It All Burns
Curatorial Essay from 2017, It All Burns by Sharon Arnold
It All Burns features paintings which feel as if they've been exposed to fire and smoke, revealing slightly charred and scorched blocks of composition. They exude a feeling of exhaustion and gravity, not just from the labor of their making but in their projection of weight and fatigue. The fluorescent emanation from within and behind the work suggests there is still a brilliant, contained energy beneath the weariness and ashen exterior. Looking closer, we can see a discernible fiery ember emerging from beneath the black exterior. The figure is neither dead nor diminished but in retreat; burdened to the point of collapse but still lit from within. Like a molten pool of lava below the earth’s fallow crust, a regeneration is taking place which can only result in a pyroclastic explosion; the inevitable result of imposed tension and restraint.
One painting, in particular, speaks to this feeling of bearing an untenable crushing load. Gherard’s painting titled The Blind Leading the Blind is based on Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting of the same name, in which figures descend into chaos from one side of the canvas to the other. In Gherard’s piece, the composition mirror’s Bruegel’s, her shadowy blocks echoing the figures as they fall, crumbling and dissolving towards the bottom edge. The forms are thin and pale. The destruction of these cascading forms reveal more of an implied reality occurring beneath the surface; subtle and insipid. Violent, and dangerous. Sorrowful.
Bruegel’s piece may have been a reflection of the political turmoil of his time. Prior to his painting The Blind Leading the Blind, the Council of Troubles were established, a tribunal formed for the express purpose of punishing political and religious leaders inciting provocation in the Spanish Netherlands. The Council was behind so many mass arrests and executions it became known as the Council of Blood. Currently, in the United States, our Administration unseats itself and us on a daily basis; throwing civil liberties, civil rights, immigrant rights, healthcare, and political stability in all executive branches into express peril.
Both Breugel’s and Gherard’s paintings embody periods of great change, unrest, and uncertainty in their time. Their compositions illustrate an imbalanced, chaotic, crumbling imbalance that empathetic souls will recognize. As Gherard’s ongoing narrative has been built around a making the indelible unknown relatably human, the narrative she builds allows the viewer to empathize, projecting themselves into the image as though they, themselves, are the subject. Large silhouettes stack up and recede into the distance, rising and falling, crumbling into the foreground or cascading into the darkness below like a flowing cataract. Like their real-world counterparts—like us—the forms stand in defiance of their environments, even as they are being shaped by them.