Review by Andrew Barron
Kyla Kegler, Feel Me
Box Gallery through June 15, 2018,
667 Main Street Buffalo, open daily 5-10pm, Saturdays 2-10pm
A red fluorescent light glows against a stark white wall. Comprised of a single word, it simply reads: “Feel.” By no means the largest piece inside, it is the first thing I notice as I approach Box Gallery, the cozy downtown space that houses Feel Me, an installation by Buffalo-based artist Kyla Kegler. Modestly sized, the neon sign hangs above a set of plaster tiles whose repeated rounded forms emerge as suggestive bodily connotations the closer I get to them. A wooden, semicircular platform juts out beneath the tiles like the proscenium of a makeshift stage. The unadorned base, humbly designed, belies its multifunctional use. A stable ground for those who wish to follow the illuminated directive above, it doubles as a dedicated space for artist-led therapy sessions and impromptu gatherings.
“Feel” is an invitation to enter a space more confined and intimate than most galleries and actively engage with an assortment of objects by touching them, an action usually suppressed in such settings. A cream colored couch and a rectangular box constructed from the same timber as the platform and holding hot pink lacrosse balls, dubbed Feeling Balls and available for unspecified use, are included as part of the installation’s inventory. For those who decide to enter the gallery and those that, for whatever reason, do not, the iridescent allure resonates all the same, flickering as a tactile temptation that lingers well after the visual encounter has transpired. Constantly radiating, the text grants perpetual permission to feel without reserve and as one sees fit. It is a playfully assertive gesture—provocative even—and one that releases Feel Me from the burden of the visual that governs the vast majority of art exhibitions.
Feel Me comes at the end of what has been a productive spring for Kyla Kegler, who recently graduated from University at Buffalo’s MFA program where she taught undergraduate courses while maintaining a studio. In April, her show Chroma Soma, a solo exhibition of large-scale paintings and smaller, wall-bound sculptures, closed after a successful six-week run at The Cass Project. Taken together, Chroma Soma and Feel Me serve as the artist’s thesis. Despite their dissimilarities in material and scope, they compose a coherent joint dialogue and can be thought of as pendants; different sides of the same coin, each extending a facet of the artist’s project that the other withholds. As a duo, they interrogate similar artistic concerns (a wood sculpture from Chroma Soma even makes its way into Feel Me), but they do so through radically different means. Still, Feel Me feels, for lack of a better word, like an appropriate place for Kegler to have paused. Less reliant on its counterpart and more accessible as an independent body of work, especially for the uninitiated, it is as a statement that is as much a culmination of previous ideas as it is an articulation of new ones.
For over a decade, Kegler has been engaged in an embodied process that emphasizes alternative forms of somatic therapy. Working across media and disciplines, she is invested in reconsiderations of sensuality and pleasure that can be activated through a sensual awareness of one’s body and surroundings. During a formative period in Berlin where Kegler lived prior to relocating to Buffalo, she was immersed in a highly rigorous dance program that rejected materiality in art and focused exclusively on the body. This training has proven to be an enduring influence on the artist, and ideas that would seem antithetical to her current studio practice have coalesced into a composite artistic method with a wealth of resources upon which to draw. Diverse as her training has been, Kegler’s desire to create work that foregrounds embodiment, interrupts daily passivity, and offers a sensually fulfilling experience—all essential to Feel Me—seems to have persisted as a constant.
The artist describes Feel Me as “a space for dwelling,” and “an installation for finding feeling.” It is an exploratory space of erotic possibility that privileges process over product. Structured by the tension between subjective difference and shared commonality, it promotes the pursuit of pleasure in its most elemental and overlooked incarnations. While viewers engage with the installation on their own terms, Feel Me ultimately proffers an underlying universality. By activating our sensorium, it suggests that we can stimulate those connective bonds with others that lie dormant in our everyday. With its sundry items waiting to be touched and its child-like imperative, Feel Me subverts the dominance of the visual in the gallery, softly and effectively, without the weighty pretense of revolutionary change that has historically plagued alternative imaginings premised on a politics of Eros. In 2018, such an endeavor may seem innocent and futile, even naïve. If our current climate has taught us anything, it’s how dangerous unchecked tactility can be. Without disavowing the dark side of its proposition, Feel Me clings to its wholesomeness with the occasional wink, keeping itself in check as it confidently endorses the possibility of another way.
