The seven pieces of local exhibition “Lost in Translation,” the University Center Gallery’s new exhibit, are reminiscent of signs at a roadside bar, in that almost every work is spelled in varying shades of neon. Thistles, masks and other objects cast in clay surround neon lights spelling different words in different languages and colors.
UC Gallery Director Amanda Barr said the contrast in her master thesis exhibition is intentional, to signify the barriers trauma can create in communication, specifically for people with disabilities. Playing with language, color and historical references, the installation features seven pieces that address issues of physical, emotional and mental trauma during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It just became something I was thinking about and talking about so much more and the struggles of communicating when you have trauma, when you have a disability,” Barr said. “I make work about things that are really vital to me in a way to communicate those struggles and frustrations and empathy.”
Barr, who has had a disability her whole life, said her MFA thesis is a product of her experiences during the pandemic. Diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a connective tissue disorder that compromises the immune system, Barr said she was in constant limbo until she got vaccinated for COVID-19. Because of this, Barr’s MFA thesis changed from an interactive showcase to an exhibition about barriers in communication.
The result was something rarely seen in contemporary ceramics: neon.
“There’s a rich history of artists using neon,” said Trey Hill, a professional sculptor and Barr’s adviser at UM. “That being said, in the field of contemporary ceramics, there’s not a lot of people using neon. I think it’s a great material to use with the clay, because it’s so different, but it’s also a nice pairing.”
To make each piece, Barr learned to bend the glass tubing, vacuum out the air and then pump it with either argon or neon. Though neon is traditionally seen in outdoor settings, Barr’s art caught more than her adviser’s attention.
“The neon itself is not something traditionally in art and it’s a lot more modern,” said Whitney Gardipee, a senior art student at UM. “I like it.”
But Barr said she didn’t include neon for the aesthetic alone. Themes of isolation, loneliness and death are expressed through the colors, words and objects comprising her showcase. Each instance of red, green, purple or blue means something different, but all tie into Barr’s recurring theme of trauma.
The piece “Tlamanalistli,” which means “sacrifice” in Nahuatl, is bright red, to represent death. Pinched porcelain flowers and masks cast in clay dangle on threads in front of a red neon sign, right above a stack of clay-cast animal skulls. To the right is a small caption, with an August tweet by
@shitfarrt reading, “im willing to sacrifice old fat and disabled people for a return to normalcy.”
“Consent,” which features a blue neon sign hanging in front of a mirror, follow a similar theme of reflection — this time on theself, rather than others. Barr said she chose the word “consent” because it’s simple English, and a word “no one seems to understand.”
But not every art piece is spelled out so clearly.
In the front of the gallery sits a kiln-cast glass display of five hands spelling the word A-L-O-N-E in American Sign Language. The hands are LED-lit, rather than neon, which Barr said is intentional.
“The Deaf community have their own culture, social beliefs and practices, history, values and shared institutions, apart from the hearing world for a reason,” she said. “I wanted this piece to really showcase the isolation that disability can create.”
Despite the heavy subject of her work, Barr said she enjoyed crafting her exhibition. Specifically that’s because she got to work with neon and craft her frustrations that often get lost in translation.
“Lost in Translation” is on display in the UC Gallery Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. until Sep. 24.