As war, climate change, and COVID-19 dominate the headlines, Phoenix Art Museum presents Breaking Up, an exhibition featuring women artists exploring fragmentation on personal and global scales.
February 26–August 11, 2022
Phoenix Art Museum
Burnt embers from a church destroyed by lightning hang suspended inside a gallery space at Phoenix Art Museum, where Breaking Up serves as a meditation on the modern world and its myriad fragmentations. London-based artist Cornelia Parker gathered the embers during a residency at Artpace in San Antonio, Texas, using them to create her 1997 installation Mass (Colder Darker Matter).
Parker’s piece, one of the first works viewers encounter, serves as a poignant physical and conceptual anchor for this group exhibition, prompting reflection on fragmentations of time and space that mark personal and collective histories. It also signals the ways natural forces like fire and water can alter geological and existential topographies, often acting simultaneously as agents of creation and destruction.
Parker is one of more than twenty artists featured in this exhibition, which spans the past fifty years. They’re all women, and they include some big names, from Uta Barth to Cindy Sherman.
The show, curated by assistant curator Rachel Sadvary Zebro, is designed to highlight the diverse ways contemporary artists are exploring various types of fragmentation or “breaking up,” and includes photography, drawing, video, sculpture, and more.
That diversity is particularly evident when considering artworks created with fire, an exercise that amplifies not only variations in the ways these artists approach the same material but also significant differences in the conceptual and emotional frameworks each brings to their creative practices.
In Drawing with Fire, a twelve-panel piece filled with abstract lines imbued with movement, artist Geny Dignac conveys the playful properties of fire and light. Here, fire seems to dance.
For Hazor I, Beth Ames Swartz used fire, earth, sunlight, and mixed media on layered paper to create a form that suggests at once a landmass and the female body, prompting reflection on the relationship between humanity and the earth.
In Deborah Butterfield’s body of work, life-size horses often stand in for human bodies, including her own. Breaking Up includes the artist’s Ponder, a 1981 horse sculpture created with found objects of wood, wire, and steel. Placed at the center of a gallery space, the piece, much like Parker’s Mass, elevates fragmentations of both physical form and identity.
Several of the exhibition’s most powerful works center around identity, suggesting ways it shifts amid endless intersections of internal and external worlds.
Artist Angela Ellsworth created Pantaloncini: Work No. (indeterminate radiance) (Emma) with 50,930 pearl corsage pins as well as colored dress pins, fabric, and steel. The piece takes the form of bloomers and speaks to female intimacy as power. Like Ellsworth’s larger body of work, the piece prompts consideration of the mystical qualities of female identity and relationships.
Artist Jessica Palomo uses mark-making with graphite to express the ways grief and loss have shaped her own identity. In Strelitzia, she fractures museum conventions by making marks directly on museum walls, as well as yupo paper on panel. Titled after the bird of paradise, its shadowy abstractions mingle with fragments of the plant’s distinct form.
For Geometric Corporal, Janet Toto created six hair drawings rooted in concepts of geometry, using her own long brown hair which she associates not only with freedom but with the stigma experienced by immigrants.
Many of the show’s artworks take on additional layers of meaning in light of fragmented ideologies and actions surrounding the defining issues of the present moment, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the escalating climate crisis, and the ongoing impacts of COVID-19.
That’s particularly true for Working Title 04–08, comprising five large-scale works by Kristin Bauer. Using synthetic polymer pigment in canvas, Bauer couples Rorschach-like forms with text, suggesting redactions meant to conceal the truth and both the psychological and visual components of propaganda.
Inside one of three darkened spaces located off a long gallery wall, the museum is showing Ronna Nemitz’s digital video Endless Numbered Days. The piece depicts an animal struggling to stay afloat within a vast expanse of shifting waves, referencing both the artist caring for her dying mother and the ways that experience informs her own visceral sense of mortality.
Within another, viewers see Comendo Paisagens (Eating Landscapes), a digital video showing artist Lia Chaia literally chewing up several landscape photographs, and an untitled video by Frida Orupado, an artist renowned for sharing collages and other images of Black culture via Instagram.
A final video, projected across a full wall of the third darkened space, brings the exhibition full circle. Renée Green’s Begin Again, Begin Again intersperses images of architecture, nature, and historical events spanning much of the 20th century. Like Parker’s suspended embers, Green’s work calls to mind the fragmentation of time and space, serving as a carrier of memory and a caution against dystopian futures.
Breaking Up is scheduled to hang through August 11, 2022 at Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 North Central Avenue.