To the right of the central gallery is a vestibule that serves as the main entrance. An otherwise nondescript passageway, it is a vital component of Feel Me and the exhibition’s proper starting place. Fittingly titled The Waiting Room for Feeling, the liminal space provides a crucial link to the principal gallery and introduces many of its themes. Distinct in its architecture and contents, The Waiting Room helps visitors transition from the outside world into the sensory-filled interior they are about to experience. A lone wooden bench fills the length of the corridor, echoing the one further inside, as a TV monitor screens a series of “How-to-find-Feeling” videos on loop. Purposefully made for this exhibition, they take on the guise of self-help tutorials and straight-to-video therapy programs. They are the kind of dull, kitschy, and instantly retrograde tapes one might see in the lobby of a suburban doctor’s office or the leasing branch of a Florida retirement community.
Ironic and earnest with equal measure (how does one find feeling?), the short clips ask rhetorical questions like, “Do you suffer from anxiety?” and “Do you sometimes regret your past?” that are comical only until taken seriously. A male voice speaks calmly as scenes of nature that look to be stock film images—crashing waves, setting suns—populate the screen. Only these are cruder and remarkably sadder than prepackaged montages would be, their melancholic effect precipitated by the discernible use of iPhone footage and made to feel all the more real. Succeeding videos demonstrate the various forms of therapy that can be performed in the adjoining space—Radiant Heat, Compression, and Ball Therapy, to name a few—while others showcase specific objects from the installation to illustrate possible modes of engagement with them once inside. The “How-to” videos are the closest Feel Me comes to a stated critique. Yet, for all their cool silliness and humor, the videos never lose their honesty, occupying that critically lauded space of “both/and” ever so carefully. They are both tongue-in-cheek send-ups and genuine examples; a visual joke with a deferred punchline that leaves us wondering if it was ever a joke at all.
Alongside an overgrown houseplant and a generic piece of office furniture, the rest of the cramped space is dotted with stacks of exhibition manuals, business cards, and a pricelist. The disclosure of prices is a curious one, for such a blanket expression of market collusion would seem anathema to Feel Me’s anti-capitalist purview. The show’s stance is not so unadulterated, however. As part of the exhibition display, the inclusion of the pricelist accords with the show’s general ethos, which is one of paradox, slippage, and contradiction. By making the prices of her works known from the outset, Kegler acknowledges the messy, and too easily disregarded, fact that art is a commodity good. Rather than pretend her work circulates external to art’s economy, she confronts the inevitable by divulging the exchangeability of her work even as it undermines the purity of her project’s aims. This seemingly banal maneuver, in the context of the installation, draws attention to the unspoken for labor performed by the artist that is both affective and feminized. Kegler does not directly expose the fraught connections between artistic professionalism and the feminization of labor, but through barely discernable interventions, issues of gender and class are able to drift into the atmosphere and cohabitate with the show’s more conspicuous concerns. What is most critical about Feel Me is not always what is on the surface, but Kegler has built a space capacious enough to accommodate those wanting to theorize as much as they feel.
To my surprise, there is one work in the exhibition that is not for sale: a delicate black and silver coin pouch that hangs suspended from the ceiling. Titled My Great Grandmother’s Antique Silver Purse, it is one of the few readymade objects in the exhibition, and based on my observations during opening night, one of the most popular. There is something intensely nostalgic about letting others play with your grandmother’s coin purse without giving them the prospect of ownership, insisting that some things really are priceless. Keeping it out of the reach of would-be collectors, Kegler’s refusal to sell the vintage purse reads as a faint act of rebellion, a dangling hope that capital won’t prevail forever, and an optimistic call to trust the power of human connection.
Closing reception is Saturday, June 16, from 8-10pm. See Facebook event.