There are very few times that walking into an art gallery feels comfortable. Even to those who frequent art galleries, the first few steps inside are perilous, intimidating, and on the lighter side, filled with a kind of anxious curiosity. The newest show at downtown Denver’s K Contemporary, Sweet Asylum deposits viewers into a welcoming atmosphere, where it feels warm and vaguely familiar. Opened to viewers on Saturday, April 7 and on display until April 28, 2018, Sweet Asylum showcases work by Denver-based artist Suchitra Mattai.
Mattai created the works in this exhibition with a mixture of handmade approaches and re-imagining antiques, thrift store purchases and other “found” objects. The result is a collection of items that feel relatable while maintaining a certain mystery. It’s like walking into a stranger’s apartment when they aren’t there and trying to imagine their life story.
Mattai lives and works in Denver now, but was originally born in Guyana, South America and spent time throughout her life in Nova Scotia, the east coast and India. Her mixed upbringing and heritage seep into her art, informing her aesthetic and use of color. On top of such visual touches, Mattai’s ancestry and surrounding historic context greatly influence the pieces, with hints of colonialism, imperialism and neo-classicism running throughout.
More than the socio-cultural consequences Mattai’s family experienced in the past, her work now primarily focuses on the intersection of the natural and artificial world. It’s more than dissecting opposites for her — it’s not natural versus artificial, but rather how does the natural world impact us or vice versa? Mattai describes her tactics for visualizing this as “disruptions,” where contrasting elements cut through landscapes or scenes. In various instances, she uses geometric shapes to disrupts organic ones, contemporary techniques to disrupt a vintage artifact or abstract painting to disrupt a photograph.
There is a piece in particular where this concept is most apparent — the collage in the main gallery space (to the right when you walk past the bar). It received, by far, the most attention during the opening reception, with viewers congregating before it for extended periods of time. A pixelated background encases 13 pieces, some in square or rectangular frames and others in ovals. Bright, neon strips of tape strike between and behind the art, connecting them in a conspiratorial way. Each of these exists separately from the other (and sold separately, too) but threads of similarity bring them together to form a story.
The story is a personal environmental history. It’s the idea of “self-to-soil,” or in other words, how the ground beneath our feet shape who we are as individuals. Mattai embeds physical landmarks of her own journey in life throughout Sweet Asylum — like mountains she’s lived under, a video of Norwegian fjörds from a train car, women’s hobby craft — to express intangible, emotional landmarks.
As the viewer moves from the small, colorful landscapes in the hallway to the fabric-ridden installation in the back corner, they experience an evolution of self and of place. Here and there, reminders of the past interrupt that evolution. Mattai uses needlepoint, embroidery, bindi stickers, 19th Century French fashion lithographs, scarves and other items in her work to accentuate new revelations with old symbolism.
The other term that comes to mind when perusing Mattai’s work in Sweet Asylum is retro-forward. Her combination of vintage items (retro) with contemporary concepts or materials (forward) creates a nonlinear roadmap, where timing is less important than context. To truly immerse yourself in her work, it’s best to surrender to her timeline.
In her words, “I want my work to be both intimate and vast. Landscape allows me a wide visual lens within which to situate intimate cultural artifacts and discuss the inextricably intertwined relationship of the natural and human worlds… I am particularly interested in the role of the land in migrations, assimilations and the creation of ‘home.'”
Though Mattai uses a healthy mixture of media in this exhibition, she doesn’t shy away from handicraft of her own — like intricate line drawings in gel pen and gouache or acrylic painting. She skillfully displays an ability to cohesively integrate found objects with her own original creations. This synergistic approach is impressive on a technical level, yes, but it also serves as an effective measure to pull people into the art, to remind them of something in their own life. And in that way, Sweet Asylum makes us feel at home, even if that home is not exactly ours.
Sweet Asylum is free to visit and peruse. Prices for purchasing the art range from $750 to $8,500. Hours for K Contemporary are Tuesday – Saturday, 12 – 6 p.m.