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Help and Harm: Untangling Care from Violence

EXHIBITION REVIEW of Krystal Difronzo's solo show at Bunker Projects  |  Written by: Sidney Mullis  |  Editor: Anna Mirzayan  |  Publisher: Jessie Rommelt

4.20.2022

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On view at Bunker Projects, You were born good at make die (2022) is a solo exhibition of fabric wall hangings, silk paintings, charcoal drawings, and dead dough sculptures by Craft Resident Krystal Difronzo. Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, the roots of the exhibition are autobiographical for the artist. To help understand their paternal intergenerational trauma, each artwork grapples with how intimacy, care, and nourishment can occur directly alongside violence. 

The exhibition, despite stretching across two white rooms, feels like it’s outdoors; fabric artworks in shades of muddy brown, earthy green, bone yellow, charcoal black, and cold-night blue cover the walls and front-room windows. However, it is the handmade antlers, bones, and beer cans that tell me I am in a specific backwood: a hunting ground. 

​“Dead Deer & Other Animals” by the band Thanksgiving is a song from Difronzo’s teenage years that they often played while driving solo on rural, Midwestern roads. The song perfectly soundtracks the exhibition as each line steers me toward dead does, circling vultures, and ruling men. Aptly, Difronzo plucked lyrics from the indie-grunge song to name the exhibition and a majority of the artworks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"No one could pull her off the road" (2022), natural dyes (osage orange, pomegranate and iron) and resist on silk, felt, found fabric, bleach, embroidery floss, ribbon

 

Fabric wall hangings dangle from hunter orange loops and are sewn together using a variety of secondhand fabrics, RealTree camouflage, and naturally dyed silk. As physical objects, they look as if they could provide the familiar comfort of a blanket, but their imagery depicts death and violence. Animal skulls, dead deer, pecking vultures, flesh-eating coyotes, car crashes, and an altercation between a fictional father and daughter are hand-painted beautifully on soft pieces of silk. This duality of using soft silk to carry imagery of violence and death can be seen repeatedly throughout the exhibition.

 

Softness carrying the hard, however, is not the only way these two exist in the exhibition. In the front room on opposing walls are a grotto for Artemis and a grotto for Diana — a single deity shown in her Greek and Roman forms. Painted on silk using natural dyes, this deity not only protects wildlife, she kills it. As goddess of the hunt, she is often depicted with a bow flanked by gnashing hounds. Surprisingly, she was even called upon by women to aid in conception and delivery. For Diana/Artemis, the nurturing of wildlife and its termination come from the same hand. Those soft and hard, violent acts now coexist within the same entity. A revered deity. Through the making of these artworks, Difronzo processes how protection, in the form of hanging blankets, is stitched together from pain and how the helpful hand, in the form of a beloved goddess, also slaps.

"So come and join the feast" (2022),  natural dyes (tea, madder root, turmeric, osage orange pomegranate, and iron) and resist on three silk gauze panels

Difronzo, though, does not let violence and death mark the end of the exhibition. They dig forward to see how the aftermath of a violent act, mournful decay, or death can yield nourishment, growth, and regeneration. So come and join the feast (2022) is a silk painting of a dead deer that becomes food for scavenging vultures. The painting, cut into three panels to cover the front-room windows, casts an end-of-winter blue over the gallery. The dead deer laying limp in overgrown grass looks as if it was beginning to be gutted by its hunter, or goddess, but was stranded. Two vultures attend to its decaying body, its flesh a perfect meal. 

​Difronzo adores vultures, appreciating them as natural custodians and caregivers. As scavengers, they remove carrion from the cold ground and consume it as nourishment for themselves and for their babies. They use regurgitation to provide food for their young, making every solo meal a family treat. This selfless act of storing food inside one’s self, not to eat, but to deliver can be seen across from the windows in the fabric wall hanging The vultures always want to eat (2022). In the center of the patchwork composition is a hand-painted vulture at its nest, throat full, feeding a baby vulture and a self-portrait of Difronzo. The artist digests how even in death, at the end of things, life is still possible. 

In today’s world, it is difficult to separate hunting from the masculine men who partake in the activity. For Difronzo, the film The Deer Hunter (1978) was the only reference they had for Pittsburgh’s landscape and its people prior to beginning their residency at Bunker Projects. This three-hour-and-three-minute movie follows a group of young adult men and their evolving friendship as they experience a wedding, deer hunt, and deployment to the Vietnam war. Most notably for Difronzo, the men only share their affection for one another through violence. Verbal insults, backslaps, bullying, finger-numbing handshakes, and constant roughhousing is the manner in which their intimacy is made visible or even offered. In nearly every scene. Almost every line. 

Difronzo pulled four landscape images of Pittsburgh from the film and rendered each in charcoal on pomegranate-dyed paper. While the men and their quasi-closeness is absent from the drawings, their identical titles, One Shot (2022), shove the ultra-masculine energy back into every wooden frame. This title comes from Robert De Niro’s character, Mike, who declares that a hunter must take down a deer with only “one shot.” Any more is a failure — a failure of manhood, of course, not hunting.

