I’m seated on a cushion on the floor at a sort of séance. Black sand forms a large circle on the floor, and in it lies a constellation of candle-lit crystals and pots of blended herbs. The headphones I’ve donned play a binaural tone. This instillation—Lauryn Youden’s A Place to Retreat When I Am Sick (of You)—is supposed to soothe my anxious modern mind. But currently I’m the only person at this séance—the other cushions around the circle remain empty, as though everyone else has been raptured—and I’m alone in the large gallery room aside from a security guard who appears to be picking something from beneath his nail, and the headphones’ sound is less a restorative and more an existential dial tone.
Yet when I go to the wall read a series of to-do lists and notes, also by Youden—written on the outsides of used envelopes, a piece of Days Inn stationary—I find them compelling, touching, a sort of auto-epistolary literature confronting contemporary notions of sickness, mental health, and self-care.
Such veering reactions are how I feel walking through Group Therapy, the new 12-artist show at the Frye Art Museum centered on our contemporary culture of self-care and wellness. Here I’m compelled, there put-off by how on-the-nose a piece is. You could criticize pretty much any group show for having a manifold impact, but these pieces felt particularly incongruous.
Group Therapy “loosely traces an arc from neurosis to release, beginning with works that diagnose social pathologies such as racism, sexism, and political tribalism,” says its curatorial essay, “The Museum Will See You Now.” Perhaps because of this structure, works toward the beginning and end felt the flattest, the most didactic. The diagnosis is one of the most rote parts of therapy, isn't it? Near the start, there’s a literal padded room (Primal Speech by Liz Magic Laser) with a video of actors going through therapy about the 2016 election and Brexit. You can, if you like, punch a pillow shaped like a donkey or an elephant. Beside that Maryam Jafri’s Depression and Anxiety critique the wellness industry’s cooption of Eastern healing: Silicon feet are attached to wooden boxes, acupuncture needles jutting from the disembodied appendages.
The final piece is Library of Babel, a Symbiont Induction by Marcos Lutyens. It combines Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Library of Babel” with terrarium enclosed staircase, its stairs made of actual reishi mushrooms (the healing mushroom du jour) which grow as the exhibition continues. The floor is covered with bark and you’re guided through a meditation via some headphones as you sit in a beanbag chair. Yet instead of moving you through immersion and release, the piece just feels convoluted and a bit silly.
But Group Therapy has plenty of high points. Kandis Williams’s Rorschachian collages, composed of the hands of 1960s civil rights leaders, get at cultural dissonances surrounding race and gesture. Shana Moulton’s room-sized video instillation is a weird and funny flight of fancy. Even its heavy-handed bits—some pill containers mimetically arrayed beside a pentagram—land as flourishes of wit. Pedro Reyes's Los Mutantes is a periodic table of pop-cultural anthropomorphism (189 images) that lets you pseudo-scientifically, but playfully, look at how, say, a fish varies when turned into a woman (mermaid) versus a man (the cover of Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica).
The Frye is free, so any of its exhibits is worth a look. And there's something here for most contemporary art fans. Maybe, for instance, you’ll dig Marcos Lutyens’s conflation mycelial networks and meditation and Borgesian infinity more than I did. Just don’t expect to walk out cured.
Sept 15–Jan 6, Frye Art Museum, Free