A new exhibit is an example of people who are at home in their bodies — however wrinkled or rumpled they may be.
With her exhibit “Personal Growths,” Shenandoah Valley artist Hsini Des combines photography, found objects and sculpture to express how bodies change over time.
While our focus might be on the skin, because it is visible, internal organs will eventually make themselves feel.
Intestines, brains, and the colon are presented through often humorous sculptural forms. These forms, made out of domestic objects such as nylons, doilies, and yarn, suggest our lack of control over our own bodies and their bulges and hernias. Plastic eggs become growths in some works, and are references for pregnancy in others.
The exhibition statement says Hsini Des — pronounced shing-ee dez — draws “upon observations of her elderly mother, toddler daughter, and her own post-pregnancy body” for inspiration.
Des lives in a three-generational household in the Shenandoah Valley; her family’s influence is strongly felt, along with her place in the middle between youth and age. She installed the exhibition within the New Image Gallery at James Madison University, 131 West Grace Street, to reflect that influence.
The small gallery offers the atmosphere of a home, with shelves, picture frames, tables and a padded divan. These are decorations for a modest, old-fashioned house, not for a professional setting.
The show is up through April 27. Gallery hours are Wednesdays and Thursdays from 2 to 4 pm and Fridays and Saturdays, 12 to 2 pm The gallery will also be open during First Fridays Of The Valley, April 7, from 5 to 7 pm
Through this artistic homemaking, we experience the domestication of the unruly body, the imperfect face, the insistent yet vulnerable biological processes.
The body’s wildness can’t be completely managed, but it can be put within the coziness of the domestic sphere. The absence of labels adds to the feeling of home. There is the exhibition statement, but there are no titles. Viewers must use their imaginations to define each piece.
Hsini Des finds many of her objects at Gift and Thrift thrift store. She enjoys the search, and she values the reuse and recycle aspects of her practice. Frames have a particular importance in transforming flat photographs into three-dimensional objects for Des. Images exist to be experienced within space, not flat on a screen. The dimensions are emphasized with molded frames on shelves and on the floor. Even mortality has its frame, to make it less a leap into the unknown, and more of a leap from a familiar nest.
In the interview for this article, Des explained that she put the artwork on different levels — directly on the floor, on a low table, on a shelf, on a higher part of the wall — to recognize the different heights of children and adults, to offer a variety of eye levels. This intention becomes apparent when seated on the gallery floor and experiencing one of the assemblies from the side, rather than from above; the new made perspective the tubular shape is more striking.
An egg is positioned opposite a mirror; motherhood and self-presentation compete for the mother’s gaze. Lipsticks, carved into sculptures through daily use, show the persistence of beautification, of managing oneself within the demands of others. Those lipsticks, with their fragile tips of pink and red, were shaped by the artist’s own mother.
When you look into a magnifying mirror, a photograph of a watermelon appears like a sore on your face. A cup dispenser becomes a fabricator of intestines, themselves stuffed with doilies. Photos of a rock and of a snakeskin suggest both the endurance of the body and its aging and demise. The pink brain-like form within a frame of matching texture shows love and humor. The inside has become outside and the viewers are reassured by the acknowledgment.
The personal nature of this show allows people to make peace with what they can’t control. Biological processes and death are universally experienced, but they need the personal to be fully felt. Here, in one room inspired by one family, viewers can be touched by the combination of the personal and the universal.
It’s possible to feel at home in the gallery space and as a result, the idea of the stresses and strains of the body’s parts and organs, admittedly, became less difficult to bear.
Alexandria Searls is the executive director of the Lewis & Clark Exploratory Center in Charlottesville.