Relating to today, the in-between world of ‘Present Tension’ at Automat

Corey Qureshi reviews the eight-person, open call exhibit, 'Present Tension,' at Automat, and says that it's "...a cohesively curated and fun small (yet somehow large at the same time) exhibition that examines contemporary relations." Check it out for yourself, until Jan. 20, 2024. Link to the gallery below.

An abstract painting primarily in yellows, with touches of dark reds, ochres, white and green, evokes movement of breath or wind between two spheres.
Rebecca Ledbetter, “Adventures on the Wind and a Shiver Down My Spine,” Oils, powdered marble, dried flowers on canvas, 2020. Courtesy of Automat

In the extensive digital catalog for AUTOMAT Collective’s 2023 Open Call exhibition Present Tension, the curators claim the show “…explore(s) the delicate interplay between presence and precarity…” in our current global moment. The eight artists featured all take different approaches, medium-wise, to these intangible intellectual and emotional borderlands – some with intriguing results, some banal. I’ll focus on the work I fell for, mainly traditionally flat pieces on the gallery’s walls.

Amira Pualwan’s “Slow Light” series studies canicula, the dog days of summer. Across three sets of ceramic tiles (at twelve tiles an image) that’ve been screenprinted on, sun cycles are studied. The gorgeous pastel tones shift and warp one another with respect to the great ball of fire as it peeks out, then ascends up into a hazy, centered focality. The precarity at hand in this series is the ongoing global climate crisis, with canicula as the intense example being studied. Record heat indexes are easy to romanticize visually without the direct experience of humidity and sweat on one’s skin, of the softening and frying of inanimate objects. I think Pualwan’s work is infectiously warm in its embodiment of the passage of a day, as well as in the tension held in its somewhat unfocused haziness.

Also working in realms of ambiguity is Rebecca Ledbetter with her oil paintings. In her artist statement, she says she wants to challenge perceptions of different types of human interaction. “Bloodchild III” is a clear embodiment of this intention. Inside a bouquet of hands and other bits of human bodies stands a small shadowy figure. They seemingly exist within or are ruminating on the presence and tension of all the beings they’ve engaged. I have a feeling this work is referencing Octavia Butler’s short story Bloodchild, which also deals with relation and deconstructed bodies. There’s a splayedness in the painting’s imagery, a potential direct allusion to the prose work.

My favorite piece in Present Tension is Ledbetter’s “Adventure on the Wind and A Shiver Down My Spine.” This large image isn’t so centered on its lone silhouette so much as the open air of undefined yellows and clayish reds and oranges that imply a ground. The mixed media elements of powdered marble and dried flowers crushed onto the canvas hint at and enhance the effect of a peal of smoke moving in congress with the title’s wind. Meditative and abstract, the picture carries a depth your eye and mind picks for itself, seemingly at odds with interaction on purpose.

An art gallery wall has three large gridded and colorful images of a rising red sun and two smaller images of grids enhanced with forms on top that break the grid.
Gallery View of Present Tension, with work by Amira Pualwan (left) and Morgan Thomas Shankweiler pictured. Courtesy of Automat

The last artist I want to mention is Morgan Thomas Shankweiler. As opposed to the fluid, bleeding strokes of the aforementioned artists, Shankweiler’s work operates in a clean (though still slightly imperfect, still human), gridded style. On a scaffolding of a grid, networks of snaking tubish things come and go, intersecting and intertwining with one another in various textures. The ink and acrylic tube-like forms are adhered to Indian Wasli paper, giving the pattern-centricity an earthy touch. Like Ledbetter, Shankweiler seems concerned with relations, evidenced in the title “How to Trap A Friendship.” In conversation with one of the Automat members that let me in the gallery, I was told that these images are formed through rules and systems that create games of chance, mirroring human society. There’s a busyness that interrupts and impedes, but the final result is still beautiful in its entangled engagement.

The other works all also successfully engaged the theme, they just didn’t blow me away. Overall, Present Tension is a cohesively curated and fun small (yet somehow large at the same time) exhibition that examines contemporary relations. It’s worth a look if you’re down near Fishtown!

Present Tension, Automat Collective’s 2023 Open Call Exhibition runs from December 14 to January 20, 2024 at 1400 N American St, the Crane Arts Building. The building is wheelchair accessible. Gallery hours are 12-5 Saturdays or by appointment.

[For previous Artblog coverage of exhibits at Automat, read Logan Cryer’s review of James Ollivierre’s solo exhibit.]