New mixed media art show in Brooklyn features abstract pieces with noir and fiction literature influences

Artworks in the "Stele" installation by Gelah Penn. (Photos by Etienne Frossard)

Updated Feb. 23, 2020, 11:40 a.m. A new art show in Brooklyn features works by artist Gelah Penn that are abstract but rooted in influences from literature and noir film.

The exhibition, called “Uneasy Terms,” is at Undercurrent Gallery, at 70 John St. in Vinegar Hill near Dumbo. It includes three installations, which are set up throughout the building’s space, including the stairwell that leads to the main gallery, and uses various materials including everyday objects, which play with light in different ways for the viewer.

“While my work is primarily non-narrative, a lot of the visual components and source materials are informed by my interest in film and fiction,” said Penn. “I’m drawn to the dramatically shadowed lighting style of film noir and my installation titles come primarily from the genre; they tend to be somewhat evocative and cryptic. I also enjoy literature that obscures narrative sequence in the same way film noir does, such as epistolary novels.” 

One of the works, “Notes on Clarissa (Volume I),” includes 99 collages using exhibition cards from another recent show by Penn, “Ebb Tide.” The work is based on the 19th century novel “Clarissa,” by Samuel Richardson, which is told through letters and centers around the story of a young woman’s seduction, betrayal, violation and death. Each collage relates to a letter in the novel.

“Notes on Clarissa,” left, and a work from “Stele” at far right.

“I’ve wanted to do a drawing installation series related to Clarissa for a while now but was figuring out an appropriate context,” said Penn. “For an installation earlier this year, the gallery produced these small 4×6 inch exhibition cards with images of my artwork to advertise the show. I thought using the cards as source material was an interesting way to insinuate myself into the narrative in a more abstract and expressive way.”

Several works are on display from Penn’s “Stele” series, constructed from synthetic materials chosen for their ability to activate light and create shadow, emphasizing a graphic quality in the installations. Penn noted that these works read as somewhat totemic, a response to the architectural parameters of the space. 

The “Stele” series as part of “Uneasy Terms.”
Detail of an artwork in “Stele.”

A third installation is “Prologue,” which also includes objects made of various materials and in different shapes, and Penn noted that she prefers viewers to draw their own aesthetic observations and visual dialogue when experiencing her work. Materials used in the exhibition include synthetic, often lightweight materials like plastic garbage bags, mosquito netting, Mylar, and lenticular plastic.

The “Prologue” installation at the exhibition.

“My way into the work is through materials,” Penn said. “The idea of repurposing humble materials into something as enriching as artwork is very attractive to me.”

Penn said she is drawn to how light behaves in lightweight, translucent materials. “Materials are the way in for me to examine the relationship between optics, drawing, and installation,” she said, adding that modularity and materiality are important components of her practice.

Penn grew up in western Pennsylvania and lived for many years in New York City. She now lives in rural Connecticut, after she was given advice to move every 20 years, but she still considers herself a New Yorker, she said. Penn added that the city’s noise had gotten worse in recent years and it was generally a harder place for artists to live.

Penn has more space and a calmer life outside of the city, she said, though she’s not sure how that has affected her work. And anxieties are still there, now latching on to something else, she said, but Penn added of living in Connecticut, “it feels better for me.”

Penn’s works often show all of the materials used, even those used to bind parts together. But she added that parts can be hidden at times as well. “To show and hide some, it’s these dualities that I like to play with,” Penn said.

The show runs until March 14, and a conversation at Undercurrent will be held with Penn and artist Tom McGlynn on March 7 at 2pm. More information can be found at undercurrent70.org.

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