Carissa Potter, Making Being Here Enough

Jeannene Przyblyski, August 20, 2020
Carissa Potter, Making Being Here Enough
Eleanor Harwood Gallery, July 24-September 4, 2020


I take a sip of hibiscus tea and stir the air gently with a handmade paper fan. Then I look again, deeply, into my computer screen. And yet no matter how closely I look or for how long I am never really there. Or am I?
The circumstances of Carissa Potter’s current one-person exhibition at the Eleanor Harwood Gallery, Making Being Here Enough, were born of a state of emergency that as of this writing gives no sign of subsiding. In March 2020 we San Franciscans were all urged to go to our rooms and shelter in place against a pandemic that was poorly understood and scarcely believable. In July we should have been there, in the gallery congratulating the artist, bumping up against friends and strangers, exchanging casual remarks, hatching future plans and projects, sipping wine or tea. Instead we’re all still mostly hunkered down here, with social distance seemingly become a way of life.
To a great degree, faced with such disaster, Carissa made lemonade from lemons. How to tap into one’s own wellspring of resilience is a theme in her work and a useful skill for artists in any case. Sturdily she went back to the drawing board with the works on paper that she had planned to show IRL. In collaboration with Joshua Keller, her architect/husband, she built a virtual space to display them that reproduced the real space of the Eleanor Harwood Gallery at Minnesota Street Projects down to the placement of the ventilation ducts. But it is more complicated than that. Because not really being there meant that a lot more could be done. Virtual reality became the pretext for augmenting the gallery experience, heightening the feeling of a gesamtkunstwerk, or total art installation, with artist-designed wall treatments, sculptural elements, and text spilling across the floor. In turn, Carissa devised analog components for the gallery opening event as a means of augmenting the virtual experience —a packet of tea to brew at home, a printed fan to stir the air and a pair of stereoscopic cardboard viewing goggles to round out the illusion of three dimensionality. But herein lies the beginning of a provocative critical stance in relationship to both art and life. In fact, virtual experience however futuristically it beckons to us is still somewhat impoverished as embodied experience—wholly optical, always separated from us by a screen, isolating and not communal even as a viewing experience. At the same time, the analog experience Carissa offered to supplement the virtual exhibition, engaged through other senses, is equally fragile–– just a taste, just a touch—too much and we would be pulled out of this virtual world, its spell of simulated, enthralling totality broken. Here and there. And also not there and not here.
This paradox, irresolvable really, leads me to wonder if virtual reality might turn out to be more than a make-do solution to the question of an exhibition under pandemic conditions.  Instead could it begin to be a richly suggestive new materialization of some of the central preoccupations of Carissa’s work? On first glance, the ink paintings in the exhibition are a collection of recognizable genres—seated nudes, Odalisques, still lifes. And yet all of these genres are usually configured as explicitly for others—they are staged to give themselves up effortlessly to optical possession by the viewer. In contrast, Carissa’s female figures have a quality of bringing their bodies and the world back to themselves—whether single figures or in pairs, they seem sufficient unto themselves. The viewer is left somewhat to their own devices. 
Take Thinking About the Could Have Been, in which a nude turns her back to us to rest her palms on the windowsill and look out at a mountain landscape, or is it a picture hanging on wall? Either way, a world beyond beckons to her, even though she remains tethered to the present by the quotidian cell phone on the table—it’s the digital “here” that might at any moment take her away from the imaginative self-projection to “there.” In the lovely Listening to the Waves, a woman closes her eyes, wraps one arm protectively around her own body and lifts a seashell to her ear—nature’s own virtual listening device. The shell is born of the ocean, but the sound of the ocean it brings to our ears is only the sound of the air moving around us—an auditory simulacrum. Holding in There depicts a seated figure, face hidden by hair, arm is wrapped around her knees holding a flower that seems to beckon like the sun, even as the seep and spread of ink on paper almost turns the figure’s skin into a cloudscape—the body and the heavens finally become one. In each instance the figure is held between presence and distance, the material sensuality of the body and the imaginative reach toward somewhere or someone else. 
