Presence and Absence in XX8: Becky Alley, Armel Barraud, Erin Cunningham, Maura Doyle, Narangkar Glover

This year’s iteration of the XX biennial cycles between notions of presence and absence. While content and medium are never specified for this exhibition, connections between the works often become apparent. The XX series features five female artists, each selected by an artist from the previous exhibition. Elizabeth Stevenson of Fisch Haus initiated this innovative “tagging” structure with the work of five Wichita-area artists, but the concept has now extended so far afield that, for the first time since the biennial began, none of the artists call Kansas home (although one artist earned her MFA from the University of Kansas). This unintended form of absence results in an international gathering of artists – this year hailing from the wider U.S., Canada, and France.  

Two paintings by Narangkar Glover offer us a glimpse of childhood memory, inviting us to remember a time long gone. In a monochromatic brown landscape, canyon walls frame rushing water. With its lack of specificity, details perhaps worn away by memory, Glover’s painting opens up to the viewer. We invent our own presence in the work, filling in the narrative details from our own remembered experiences. The same monochrome dominates her Purple Sweaters triptych, yet here the absence becomes one of childhood. In a montage sequence, a sweater-clad girl runs, skips rope, eats snacks, and plays marbles. This is the nature of memory: we remember bits and pieces, flashes of time, while the surrounding events fall away. 

Maura Doyle’s pieces similarly evoke memories of childhood, while speaking to an absent audience. Her oversized letters, written in a child’s careful cursive script, address the wider universe and the unseen aliens who inhabit it. With childlike coloring, a spaceship’s rainbow beam reaches down from outer space for an intergalactic transmission. Her porcelain Bones, advertised for sale in a cheerful handwritten flyer, imply an ominous absent narrative, just as the scale of the hand-lettered Tim Horton’s cup feels made for an alien giant. 

Armel Barraud’s intricate wire sculptures speak to a material absence. Channeling the finesse of a lacemaker, Barraud stitches contour lines of thin wire, drawing in space. Some of her pieces recall Alexander Calder’s circus figures, in both their wire form and their whimsical narratives. Drawing in space, however, also has the effect of surrounding negative space. From her tiny medallion portraits to a larger installation that spans part of a room, Barraud’s finely rendered details draw equal attention to what is not there. 

Erin Cunningham’s sculptures similarly negotiate between presence and absence. Cunningham uses heavy metals to cast the folded spaces of women’s bodies, which she then decoratively frames for display. In some works, such as Counterpoised, we feel the obvious absence of the rest of the body not shown; in others, like Sole, Cunningham specifically casts the negative space of the body, in a manner akin to Rachel Whiteread’s sculptures. Cunningham also seems to readily acknowledge the presence of the cultural gaze projected onto women’s bodies, yet her sculptures deny that gaze – forcing it into absence? – by focusing on the ordinary body fragments of elbow, heel, or fist.  

Becky Alley forcefully brings our attention to absence through sculptural installations that function as memorials to wartime losses. In each of her works, materials give concrete presence to the absences borne of war. Burn, a piece that greets us as we enter the exhibition space, stacks 112,000 burnt matches on a wooden plinth, symbolically commemorating the number of civilian non-combatants killed in Iraq since 2003. Freedom Cairn offers 204 felted stones as a way to mark each of the journalists killed in Iraq between 2003 and 2010, while in Unmended, 321 needles threaded with red yarn stand in for the same number of non-US military who died in Operation Iraq Freedom. Recent XX exhibitions have seen little in the way of explicitly political content, but making the unseen visible can be a political gesture. Alley’s work feels particularly apt given the recent surge of protest and activism in the U.S. and around the world, for artists are not the only ones who identify the politics of what is seen and what is unseen. 

--Rachel Epp Buller, Ph.D., is a feminist-art historian-printmaker-curator-mother of three, regional coordinator of The Feminist Art Project, and Associate Professor of Visual Arts and Design at Bethel College.