Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Soo Vac Gallery - Liza Sylvestre

It was a glorious evening to be outside—or inside. Our niece's new show was opening at the Soo Vac gallery. We went.

So many new buildings have gone up in the Lyn-Lake neighborhood since we lived there that I had no idea where, or what, the Soo Vac Gallery was. To judge from the address, it seemed to be on an alley at the edge of the greenway, behind Bryant Bowl, and I imagined that we'd end up parking several blocks away, maybe right in front of our old apartment on 32nd and Aldrich! (Our rent at that two-bedroom place was $185/month, which should give you some idea how long ago that was.)

I was shocked to discover when we arrived that  the gallery has a parking lot. And it was largely empty! We pulled up right next to the front door and went inside. We said hello to some friends and relatives, but I soon found myself engaged by a drawing on the wall consisting of a text in minute handwriting, some of which had been deliberately crossed out.

I knew what it was immediately—the visual representation of what a deaf person hears. Some things, but not others. The drawing itself, considered as an artifact, was attractive, but I knew that to get the intended effect, it would be necessary to read the whole thing. Only by doing so would I move beyond the obvious "point"—when you're deaf it's tough to get by, much less engage in meaningful personal interactions—and get a sense of  the endless challenge and fatigue and discouragement and exclusion that such a condition engenders. And while reading it, I would no doubt struggle to resist the ever-present temptation to simply tune out and start thinking about something else.

But several elements were working in my favor. Unlike a genuine conversation, I could read at my own pace without ever having to say, "What? I didn't catch that? Could you speak more slowly?" And because my interlocutor wasn't actually present, there was no pressing need for me to comprehend the speech well enough to respond. Most important of all, perhaps, was the fact that, as near as I could make out, the text was interesting.

Liza seemed to be describing aspects of her personal life, her love for her boyfriend Luis, swings in emotion. Were little of it came through clearly enough to comprehend. At one point I spotted the words hypodermic and prednisone. I asked Liza about it later and she told me it referred to a treatment she took as a teenager to reboot her autoimmune system, which seemed to lie at the root of her continuing hearing loss.  

As I began my journey through this fractured narrative landscape I was reminded of a remark my brother, who at that time was involved in cyber-cryptanalysis, once made: the English language is 65 percent redundant. What he meant, I guess, was that if you gave him 35 percent of a message, he could figure out the rest. I wasn't finding that to be the case. But I was soon thinking about the work of the Greek poet Sappho, also emotional, also evocative, also a bundle of fragments for the most part, though not intentionally.

                                if that is permitted to mortal women.
                                now this in your heart ... would free me from all my worries
                                                ... dewy banks  ...  all night long

Amid Liza's script I came across "Painful"... "held way, way down"... "really edit my writing critically" and occasionally a longer passage, for example: "I keep meeting people lately, usually women, who are so tense that if they relaxed something inside of them would fall apart."

Near the bottom of the page I came across a phrase that surprised me momentarily: "I am in love with my own story and the drama of it, even if melancholy..."

As it appears here, in isolation, that remark might sound narcissistic, but considered in the context of the entire piece, and of Liza's life and career, it struck me as naked and deeply honest. It's the motive for metaphor, the root of artistic expression--love, drama, life, melancholy.

The room was filling with people, some chairs were set up, Soo Vac executive director Carolyn Payne said of few words of introduction, and Liza gave a brief talk about her work, and about herself. Her central point of concern, she said, was that she lost her hearing only gradually, and therefore doesn't identify with the deaf community, yet the difficulties she experiences communicating with "normal" people—difficulties that her interlocutors can hardly imagine—set her apart from them, too. The works on display, which also included several sophisticated video pieces, were attempts to help others gain a better sense of what it feels like to be forever scrambling to pick up nuances of expression that most listeners take in without the slightest effort.

But if Liza's work were merely informative or didactic, it would be useful, perhaps, but not deeply engaging. It seems to me that alongside the drama of exclusion and the desire to connect, another internal conflict can often be felt, between the manual dexterity and formal sophistication that allow Liza to create beautiful things, and a deep-rooted anguish that rejects anything that's merely pleasing. As I listened, I was reminded of a remark Monet made in one of his letters late in life:

I have to work a lot in order to manage to convey what I am seeking ... and more than ever, easy things achieved at one stroke disgust me.

No one with the slightest familiarity with Liza's work would accuse her of skimping on strokes. On the contrary, her work displays remarkable and seemingly effortless line control. A series of black-and-white line drawings hang on the wall in another part of the gallery. I suppose they were inspired conceptually by aspects of hearing loss, but they look like landscapes to me. Yet they aren't the kind of hills and dales you'd be comfortable cavorting across. They might just as easily be arctic glaciers riddled with crevasses...

As I sat in the car after the show, waiting for my riders to complete their Minnesota-style goodbyes, I enjoyed watching the crowd milling around on the landing outside the gallery. There was Liza's dad, Paul, chasing her son Ellis up and down the handicap ramp, and her sister, Sarah, holding her own new daughter, Ester. Young people I didn't recognize, Liza's friends and also friends of the gallery, no doubt. It was a colorful scene. The cool evening air was just arriving, and I suspect the only melancholy Liza was feeling was due to the impossibility of giving each and every one of her well-wishers the personal attention they deserved.  
(Thanks to Richard Sennott, Asli Falay Calkivik, and Hilary Toren for photos.) 

1 comment:

Joyce said...

Great article, John! I can totally relate to the subject. On a Saturday in early June 2015 I woke up with no hearing in my right ear. I assumed it had something to do with a long international flight I'd had days before, and waited a week before going to a walk-in clinic about it. They diagnosed it as fluid in the inner ear due to allergies and advised me to wait it out. But when I asked if I could fly that way, they said no and advised me to go see an ENT. I couldn't get an ENT appointment for a little over two weeks. It didn't take long for the ENT to come to a different diagnosis -- Idiopathic sudden sensorineural hearing loss. They tried oral steroids and injections of steroids in the inner ear, but in the end, my hearing was about 80% gone and didn't come back. I was already not a terribly social person, but this condition made me even less so. Work situations where it's necessary to have conversations in noisy environments (trade shows, restaurants...) are miserable. I have an entirely new appreciation for the challenges faced by those who are hearing impaired!