The first room of Thick as Mud at the Henry Art Gallery, bathed in terracotta-tinged light, is unfurnished except for its display: snakeskin latticework stretched over two picnic chairs. Rain sounds splatter from speakers in the ceiling, and occasional thunderclaps echo. The descriptions on the wall label the chairs as Sitting Shiva and the overhead audio as Tropical Storm, both by artist Sasha Wortzel. Sitting Shiva is Wortzel’s meditation on endings and beginnings in the South Florida Everglades, where the invasive Baurmese Python has devastated local populations, and the installation sets the tone for the exhibit, establishing a pattern of thoughtful examination of historical and environmental themes conveyed through intricate artistic techniques.
The sheer variety, texture, and creativity of the installations in Thick as Mud make the exhibit an endlessly fascinating landscape. Many of the art pieces use mud as a medium, but materials aren’t limited to clay. Caked dirt, shaped into geometric reflections of Mission Soledad, California, clings to Christine Howard Sandoval’s paper hangings, titled Pillars - An Act of Decompression, Fire, and Arch- A Passage Formed by a Curve. Dineo Seshee Bopape’s animated video, spliced together from paintings of soil and water from historical sites in the transatlantic slave trade, roils and tumbles in a dark projector room. Earthen pigment stains the white clothes in Eve Tagny’s installation, setting the scene for the artist’s video poetry. Each new display takes the premise of mud in a wildly creative new direction, and the artists use these creative approaches to effectively represent deeply emotional themes, from colonialism’s environmental impact to the racialized violence of gentrification. These innovative aesthetic approaches bring the artists’ stories to vivid life, and each piece is intellectually and emotionally impactful, making the Henry’s enclosed, cozy gallery space feel like a treasure trove of artifacts that powerfully memorialize personal and global histories.
Throughout the exhibit, with various artists working in different mediums and examining myriad stories, Thick as Mud builds itself into an aesthetically complex ecosystem. In addition to Wortzel, Howard Sandoval, Bopape, and Tagny’s works, Diedrick Brackens' vibrant catfish tapestries surround Rose B. Simpson’s clay forms of punk river warriors, and Candice Lin’s swamp clay creatures sit on low pedestals like candelabras sculpted by bayous, in which solid perfume rests for museum-goers to interact with. Accompanied by labels detailing the historical context behind the piece and pointing out minute details, each piece is rich with specific, meaningful details that make every inch of the installations worth exploring. Even in rooms that only feature stagnant tapestries, Thick As Mud feels alive with textures and earthen colors, displaying the artists’ innovation, effort, and technique.
The art pieces that don’t use mud as a medium still keep it as a theme. In Wortzel’s snakeskin furnishings and Bracken’s catfish subjects, mud is explored as a habitat for creatures historically seen as undesirable, as evidence of environmental violence’s equivalence to racialized violence, as a metaphor for the meeting of religion and science, and as a refuge from settler-colonialist oppression. Together, these works portray mud as an element of remembrance. It tells stories, it preserves histories, and it moves from one physical place to another like a memorial of where it was before. Wortzel’s Sitting Shiva remembers devastated populations of the Everglades and the environmental violence inflicted on the region. Howard Sandoval’s Niniwas- to belong here video, in which the artist walks on barren dirt and rock, also remembers this environmental violence alongside the subjugation and displacement of indigenous people of California. Bopape’s animation also remembers the subjugation and displacement of oppressive systems, made of mud from places historically intertwined with enslavement and forced migration. Every piece uses mud to tell these thematically connected stories, forming the thesis of this exhibit: mud carries memories of the past and the present.
In an odd way, I left Thick as Mud feeling softly starstruck. The Henry Art Gallery and the participating artists put together an exhibit united by a common theme, which portrays both the skills in the artists’ respective crafts and the stories they have to tell. Visually, the gallery felt like a movie still you could stare at for hours, pointing out every textured surface and every ornate detail; every display was vital to the cohesion of the gallery, adding a new dimension to the premise. The theme of mud binds the exhibit together, but so does the creativity and storytelling of artists involved. The result is a beautifully Earth-toned ecosystem of art, masterfully exploring how our environment is sculpted by history.
Thick as Mud took place at Henry Art Gallery on February 4, - May 7, 2023. For more information see here.