Visual Art » Art

Elizabeth Huey

Chronophobia

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The imagery in Chronophobia—Brooklyn artist Elizabeth Huey's first exhibition in the Pacific Northwest—haunts like a nightmare. In these five paintings, flowers bear sketchy baby faces; doctors probe and nurses dance; and the Easter Bunny shows up, dressed in a suit and knickers. And while none of these figures represent inherent menace, they become deeply unsettling in Huey's dark and apocalyptic tableaux of spindly trees, sublime skies, and opulent Tudor-style chalets. Moreover, the sheer sense of displacement that permeates these paintings undermines the innocence or nostalgia of even the most benign fairy tale imagery. In this sense, her fragmented narratives function in the same way as bad dreams, where the familiar becomes terrifyingly estranged, and linear connections unravel. Fitting, then, that Huey's work is largely inspired by that state of perpetual nightmare: mental illness.

Huey formally mirrors her disconnected imagery with a style that mingles painting, collage, and screenprinting. The majority of each work is painted in imprecise and expressive brushstrokes on wood panel, but many of her figures are outlined in black from a silk-screened stencil. Likewise, her mansions and chalets are constructed from exactingly geometric planes of paper affixed to the panels. Along with the stenciling, this collage component gives the panels a flat, dimensionless quality at odds with Huey's oil and acrylic application. It charges these surreal scenes with a disorienting temporality, in which her dynamic brushstrokes contrast with the sense of stasis in her collage and stencil additions. On a more overtly conceptual level, this disparity between surface and depth points to the conflicting connotations surrounding mental hospitals.

While outwardly signifying healing and recovery, these institutions also conjure a long history of abuse, misdiagnosis, and inhumane and experimental treatments. It's a fundamental subversion of seeming goodness that plays out like a horror movie scenario: Weak, vulnerable patients are entrapped and tortured. In Huey's paintings, though, patients—represented by children at play—and the institution's staff often inhabit the same unrestricted space. Her inversion is complicated in "The Examination of the Oversensitive," as a group of doctors can be seen, in a cut-away view of a building's interior, performing surgery. Creepier still, a cameraman in the foreground focuses his lens on a group of four little girls, dressed in antiquated smocks. If the authority of the doctors appears overtly diminished, it remains uneasily intact within the institution walls and under conspicuous surveillance. Then again, Huey might simply be offering a glimpse inside a damaged psyche, translating that fear and confusion into these harrowing, if utterly enchanting paintings. JOHN MOTLEY

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