A friend of mine from school was in town for the day and we made a plan to see The Ties That Bind, an exhibition of work by Toby Pikelin at the Black Cat Showroom. I arrive a little late (pretty standard for me) and find my friend chatting with the artist at the reception desk about homemade underwear and the challenges of marketing oneself as an artist. After a little while talking, the two of us cross the floor of the showroom, pull back a black curtain, and step into a remarkable mini-universe.
The show is a collection of densely-layered dioramas and stop-motion videos all exhibited in a single, darkened room. For the most part, the lighting comes from LEDs placed within the miniature, three-dimensional worlds. Psychedelic purples, reds, and yellows emanate from tiny desk lamps, string lights, a laptop, a bonfire. This defines the atmosphere. It is surreal and inviting, both fantastical and lifelike.
The largest and most commanding diorama is a scene of a reckless house-party: a cross section snapshot of a shoddy-looking, two story home covered in vines and filled with social activity. On the top floor, two characters made from polymer clay converse between a rusty, clawfoot tub filled with reeds and a mat on the ground. They’re surrounded by empty beer bottles, cans, cigarette butts, and a discarded sandwich. A mushroom sprouts from a crack in the floorboards. The party also spills out into the garden: a man with long hair, beard and dragonfly wings jokingly aims a shotgun into a nearby tree where a figure, half-human-half-antelope, is perched. Beneath, a character in a massive fur coat plays a drum kit in the grass next to a dirty filing cabinet.
It’s clear that all the characters are based on real people in the artist’s life, in particular those with whom she goes tree-planting on the West Coast (the Northwest grunge ethos is very discernible in Pikelin’s style). Black strings connect the bodies of all the figures, connoting possible friendships, familial ties, or love affairs. The whole situation looks hedonic, absolutely uninhibited, and like so much fun.
Pikelin’s world is at its strongest in her stop-motion animations. You can see some of them here: https://www.tobypikelin.com/2947814-stop-motion-animation#1 . The videos play on two box-shaped monitors which have been altered with twigs and polymer clay, to look like prop versions of old CRT screens. In one video, we watch the final steps in the assembly of a semi-ritualistic human pyramid. The jarring movements of her characters, the swooping camera angles, and strange soundtracks (crunchy buzzing, glass breaking, spooky, staccato electronic music) bring her strong, dreamlike vision to life.
What I was most struck by was the sense of intimacy and community that was conveyed by the scenarios and the specificity of the details Pikelin includes. The show really gives one the sense of the kind of group dynamics, niche culture, inside jokes, and shared lore that emerge when people live, work, and let loose together for extended periods of time. It’s obvious that the artist cherishes the relationships and the memories she has with the people in her dioramas and videos. The exaggerated fantasy and folksyness of her style and of the media she uses (clay, miniature modelling materials, found objects, things from nature) holds a strong dialogue with the sorts of tales she is telling. They bolster one another and let the audience better access the psychotropic flavour of the scenes.
The only thing that took me out of the otherwise completely immersive experience was the space in which the show was being exhibited. It was clear that the artist was working within the constraints of the showroom, but details like the visible ceiling, tile floor, and proximity to the gallery bathrooms made the space feel visibly makeshift and pulled me away from the story. With these seams of reality showing, the context also seemed to delegitimize the works, distracting from the incredible detail and care that went into making them. I thought that the work deserved better and that the exhibition also deserved a longer running time.
Eventually, we exit the space. After another chat with the artist, my friend and I walk over to where her car and my bike are parked. Then we hear Pikelin call after us, leaning out the gallery door. Her sister (who my friend just so happens to be friends with) is having a party tonight and has invited us. I get excited. Unfortunately, this friend of mine is leaving the city tonight, and I had the feeling that it would be a little weird for me, a virtual stranger, to go alone. Too bad, I thought, it would have been fun. After seeing this show, I would have loved the chance to have met some of these people, to witness a community like this in action.
Sadly, the show is now over, but you can have a look at Pikelin's work on her website here:
And here's her Instagram. Giver a follow!
All photos are courtesy of Toby Pikelin and are from her website