Difronzo completes the exhibition with the most beguiling sculptures of bones, hooves, antlers, and Hamm’s beer cans — all made of dead dough. Dead dough, sometimes called salt dough, is deceivingly non-edible bread. The dough is considered dead because there is no yeast to metabolize the starches and sugars in the flour. Instead, the flour and water is overtaken by heaps of salt. Kept from developing its nutrients, the dead dough does not rise, but dries out in a low-degree oven. Prior to becoming essentially preserved, the dough is shaped with a razor, much like a baker scours the top of bread, and is coated with egg white to add that warm color to the hard crust. Regardless, these bread sculptures cannot offer any sustenance, even if they are in the shape of bones with deeply held marrow. And, those beer cans — Difronzo has emptied those, too. These sculptures make me reconsider what provides nourishment and what, despite appearances, does not. 

 

"Marrow Altar" (2022), dead dough, local grasses and thistles
 

By surveying music alongside film, mythology, nature, food, and science, Difronzo draws a complex map to help untangle an emotional past. Their exhibition exposes how opposing dualities can become — complicatedly — one and the same. Soft and hard, feminine and masculine, care and violence, nourishment and decay, birth and death. The collapse of some of these seemingly contrasting attributes, like feminine and masculine, is beautiful and category-defying in ways the 21st century desperately needs. The collapse of care into violence, though, has always been and always will be dangerous, traumatic, and potentially fatal. 

 

 

 

 

Reverie Pink

EXHIBITION REVIEW of Lacey Hall's solo show at Bunker Projects  |  Written by: Sidney Mullis  |  Editor: Anna Mirzayan  |  Publisher: Jessie Rommelt

8.27.2021

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The interior castle (2021) is a sweet and gentle exhibition of small paintings, drawings, and sculptures by NYC-based, Pittsburgh-grown artist Lacey Hall. The exhibition, stretching across two rooms, is hung in a loose gallery midline except for one hidden object that waits to be found. The work is personal in size with the smallest oil painting measuring 2-by-2 inches and the largest watercolors at 11-by-14. The paintings look like they could nestle into the palm of your hands and the watercolors feel like the book illustrations you poured over as a kid (instead of reading the boring three-word-sentence on the next page). 

 

Spread across Bunker’s fireplace mantel are toy-sized clay objects that tempt you with play. A Barbie-sized horse, crown fit for a fig, and teeny-tiny lamb sit perched, waiting and willing. Painted calamine-pink, their rosy coats magnify the existing soothing quality of playtime and playthings. Their color is seen again—large-scale and enveloping—in the second room of the exhibition that has been painted the same balmy color.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Interior Castle installation view at Bunker Projects, 2021

Working in ink, watercolor, gouache, acrylic, and oil, Hall shares moments of romantic escape. Her two-dimensional works reveal scenes of girls, teenagers and princesses isolated and unbothered in idyllic open fields, green forests, cool fountains, and sacred childhood bedrooms. The environments provide the young women with reprieve, or at least a moment of quiet transition. The surroundings sometimes shift into surreal terrain—as seen in Desert Race (2020), Runaway (2021), and Time will turn/the world will turn (2021)—where incongruous scale and opposing perspective live side-by-side. Yet, the young women are still unbothered. They are cozy—comforted by the absence of exterior logic.

In Hall’s Pinctada (2021), for example, a young woman donning a pink dress with glorious puff sleeves is putting on her classy red heels despite clearly living underwater in an oversized, pearl-producing oyster. Breathing underwater? That is not a problem in this interior castle. The clear comfort of these spaces is made certain by the companion animals usually standing near the solitary young women. While they may be isolated—faraway from other places and people—the animals prove they are not alone. Their partnership seems vital for the possibility of reverie in these scenes. 

Horses, cats, and dogs—as seen in Desert Race (2020)Unsettling dream in a minidress (2020)Creamsicle (2020)Time will turn/the world will turn (2021)It’s not like I’m Invisible (2021), and Runaway (2021)—have anciently long and rich histories in painting. Their presence here is primarily one of close friendship—hardened by the grieving of dog death found in two artworks. In Time will turn/the world will turn (2021)—the only black ink drawing in the show—a flying angel whisks across the sky holding a dog. She ushers it lovingly forward by a large sash wrapped around its belly. On the ground is a canopy structure built entirely of bones marked with the blowing flag “Beloved Dog.” This terrestrial grave marker protects a dog-sized mound of bones—the same ones that the structure is made of.

The next lamentation of dog death is both harder to find and more emphatically announced. Missing my dog (2020) is a 3.5-by-2-by-2 inch vessel hidden in the exposed brick wall in the pink room of the exhibition. Like a secret urn holding the ashes of a loved one, this painted clay object is nestled above the baseboard molding and below the wall outlet. These few inches of overlooked space are the perfect height for the sniffing snout of a mid-sized dog—which matches the size of the yellow Labrador painted on the vessel.  

