BOULDER, CO — For more than a year, Boulder has been busy healing, not only from the COVID-19 pandemic, but from a shooting in 2021 that killed 10 people and a fire that consumed over 1,000 homes across three cities. The devastation has been so overwhelming that when a sinkhole snagged a city bus this year, Twitter briefly fluttered with Biblical references to the End of Days. Artist Erica Green’s site-specific exhibition Once They Were Red at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art manifests an act of repair through humble materials, but the experience is one of surviving more than mending. Is there a difference?
A dense grouping of wool tendrils descends from the museum ceiling, terminating just above the floor. The soft sculptures, collectively titled White Flags (2022), reshape their surrounding space by devouring the light and casting shadows. Green punctuates her textile lifelines with knots that strengthen the integrity of the material by repeatedly binding with her legible mend. From a distance, White Flags looks smooth and lush, but the fibers are thin and rough, waiting to be pulled through the wheel and spindle once more. I wonder if, as in a fairy tale, the spinner was pricked and has surrendered to a deep sleep. If a loved one was murdered shopping for groceries or the wind sent a spark from a utility line that transformed homes to piles of white ash, it would have to be a bad dream, right? Grief is a blanketing curse that shrinks the room and snuffs out the light. It makes “getting back to normal” both a beacon and a faulty compass to the past. Adding to the disorientation, local officials instruct residents to watch the neighbors for mental illness instead of inconveniencing weapon consumers or encourage everyone to ride a bike to work to mitigate climate change while the Suncor Refinery on the edge of town gets emission waivers.
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“Everything must be improving,” writes Heather Havrilesky in her essay “The Smile Factory.” She observes the American imperative to focus on “positive things” or to identify the lesson in suffering, as if sadness is a moral failing that could be rectified by better personal decisions.
Art is not in a rush to resolve and move on, or find logic in suffering, yet it has the capacity to acknowledge both individual and collective loss. Green’s installations do not make grief their subject; in fact, the work barely whispers it. The exhibition text only notes that the work honors the endless process of rebuilding oneself and that the fragility or endurance of the individual can be impossible to distinguish from the group. In the context of a million COVID deaths, mass shootings, and the endless wildfire season of the western states, Green’s artworks are both conclusive and messy, because they are shaped by viewers who are experiencing all these things.
This is most acutely witnessed with an incredible series of tapestries made from felt ribbons secured by sewing pins topped with pink and red clay pearls. The elegant strips of cloth in “Once They Were Red” (2021) partially cover the gallery walls and windows, accumulating like a vigilant ledger of time. The knotting returns (“In the Thick of It,” 2022) but the flat felt loops differently from the wool when tied, creating swirling folds that evoke petals. Some twisting bands recalled Gustave Dore’s engraving of heaven in Dante’s The Divine Comedy, which he envisioned as a vast white rose comprised of angels. Bianca Stone describes Dore’s “saintly throng” as mashed, hurtling, and frenzied in her poem “The Way Things Were Up Until Now.” But Green’s roses are made of bandages, not angels, suggesting that solace resides in judicious action.
Erica Green: Once They Were Red continues at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art (1750 13th Street, Boulder, Colorado) through June 12. The exhibition was curated by Pamela Meadows.