Laura Shill continues to explore the transformative potential of people and objects in her solo show at Leon Gallery, Future Self Storage, through visual metaphors empathetically tuned to express our existential plight over this past year. Shill’s installation made up of plaster, clay, and fabric sculptures is a refined maturation of previous iterations resuscitated through her ongoing oppositional narratives surrounding disclosure and concealment, absence and intimacy, remembering and forgetting, and aspiration and burden.
The physical manifestation of these works can be ascribed as symbols of the transition between life, death, and rebirth, more specifically here, the state between death and rebirth. In some schools of Tibetan Buddhism, this intermediary stage between death and rebirth, is referred to as “bardo.” Here, Shill has acted compassionately towards her former creations, guiding them out of storage or from what could be interpreted as their death (taken off view) and reincarnating them into a newly realized body of work. She imbues her sculptures with anthropomorphic personas which emulate this bardo state wherein they follow the stages of death described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, starting with a physical degradation said to spark a spiritual awakening, followed by hallucinations of the past, which can only be quelled through karmic reckoning. Shill’s themes seem to echo parts of the six stages of bardo (essentially: birth; dreams; meditation; death; true nature; transmigration or karmic becoming) intersecting grief, fear, humor, love, ecstasy, and liberation through crying, climaxing, barfing, hugging, pointing, dangling, and grasping.
Shill’s revisitation of existing work not only speaks to her ability to renew their purpose as well as her own but also her ability to wield the artist’s plight of storing art into a universal theme. She philosophically parallels storage and the emotional baggage of “keeping” with our forced dormancy and self-containment during the height of the pandemic. Her work is vividly revived from isolation in its dimensional and emotional depth evoked in a color spectrum tinged with the hues of a flaming sunset akin to a god-like signature. Evident immediately upon entering the gallery, the florescent blue shadow of the plaster cast balloon letters, which spell out Shill’s well-crafted exhibition title, Future Self Storage, causes one to hallucinate they may still be filled with air, despite their solid weight.
The color palette of her disembodied plaster cast hands is realized in a light pink flesh tone made even more realistic with sinuous veins and creases and more ancient with the rough texture of stucco. The shading of the fingertips accelerates into a deeply saturated red-pink bordering on discomfort. Some of these hands first appeared in a more sterile, concrete gray color, holding selfie sticks in Separation Perfected, in the project space at David B. Smith Gallery in Denver, in 2017. Two hands resurface nearly unrecognizable in, Divergent Goals, conjoined by the elbows in a singular arm with hands at either end outstretched in opposition. This piece singularly encapsulates the perverse spirituality Shill is known for, wherein she explains, “one hand is reaching towards god—the other towards the [tv] remote.”
A Touching Epitaph is reminiscent of Shill’s minimalist reduction of compositions subtlety appropriated from pornographic source material. Here, she embeds a gesture found in Hustler magazine in an epitaph with caricature liquid droplets oozing out. These bubble-like, clay droplets appear throughout her sculptures, reminding us of how our own bodily liquid has posed a threat to others over the past year and at the same time, the necessary emotional and subsequent physical release of pain and pleasure. Ecstatic Gesture #1 and #2 are also repurposed to signify her commentary on female hand positioning found in popular media and in the context of the pandemic, also symbolize our starvation for touch.
Shill employs her signature repetition of form with a reconfiguration of The Tall Room from her solo show, Phantom Touch, at MCA Denver in 2016. 9,000 feet (out of the original 18,000 feet) of vaginal pink and red tubes stuffed with polyfill and “emotional weight” line walls from floor to ceiling and crawl over and out of surfaces into tangled nests on the floor. Her primary material in Future Self Storage may in fact be, “emotional weight,” as the tubes themselves seemingly expand and contract like a living organ, oscillating from wanting to be touched and not wanting to be.
She best manifests the psychology behind liminality through humanizing vessels akin to Etruscan funerary urns. The physicality of her Dali-like hands, appear to resist and embrace the vessels that contain them potentially in reaction to the unknown. Shill illustrates this uncertainty with her painted brick doorways or portals, titled, Path to the Future. She says they allude to the illusory nature and anxiety of an unknown future which is perpetually forming. Perhaps in order to ease the pain, she positioned two life-sized, headless totems made of stacked ceramic pots who seem to be consoling themselves through a self-embrace and cascading tears.
Shill generously offers us a surrealistic visual vocabulary for this tension that simultaneously self-suffocates and spills out. Her contemplation over the life cycle of art and the ongoing state of limbo informs her comical configurations throughout the gallery suspending disembodied parts. Her approach is poignantly autobiographical in this particular body of work, where she mimics the physical and emotional sensations of no longer being tethered to a former self while not yet being certain of a rebirth. Shill’s transcendental impulse to liberate her work through reincarnation has forged a path for us to follow, perfectly calibrated to our own recent release from confinement as we reemerge from the bardo state into our future selves.