Hall’s brushstrokes emerge as quick and expressive, yet are detailed without forced rigidity. She employs a vast visual vocabulary that is both invented and sourced—including reference to Horace Pippin’s lamb, shells, shoes, stars, swans, flowers, deer, birds, fruit, purses, vanities, candles and more. These moving symbols produce a network of meaning and relationships between the work. For instance, a desirable and prominently placed blue glass chalice in Tabletop Theatre (2018) is found again—now modestly—on a small table in the corner of Bedtime by the River (occupied Osage Territory) (2021). A bunny on the loose in They got all dressed up (2021) seems to have broken out of its corral in Time will turn/the world will turn (2021). The physical position needed to view Hall’s works is close, and the emotional temperament near intimate.

The two most contemporary and clearly beloved paintings of the exhibition are of white cotton towels that have been folded into swans. Known in the hospitality industry as “towel swans,” they can be found on hotel beds or cruise ships. Measuring less than 5-inches, each painted towel swan is centered in the composition and rendered absurdly small with remarkable care, making the soulmate symbolism evermore present and sentimental. The hands that made these tender cotton twists are still in sight, supporting the necking heads—hinting that the maker is not a hotel employee, but a lover. Here, romance materializes from the repeated roll-and-fold of a towel. 

 

 

 

 

Isabella's Swan, 2021                                                     Dinner for Two, 2021

 

In adulthood, sweetness (or softness, or gentleness, or quietness) is often overlooked for its perceived ease and vapidity. As a child, it is coddled and protected. In adolescence, it can make you a target or invisible flower. As a woman, it deems you desirable, profitable. This sweet syrup overflows in childhood and hardens with age. For Hall, the ease with which she sources, renders, and re-envisions sweetness in her work proves that it has been her longtime refuge; one that appears to have never been lost, ignored, or used against her, and one that she continues to fortify—as seen in her exhibition The interior castle (2021)—to build her own everyday romantic escape.

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Letters to My Students 

One letter to the students in my Beginning Sculpture course & one letter to the students in my Advanced Art Seminar called The Shape of Space  

2020

At the end of Spring 2020, we were still enduring the Covid-19 global pandemic. I was teaching two courses, Beginning Sculpture and an Advanced Art Seminar called The Shape of Space, online via Zoom to keep our communities safe from contracting coronavirus. As the end of the academic semester drew near, I became preoccupied with how to conclude my courses in a meaningful way. How do you say goodbye to groups of students during a global pandemic? How do you say goodbye that isn't just an awkward Zoom wave and the closing of my web browser? How do you say goodbye to students that continued to foreground their education despite a time of consistent uncertainty, political chaos, rising unemployment—bracketed by the fear of getting sick? I decided to write them letters which I read over Zoom at the end of each class. They are frank, vulnerable, somewhat circuitous, and a little inspiring.

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Foundation 

2014

book of poems

The words in this book of poetry were appropriated from Youtube videos of young girls providing makeup tutorials.

 

12 Youtube videos were selected and carefully transcribed to include every "uhm" and "uh." Videos were chosen based on their titles and had to indicate a grade or age that the look was intended for, such as "natural 4th grade makeup." The girls providing these tutorials ranged from age five to age twelve and their videos were uploaded between 2012 to 2014. 

 

The process of transcription was done manually. I listened to the videos again and again—playing, pausing, typing, rewinding, playing—in order to get an accurate transcription. It was tedious, intimate, heartbreaking, and familiar because I was also one of those girls who made makeup tutorials, but for the silence of my bedroom, not anonymous Youtube viewers. 

After transcription, the language was divided according to makeup product and restructured into poems. Foundation, Eye Shadow, Blush, Mascara, Lip Gloss. In addition to tutorial instructions, there are many mentions for the desire to be natural—to be confident. There are multiple reminders about how a little makeup goes a long way and to be sure not to do too much because they're just kids.

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Interview with Bertha the Skanky Couch 

email exchange

2015

Bertha the Skanky Couch was the name of a couch that was a fixture of my MFA program at Penn State University. Many students sat on her between classes. She often appeared in student work. She was the perfect sleeping spot for all-nighters. One day, us students received an e-mail from Bertha. She relayed announcements and important dates making us aware of clogged sinks, university deadlines, and final critique dates. Not only was she helpful, she had flair to her writing style, and sass. As her e-mails came more frequently to my inbox, I decided to e-mail back to see what she would say (and try to figure out who Bertha was). 

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On Mon, Mar 2, 2015, 11:17pm, Bertha The Skanky Sculpture Couch <berthatheskankysculpturecouch@psu.edu> wrote:  

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On Tue, Mar 3, 2015, 1:18pm, Bertha The Skanky Sculpture Couch <berthatheskankysculpturecouch@psu.edu> wrote:  

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