There is a wonderful book by the literary scholar Elaine Scarry called The Body in Pain. Through careful reading of texts from military reports to the Bible to Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, Scarry makes the argument that pain defeats language––it is fundamentally inexpressible (the greater the pain, the more wordless the cry) and it cannot be shared with another. This is what makes the work of doctors and nurses bearable. They may sympathize with the pain of the people they seek to heal even as they don’t—can’t—actually feel their pain. This is what makes the act of war possible. Driven by a terrible urgency, the soldier does not feel the wounds he inflicts even as he may dread the possibility of being wounded himself. If we all could feel all that we were doing to each other, not just physically but emotionally and psychically, we probably wouldn’t do at least half of what we do, or maybe couldn’t do much of anything at all. 
On the other hand, creativity may be most redeemingly understood as a process of trying to repair a world continually undone by pain. Art in the hands of many of the artists about whom I care most is a means of imaginatively asking us to step into another’s feelings, experiences and understandings, across chasms of inexpressibility and away from the false sense of security that we ourselves might be untouched, at least for now.  This kind of art asks us for empathy, using that which can be seen and said as a mean of making real to us that which can often not be seen (especially emotions and feelings), and is just as often left unsaid or lost in the unsayable. But empathy, like virtual reality, turns out is not only a matter of the ability to draw closer, but also to maintain some productive distance. We ask for the illusion that physical proximity can span emotional distance and yet we are never quite there. Making it possible to go on living.
Carissa’s work has always reminded me just a little bit of Henri Matisse–– I hope she doesn’t mind me saying so. Partly it is an appreciation for the endlessly and variously graceful quality of line and the ability to fully inhabit flatness. Partly it is a common affection for the intimacy of domestic interiors. And partly it is a special affinity for the houseplants that exhibit an almost character-like presence in both of their work—look for them. But the work that most comes to mind in the context of this exhibition, somewhat perversely, is Matisse’s manifesto-like painting, Luxe, calme et volupté (1904). Named after a poem by Charles Baudelaire, “L’Invitation au Voyage,” it is an ambitiously environmental painting. Matisse creates a wholly-imagined other world of nude sunbathing and picnicking that stands adjacent to the classic painterly theme of the fête galante, or aristocratic “spring break” party, but is infected by almost poisonously intense color. The scene seems so familiar, so graceful, but so very wrong. It’s almost as if Watteau woke up at Burning Man. That is to say, the painting sets you up for one kind of experience and then goes on to tell you how the world has shifted beneath your feet.
Carissa’s is a much quieter spinning of the world on its head but there is something subtly manifesto-like about this exhibition, prescient for its moment. Today most of our worlds have radically contracted—to the space of a room, to the space of a rectangular screen. Some of us have been left almost completely by ourselves. Some of us may wish we were more alone. We are simultaneously as present as we always were and yet somehow suspended each in a world apart. These worlds are mostly not luxurious. They are rarely tranquil or orderly—at least not at my house. They are not often filled with lavish sensuous pleasure. And yet still we are here. There is still a voyage ahead of us if we choose to pursue it. There is a world of relationships to mend if we care to do the work. I take another sip of tea. 
For now, it might have to be enough. For certain the experience of life and art under the conditions of pandemic will shape the future understanding of all who have lived through them, even if we can’t yet see the other side from where we are now standing. “Take a good long deep breath,” Carissa writes as we virtually enter her exhibition. “Go ahead,” her paintings tell us, “don’t be afraid to wrap your own arms around your own self, and generously hold tight.” It’s a start.
Jeannene Przyblyski
August 20, 2020

Jeannene Przyblyski, Ph.D., is an artist, historian, and educator. She has published widely on contemporary art, photography, and visual culture. Dr. Przyblyski is Dean Emerita and Distinguished Professor Emerita at the San Francisco Art Institute. She also holds international professorships at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou and the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts in Shanghai.--