federico Fellini at his most surreally existential and Richard Simmon’s workout wardrobe director created a feminist clown show together. The installation itself is a large room with a pillowy, patchwork figure, “MomDonna,” slumped in the corner. Across the room lies the head, lips fixed in a disconcerting grin. Once a day, six days a week, through the show’s January to April run, the installation comes to life for an hour: From MomDonna’s vagina-doors appear Cherdonna Shinatra (Kuehner) and Donna (her six-woman dance company), dressed in varying degrees of clown get up. Their narrative job? Trying to make each person on earth, and each audience member, happy. They dance and clown—centered around Kuehner’s ability to perform sort of entropic yoga: contorting, melting, twisting.

What follows is a breakdown of performative femininity into an absurdist feedback loop. It's another exaggeration, both satirical and reappropriative, much like those in its sibling shows. The dancers all try to smile, all the time—which of course quickly becomes uneasy and finds an eerie mirror in the grin fixed on the ruin of MomDonna’s severed head. About halfway through the performance, a literal loop from Peggy Lee’s “I’m a Woman” gets repeated ad nauseam: “Lay down at five, jump up at six, and start all over again.” This goes on for a good 20 or 30 minutes, just this looped lyric, as Cherdonna and the dancers continue to perform, until eventually Cherdonna crumples beneath the existential recursion, wilting under the expectations. It's ultimately funny and corrosive and sad. And tomorrow she'll be back for another show. 

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