Two shows. Two senior theses. Two studio art majors. Beyond that, the two offerings currently on view at Providence College Galleries don’t seem to share much. There is, perhaps, a commonality of inward gazing, and a thread of alienation. But the sources of alienation, and the artists’ respective responses, are far from synonymous.
Madigan Farrell’s work caught my eye first. How could it not? Farrell’s canvases seem designed to elicit dopamine with their sugary colors. The exhibit is titled Forgotten Lunchbox and references the artist’s experience of “learning how to manage her ADHD during childhood.”
Adderall, the best-known ‘modern’ amphetamine, was first marketed in 1996. After being acquired by British pharma giant Shire, it went on to massive success, medicating an entire generation (or two) of children. I’m not certain what Farrell’s management of her ADHD entailed, but her shapes and palettes seem to originate in the same era Adderall did.
Cataloging the aesthetic trends of advertising and pop culture has become a trend itself in recent years, and Farrell’s work seems to invoke any number of nostalgic visual cultures. Block Design Test and Dance Impressions might fall under the “Global Village Coffeehouse” label, while there are notes of the “Utopian Scholastic” in Farrell’s optimistically bright palettes.
You might make comparisons to any number of advertising and commodities, actually: beach towels, candy wrappers, school supplies. It’s a lunch box indeed, containing every possible treat, and in quantities far greater than the usual parental limit of one-per-day.
These are well executed paintings, with sufficient punchiness. But for whatever reason, I had trouble falling into them. I think it’s a case of “It’s not you, it’s me.” If I had seen these canvases circa 2015, when I was a wider-eyed critic, I would have been awed by their color alone.
My main complaint is that these canvases succeed too much at visualizing an attention deficit. The compositions can be extraordinarily busy. I liked Playground and Cat Scan most, and each had enough breathing room for Farrell’s marks. Farrell seems to have a good intuition for color, brushwork and patterning. The marks just need a little more freedom to be themselves.
In contrast to the high-fructose buffet in Farrell’s Forgotten Lunchbox, Callie Chan’s P.W.I. consists of a single, somber piece, made from many pieces of clay hanging in a wooden frame. The title is an acronym for “predominantly white institution.” Providence College—hell, I’d imagine most Rhode Island colleges—fits that bill. The exhibit statement explains that Chan, “as one of very few Chinese Americans at Providence College…lacks [a] sense of belonging, acceptance and understanding” in her surroundings.
It’d be tacky to pretend I understand the specificities of Chan’s experience, but if it contained loneliness, then I do know that. What is loneliness if not a painful extension of time? Boredom suggests an eventual end, but isolation can linger and linger and linger. These thesis exhibitions were made over the course of an entire academic year. Chan’s, then, is calendrical, acting as a clock. I’m sure you know the headspace of a waiting room. A clock’s hands are very shy, which is why they move slowly if you’re watching.
As a record of days spent in squeezing and frustration, P.W.I. works. Does the piece still work even without the backstory? I think so. It’s elegantly constructed, and the unique grip visible in each clay form breaks the repetition, inviting us to examine closely. Conversely, if you stand back and take a wider view, you’ll see the silhouette of what looks to be a dragon.
Watch carefully enough and you will notice the clay lumps slightly swaying on the twine. Despite the rocking motion, each squeezed lump of clay will remain dormant, a cocoon that will never burst open. Still, these crushed forms aren’t wasted time. Look at the floor. You’ll see their shadows, fluttering.
FYI: Callie Chan’s P.W.I. and Madigan Farrell’s Forgotten Lunchbox are on view through July 29, 2022 at Providence College Galleries, 212 Huxley Ave, in the Hunt-Cavanagh building.