Chroma Projects Director Deborah McLeod has been keeping a unique holiday tradition for the past several years. “Every year at Christmastime, I showcase Aggie Zed’s oddly enchanting work,” says McLeod. “I think of it as a modern version of the sort of folkloric forms and superstitious practices surrounding not just Christmas, but Krampus, Samhain, and other costumed celebrations of the winter solstice—mostly focused on the breaking of barriers between the physical and spirit worlds.”
This year McLeod chose artists Leigh Anne Chambers and Michelle Gagliano to accompany Zed’s work in “What to Wondering Eyes Should Appear” at Chroma Projects though December 19.
“In Leigh Anne Chambers’ paintings, I imagine that mysterious, unfathomable drama that traditionally goes on in our collective heads in the dark,” says McLeod. “There’s a kind of disorientation and lack of personal control that happens. …A similar disorientation occurs in Michelle Gagliano’s work. Her paintings urge us to pass through those familiar gateways to something more enigmatic that lies beyond the material world.”
Chambers has made a practice of incorporating non-traditional art media, such as vinyl floor covering and carpeting, to call into question our ideas about art. In these works, she uses liquid rubber, a sealant for roofs and retaining walls. The material creates impenetrable expanses of pure blackness that obscure anything behind them. These bold planes have pronounced bravado and engender a lively spatial and textural interplay with Chambers’ other passages.
A work of remarkable power, Chambers’ “Combative Acquaintance” hums with charged energy. Girly pinks explode across the upper right of the painting, cascading down in a dramatic diagonal. These almost-too-pretty hues are tempered by brushwork that introduces brown, green, yellow, and purple. Blocks of black, acid green, and maroon near the bottom add flatness, which contrasts to Chambers’ ornate painterliness. These also provide the semblance of background and ground on which a mass of huddled figures seems to crouch. But Chambers is playing with our perceptions; on further inspection, we can’t be sure they are figures at all. She allows us to get only so far in deciphering, before she drops the illusion altogether.
Gagliano takes a poetic approach to rendering the landscape, focusing on the ephemeral and emotional qualities, and producing work that is atmospheric, symbolic, and mysterious. Recently, she has embraced a more abstract approach, based on the palette of Renaissance painter Raphael, with ultramarine blues, vivid reds, and a liberal use of gold.
“Raffaello in Blue” suggests a landscape with an implied horizon line. Above is the lighter cerulean blue of sky, draped with peculiar, almost dripping clouds, and below, the darker blue and dun color of sun-dappled topography. There is something undeniably elemental about the piece, as if Gagliano is drilling down to the very essence of things: the vapors within the air and the lapis lazuli from which ultramarine pigment is derived in the earth.
In 2018, Gagliano eliminated all toxic materials from her work, introducing ground pigments, oils, and solvents. “I went from the old techniques of layer upon layer of glaze applied with brush, sponge, and knife, to working pigments directly into the surface, using the same kinds of mediums as Raphael used, lavender and walnut oil,” she says. “They’re nontoxic and not harmful to the environment. Now, my studio smells like a spa and you could make a salad dressing from my binding medium!”
There’s a scavenged quality about Aggie Zed’s work. Growing up on Sullivan’s Island (outside Charleston, South Carolina), which was then a sleepy community, Zed and her siblings had the run of the place with its abandoned fort and beaches. Her father was an engineer for a TV station and an all-around tinkerer. After his untimely death in a car crash, money was tight. Zed had to rely on her imagination and skill at scavenging and upcycling to entertain herself. These influences inform her aesthetic, which has the same ocean-tossed, sun-bleached, and windswept quality as the detritus you might find on a beach.
Zed produces a variety of small-scale sculptures, including ceramic human figures and human-animal combos—copper wire, ceramic, and metal assemblages she calls “scrap floats.” These threadbare but jaunty little constructions are curious and endearing. They recall the inventiveness and charm of Alexander Calder’s “Circus.” Take for instance, “Tinyman Tale,” which features a ceramic figure on a joyfully jury-rigged contraption shored up by scraps of metal and what looks like a cog standing in for a wheel. A sail, or banner, billows over the rear of the float. It’s a miniature double-sided painting that suggests the ongoing phases of a narrative. Despite its size, the little painting packs a real punch with interesting juxtapositions of shapes and bold colors.
Zed deftly navigates the fine line between charming and cutesy, creating figures that have far more in common with those of Hieronymus Bosch than the ones that populate the “Wonderful World of Disney.”
“I love my figures because they look like they’ve put up with a lot,” she says. “They’re so patient and poignant, despite whatever it is they have to deal with. I actually think most people are like that. It’s just that the television doesn’t show it.”