ArtsATL > Art+Design > Review: Cynthia Farnell’s “Metamorphoses” mysterious myths, lovely images

Review: Cynthia Farnell’s “Metamorphoses” mysterious myths, lovely images

Cynthia Farnell's installation Metamorphoses.
Cynthia Farnell's installation Metamorphoses.
Cynthia Farnell’s installation Metamorphoses.

Cynthia Farnell’s installation Metamorphoses, at the XChange Gallery of the Arts Exchange through June 30, raises several sets of intriguing questions, not all of them open to easy answers.

The Arts Exchange’s gallery has been the site of a wide variety of solo and group shows, and has served as a meeting point for multiple cultures and artistic practices ever since its foundation in the mid-1980s. The gallery’s most recent iteration, under the directorship of Malkia M’Buzi Moore, has featured distinguished exhibitions that have incorporated Atlanta art in its full range of ethnicities, including the work of the city’s newest émigrés from across the earth.

Cynthia Farnell: Sketch for Arachne, Metamorphoses Series. (c) Cynthia Farnell, 2014.
Cynthia Farnell: Sketch for Arachne, Metamorphoses Series, © Cynthia Farnell, 2014.

So in a sense it is refreshingly transgressive for Cynthia Farnell to return to the roots of Greco-Roman mythology, as rendered in a text by the Roman poet Ovid, until recently likely to be regarded as problematic. But the stories Ovid tells come from ancient precursors, and Farnell has rendered his mythological figures as aspects of a human psychology rooted in a physical environment that preceded human culture and may, in some form, survive in spite of it.

Some of the myths reflected in the titles of Farnell’s fabric hangings might be familiar: Narcissus, Neptune, Daphne, and the paired names in Jove & Danae and Diana & Actaeon. All of the myths could be read in a contemporary framework, the less-known ones most of all. For example, Arachne was turned into a spider by Athena only after losing a weaving competition in which the goddess’s weaving depicted the fate of mortals who challenge divinities, but Arachne’s weaving told the stories of how male gods deceived and exploited mortal women. The fountain that sprang from the tears of Byblis over her sexual desire for her twin brother Caunus derives from a tale of repressed incest that understandably never made it into the classical myths retold for children in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Farnell renders all this narrative complexity moot (in the word’s actual meaning of “not admitting of a final decision”) by refusing to match her titles with the images on the semitransparent hangings.

We are left to puzzle out not only the relationship of the images to the myths, but also which image relates to which story. Narcissus is easy; a mirror and the flower named after the young man in love with his reflection. Some of the others may be more difficult, especially since the digital photocollages are chosen to emphasize the relationship of the statues of the mythic figures with trees and flowers that are frequently not the main focus of the story.

In other words, these dimly seen pictures are evocations, not illustrations. They are created by a thoroughly contemporary method: each photocollage is inkjet-printed on 72-by-36-inch sheets of thin cotton fabric, temporarily mounted on paper to permit passage through a digital printer. The sheets are then hung free-floating from the ceiling, each image interfered with by the images clearly visible on the sheets of fabric hanging behind it. It takes considerable effort to view each individual image clearly.

An image emerges when Farnell immerses a sheet in a bath of iodine in a performance.
An image that will be part of Frieze emerges when Farnell immerses a sheet of cotton lawn fabric in a bath of iodine.

The possibility that this difficulty may be a reflection on our difficult relationship with a mostly forgotten classical past is supported by the metaphorically suggestive art-and-science conjuration in which Farnell engages in Frieze.

When the show was first installed, this triptych appeared to be nothing more than three blank sheets of cotton fabric, juxtaposed on the wall. During the opening reception, the first sheet was immersed in a bath of iodine as a performative Transformation Event, with the immersion gradually revealing the image concealed until the chemical interaction of starch and iodine made it visible. The imagery on the two remaining segments of Frieze will be brought into view in Transformation Events on June 14 from 1 to 2:30 p.m. and June 28 from 3 to 5 p.m., at which time Farnell will also deliver an artist’s talk.

This means the whole picture won’t be available until the final days of the exhibition. And that, combined with the effort required to make visible this fragile homage to the friezes of volcano-buried Pompeii, suggests yet another set of ideas to follow — or to ignore — lingering wordlessly with the loveliness of Farnell’s re-invention of ancient tales.

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