You might need to sit down. Gallery 31 wants to put you through an experience of sensory overload, that bombarded sensation of haywire data input. Too much image, too much sound, too much feeling. Overstimulation through all means of perception.
At least, that’s the idea behind Gallery 31’s current exhibition, Sensory Overload, on view until August 1. Concerning itself with works in a number of mediums which integrate two or more of the five senses, the show brings together an eclectic mash of painting, print, design, site-specific installation, ready-made and multimedia sculpture, video projection, relational object, and more.
One of the strengths of the show lies in its wide range of variations on the theme. The works vary broadly in how they represent multisensory experience; some pieces, Laura Flynn Geissel’s maroon abstraction Starvation, for example, take the sensation of perceiving through sound or touch and work to emulate it through visual means. With Starvation, we can’t actually feel the texture, but we can experience it both visually, and, by placing ourselves in the position of the artist, we can imagine the tactile experience of committing the smooth pastel to paper. In other, less abstract works, artists make literal depictions of the organs of perception. These pieces, like Rob Millard-Mendez’s wooden homunculus puppets and mask, don’t induce synesthesia in and of themselves, but rather simulate it through visual form.
The show highlights a tension in art that reaches back to the very beginnings of modern art, namely the struggle to break the autonomy of painting and sculpture as purely visual forms of representation. The late 19th/early 20th century endeavors to visually depict the experience of listening to music has been well documented as a crucial step leading toward the development of abstract painting. Since then, though, the definition of art has expanded violently, far beyond the confines of traditional painting and sculpture, and artists have at their disposal nearly limitless mediums with which to engage their viewer’s various senses.
It’s clear, though, that Sensory Overload relies heavily on the visual to depict the other senses, in lieu of utilizing sound, smells, and textures more boldly to explore physical awareness and sensory perception. First and foremost, the collection highlights the experience and the action of seeing. Seeing-as-touching is central to many of the works here. While you can touch a few of the objects, the majority of the pieces can only be felt with the gaze, not the hand. The effect builds a self-consciousness within the act of seeing, highlighting the various functions of the gaze, but never deeply engaging the sense of touch. Smell and sound are also neglected in place of image, and, naturally, taste plays a minimal role.
The most clearly synesthetic object here is Lea Zoltowski’s Nutstand (Help Yourself), a towering, demonic earthenware receptacle filled with walnuts and almonds. It shares a pedestal with crackers and a small sign reading, “Please touch with care and help yourself to nuts.” In addition to the tactile experience of grazing against the sharply fanged chambers of the piece while reaching for a nut, the sounds of guests cracking open shells could be heard throughout the gallery. Bringing together image, sound, taste, touch, and smell, Nutstand unifies the senses while defying explanation.
So despite its objective of exploring multiply-sensory works of art, the exhibition, consciously or not, makes a statement about the enduring dominance of the visual, the primacy of image over other means of expression, and the process of vicarious, mediated sensation. Sensory Overload is on view throughout the month of July at Gallery 31.
Gallery 31 is the Corcoran College of Art + Design’s dedicated exhibition space, and is open during museum hours (Wednesday, Friday, Saturday & Sunday 9-5; Thursday 10-9; closed Monday and Tuesday). Admission is always free.