Alibi V.25 No.32 • Aug 11-17, 2016 

Art Review

Radiating Brilliance

Juliana Coles challenges viewers with her art installation Stripped

The Harwood Art Center—for those who are unfamiliar with the neo-classical revival style building near Downtown Albuquerque—is a place for young artists to learn, experienced artists to teach and the admiring community to marvel at perpetually compelling gallery shows. On Friday, August 5, I attended an opening reception at Harwood for artists Juliana Coles, Mark Horst and Susie Protiva. Initially inspired to attend after reading Coles’ artist statement online, I was curious to see her artwork in person. The statement mentioned her experience with epilepsy and how her artistic creations are an attempt to “piece together fragmented memories ... to create a personal history that [she is] not always a conscious participant in.” My knowledge of epilepsy is limited, constructed mainly by one college psychology course from years ago, and I was eager to get a glimpse of someone’s experience living with such a complex condition.

At first glance, the exhibit appeared to be an overwhelming collection of random colors and bold images covering the center’s front gallery wall-to-wall. I wasn’t sure where to look first. Once my eyes adjusted to the somewhat noisy background, I began focusing on specific pages and reading strings of words, which were a significant component in the overall work.

On display were notebooks—many, many notebooks filled with layers of personal messages and emotive images alongside them. Words functioned as patterns and were meaningful not just by literal definition, but as decorative and artistic elaboration as well. The oldest books were from over two decades ago while the newest were completed during a recent residency in Morocco. Book after book was propped behind glass, opened to seemingly arbitrary pages, and on two adjacent walls were enlarged prints of selected pages.

Juliana stood confidently beside her work and explained to me that she didn’t begin filling notebooks with the intention of showing them. Only recently had she decided to openly display the progression of her colorful and complex life.

“This is a medicine story,” one page read, with three skeletal figures lurking in the background. Another one read, “I spent a lot of time crying but mostly praying,” and another, “Foreign to me but everything is going to be all right.” I had no idea what hidden, subtle meanings existed beneath all the words and drawings but I knew they were poignant and crucial in the process of coping with epilepsy and its effects.

I could feel an intensity rising from the once blank and now completely modified books. Everything in front of me was so immensely personal. I felt slightly uncomfortable, like I was rifling through someone’s memory bank, violating privacy and getting my foreign hands on their secret thoughts. I had to remind myself that the exhibit existed for the community to view and appreciate, and also reminded myself that while viewing art, discomfort is usually a good sign. It means that the viewer is allowing him/herself to become acquainted with something unfamiliar.

Though I only knew a brief history of the artist—from her written statement and our short conversation at the opening—it was clear that the works on display were profound, necessary components of one person’s struggle and graceful reemergence from a darker reality. The one-liners scrawled throughout the notebooks seemed like they came from tipping points and moments of serious realization. Struggle and acceptance were recurring themes throughout the exhibit, and it was refreshing to view a dark and muddled history as a blessing rather than a curse, as something that shaped the artist into a creator of beauty rather than tethering her to confusion and misery. In the words of the artist herself, “My disability is a gift: the intense essence of who I am and the very foundation of my mission in life.” Though I cannot fathom the effects of living with epilepsy and it would be impossible to understand without experiencing first-hand, I was able to catch a glimpse—no matter how brief—of how intensely deep and lasting the experience must be.