Shotgun Reviews

Step of Two at Royal Nonesuch Gallery

Step of Two, the current exhibition by Emily Mast and Henna Vainio at Royal Nonesuch, tenderly complicates ideas of action versus inaction. Two freestanding sculptures by Vainio have an immediate presence, with bright colors and abstract forms that suggest human postures. To make them, Vainio pours pigmented plaster into corrugated-cardboard cylindrical molds, which collapse and bend under the weight of the plaster. Once set, the plaster becomes a record of crinkling and crushing—a record of the shape of the variegated cylinder and of the plaster’s violence against it. The tall, imperfect columns are clearly figural, and the plaster forms, like human bodies, carry records and marks of their own creation and unwieldiness. The difference is that the plaster is frozen in a moment of aggression, whereas we can hope to become gentler, kinder, and more mutable.

Right: Henna Vainio, Legs (orange), 2017; plaster, pigment, fiberglass, steel; 78 x 8 x 8 in. Left: Emily Mast. ENDE (Like a New Beginning), 2014 (video still); HD color video with sound; 7:30 sec. Courtesy of Royal Nonesuch Gallery. Photo: Dana Hemenway.

Right: Henna Vainio. Legs (Orange), 2017; plaster, pigment, fiberglass, steel; 78 x 8 x 8 in. Left: Emily Mast. ENDE (Like a New Beginning), 2014 (video still); HD color video with sound; 07:30. Courtesy of Royal Nonesuch Gallery. Photo: Dana Hemenway.

By incorporating pigment directly into the plaster, Vainio instills the objects with authenticity; the color and material are consistent down to the core. Also, by incorporating chance into her process, Vainio lets the sculptures have a role in their creation.

Henna Vainio. Legs (yellow), 2017; plaster, pigment, fiberglass, steel; 78 x 8 x 8 in. Courtesy of Royal Nonesuch Gallery. Photo: Dana Hemenway.

Henna Vainio. Legs (Yellow), 2017; plaster, pigment, fiberglass, steel; 78 x 8 x 8 in. Courtesy of Royal Nonesuch Gallery. Photo: Dana Hemenway.

Behind Vainio’s sculptures is Emily Mast’s video ENDE (Like a New Beginning). Framed by a yellow wall and featuring a palette of yellow and beige, the video presents a series of absurd actions, with simple props like baguettes and citrus fruits, that reveal profoundly vulnerable and human moments: a lemon as a pincushion; a woman wrapping a scarf around her neck; yellow feathers placed between people; pencils poked violently into a cardboard box. The tempo of the actions changes from methodical to frenetic, variations that hold the viewer’s attention through the seven-minute loop. The video’s opposing elements are perfectly balanced; it teeters between scripted and random, awkward and graceful, somber and giddy. Each scene presents an exaggeration of humanness.

Emily Mast. ENDE (Like a New Beginning), 2014 (video still); HD color video with sound; 7:30 sec. Courtesy of Royal Nonesuch Gallery. Photo: Martin Dicicco.

Emily Mast. ENDE (Like a New Beginning), 2014 (video still); HD color video with sound; 07:30. Courtesy of Royal Nonesuch Gallery. Photo: Martin Dicicco.

One particularly compelling moment in Mast’s video shows a group of six performers who slowly, almost gracefully, buckle and fall around each other into a heap on the floor—a transition from active to passive, from people to bodies. They recall the movements of collapsible wooden-giraffe toys or car-lot air dancers, and also the more morbid association of a pile of bodies. The crumpling people in Mast’s video mirror the buckling cardboard in Vainio’s sculptures. These works contain a tension between acting and being acted upon. By complicating these relationships of subject and object in sculpture and video, Mast and Vainio illustrate how passive reception can itself be an action with very real effects.

Emily Mast. ENDE (Like a New Beginning), 2014 (video still); HD color video with sound; 7:30 sec. Courtesy of Royal Nonesuch Gallery. Photo: Martin Dicicco.

Emily Mast. ENDE (Like a New Beginning), 2014 (video still); HD color video with sound; 07:30. Courtesy of Royal Nonesuch Gallery. Photo: Martin Dicicco.

Step of Two will be on view through June 4, 2017.

Taryn Wiens is an independent writer, artist, and curator. She is the cofounder and codirector of S/PLI/T Projects, a series of two-person exhibitions in rotating venues, and has written for Temporary Art Review and 60-Inch-Center. Previously she worked as a gallery manager for Disjecta Contemporary Art Center.

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