Redux Contemporary Art Center presents the debut solo exhibition of Shelby Corso, on view now through May 21. Even further beyond thought — is the sky I watched as a child. With Love, from Earth is composed of paintings, drawings, and sculptures, which are thoughtfully grouped together to describe the experience of being an inhabitant of and a witness to life on planet Earth. The show was curated by Julia Harmon.
Corso often sources imagery from nature, stories, found objects, dreams, and imagination, working somewhere between abstract and representational. The artist works to synthesize visual and emotional information, typically working on a smaller scale to create a more intimate experience between the viewer and the work.
Shelby Corso received her BFA in painting in May 2020 from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore, Maryland, and now lives and works in Charleston, currently working as a studio artist at Redux. Corso said she is grateful for Redux to share her work with the public and calls the experience “incredibly gratifying.”
The first painting in the exhibition, As Anything, From Everything, depicts a dreamy, windswept field, which Corso describes as having been painted from the point of view of a bug. This painting was the initial inspiration for the show, said Corso.
“I finished As Anything, From Everything, and I was overcome with a sense of happiness and a weird, sweet sadness thinking about bugs … the painting serves as a reminder that when we watch the sunset and think about our lives, or existence … so do the little slugs in your garden.”
The show is inspired by experiences from the artists’ daily life, including her personal rituals and musings on existence — much of which can be gleaned from her thoughtful and poetic titles. The exhibition title is a sort of poem about “that which is beyond description,” Corso explained.
“Simply put, it’s about being a little creature on earth, and keeping with that sense of wonder … the world is built for you (and therefore, for everything), and how precious that is.”
“The original prompt I gave myself in putting this show together was to try and collect information that I would show to an alien about Earth, and that sort of evolved into including the idea of growing up, and observing how my relationship with nature has changed and how in some ways it has stayed consistent.”
The exhibition is in Gallery 1056 at Redux, which is essentially a hallway space. Corso doesn’t mind — she enjoys the way the works have a conversation back and forth. On curating the show with Julia Harmon in a hallway space, the artist explained that unique space limitations brought inspiration.
“A hallway is a pretty untraditional space to have a gallery in, so there are certain things that you can’t take for granted,” Corso said. “The work is going to be facing each other at close proximity, and the space is going to be able to accommodate less people at once … This was an interesting limitation, though, because it allowed for all of the work to interact back and forth instead of just hanging next to one another.”
This is especially evident in two artworks which serve as mirrors to one another: The largest painting in the show, Epiphany is situated directly across from the sculptural work Happy Tears (Dewdrops). Corso uses humor to invite the viewer into these works in a playful and tender way. The title Happy Tears (Dewdrops), she said, comes from the idea of dewdrops as the tears of a crying flower.
Epiphany, explained Corso, has a double meaning. “An epiphany is both a sudden realization, and mythologically, when an old spirit comes to give you information.”
In both cases, she said, an epiphany is a manifestation of something divine.
“The center of the piece is a ghost in the shape of Happy Tears. So, When we look at Epiphany with our back to Happy Tears, we are seeing through her eyes (and therefore, nature’s eyes). When we look at Happy Tears with our back to Epiphany, we take on the view of the ghost, and we can see a person’s face in the flower … It is a metaphor — that which is looked into, looks back. It is additionally meant to serve as a reminder that we should not only see ourselves in living things metaphorically, but realize that we are these things, literally.”
Corso used the shape of the sculptural work to create the painting, making the “ghost” she refers to. This is not by accident.
Ritual, and the evidence of it, is an important element of Corso’s work. This is especially apparent in her sculpture, “Urn for deceased plants,” a beautiful vessel containing dead flowers.
“I think the idea of throwing away dead plants, flushing goldfish, and running roadkill over until it is but a stain on the ground is … really unsettling,” Corso said. “I wanted to make a resting place for my plants when they die, out of respect for them and the important connection we have with them. I am interested in cycles and passages … and rituals are events that facilitate transformation or movement between states of being. So I like to make references to these rituals, whether they are official and public, or personal ones that aren’t shared with anyone.”
Returning to the studio day after day, trying to create objects that contain some sort of meaning artmaking is, to Corso, a ritualistic act in itself.
Corso enjoys the idea of paintings as objects,”made apparent by recurring references to materiality. The artist purposefully allows the wood grain to shine through smooth oil paint on some works. Other paintings continue onto the sides of canvases which are lovingly, ritualistically made by Corso’s hands. Sculptural works point to process: for example, her soft sculptures, Primordial Selves, were hand-sewn. The tactile nature of these works reveals a ritual, and a personal history, too. Sewing is a skill that was passed down from Corso’s mother.
“The process of doing it by hand is very labor intensive and can be delicate- it is also very repetitive,” she said. Specifically in the soft sculptures, there is a ritualistic element to making the work.”
“These pieces to me feel like they are alive once they are finished, almost like the process of making them is their birth.”
Birth, death, and other life cycles are also handled with care in With Love, From Earth. The story of Corso’s colored pencil drawing, Gestation Period, (Sparrow Burial), provides insight to the artist’s sensitive and stewardly nature. “Gestation Period (Sparrow Burial), that work was prompted by an experience I had outside Redux,” Corso explained.
“I was riding my bike up to see an artist talk, and just as I was riding up to the building, I ran over a little bird that was laying on its back on the sidewalk. It made a little screeching noise and I am pretty sure I killed it, which was very upsetting to me, so I picked it up and put it in my coat pocket … Later that night, I went to a park and I buried it with a big, pink southern flower. After that whole incident, I was thinking about death and how being in a grave was like being returned to the womb, like you were only being prepared for your next state of being, and I thought that was beautiful. It also ended up prompting a second drawing called, Good Omens, that depicts a bird flying again with symbols of life and good luck.”
In the exhibition, Corso pairs sculptures and paintings together in a way that is both playful and symbolic.
“For example, the drawing, Thinking of You, was paired with my three Primordial Selves,” she said. “These works speak to the idea of feeling your feelings in your body, as opposed to intellectualizing them,”- These works were made within months of each other with many paintings in between, but when I saw them all together it just felt right … The ceramic works were paired with the Pearl Necklace diptych. The paintings speak to cycles and transformation — the idea of a body serving many purposes, like breasts being able to both feed a child and be a source of pleasure, and that these things existing at the same time is not immoral, nor should it be taboo.”
Corso leans into this idea of conflicting truths with her painting To You and Back to Me, a female nude with a limited color palette. Two small bunnies peer out from beneath the subject’s legs suggestively. The naked subject of the painting confronts the viewer with an ambiguous expression on her face, as if she is unsure whether or not you can be trusted.
Corso constantly subverts popular associations of symbols, and imbues these motifs with new meaning. In To You and Back to Me, that subverted symbol is a rabbit. The motif is repeated throughout the exhibition, with the work across the small hallway cheerily conversing with To You and Back to Me, as a white rabbit sculpture hops over a pair of breasts.
“Dogs and rabbits tend to have many different associations, and I see them as these creatures that are both innocent, and yet totally feral and sexual in a way,” Corso said. “These pieces work well together because they show that two seemingly conflicting truths can exist in one being.”
What does she hope viewers take away from her show?
“I hope that people remember what it felt like to see things as a child,” she said. “I hope that the work makes them feel something a little more deeply, and that it gives them a renewed sense of the importance of nature, and I hope it makes them realize that they are nature … I hope it makes them wonder if the flowers and trees are watching and listening.”
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