Unwell Exhibit Review

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Finding beauty in the unwell

Unwell, Maia Stark’s exhibit at Slate Fine Art Gallery, truly embodies the meaning of its title. It’s unsettling, uncanny, and makes you think about how you represent the “unwell” in everyday life. The exhibit is done using portraits of Stark and her twin sister, mainly done in acrylic on canvas or panel.

Art that has been created in the pandemic is truly fascinating because it underscores how people are genuinely feeling in these difficult times. Through a series of self-portraits, Stark demonstrates a coherent exhibit that tells a story of the disturbed. In many of Stark’s paintings, figures are featured of some who look very ill: red-rimmed and glossy-eyed figures embody the meaning of unwell entirely.

Each photo includes a haunting twist showing Stark in a dark dreamscape. The premiere portrait of the exhibit, called “Tadpoles Grew into Frogs” shows the figure opening her chest to reveal veiny red frogs who have been using the host to grow. The exhibit has an excellent range of highs and lows, from unsettling to weird. One of my favorite examples showing this range is the portrait “To the Burrow we Go,” showing the figure racing through tall grass on a hare. Stark is on the same scale that a human would be riding a horse. The portrait challenges your thinking if the figure shrunk to the size of the hare, or if the hare grew to be the size of a horse. 

Stark’s depiction of herself through animals shows commitment to her theme of unsettling. Stark has included a theme of herself embodying different animals. Some animals come in pairs, such as “Attendants,” a charcoal on paper portrait showing two birds with the same face. More charcoal on paper portraits show Stark as a wolf girl, some with just her face and a full head of hair on a wolf’s body. The running theme of embodying animals suggests a desire to take a more primitive form. The charcoal on paper drawings are incredibly intricate, making them the most curated works. 

The front-facing portraits made an excellent asset to the unwell theme because, as I was startled to find, the eyes of the paintings looking straight back at you. No matter where I moved in the gallery, the eyes of the front-facing portraits were always watching. The dark background tones contrast with the translucent colored portrait figures, making their faces look ghostly and haunting, particularly in “Tell Your Sorrows to the Flowers,” which features a figure eating red petals in the middle of a dark flower meadow. The dark background and eyes peering out at you are sure to strike you in your soul as you look at it.

While the exhibit is genuinely unsettling as a whole, the portraits are stunning, showing the dark and mysterious beauty of being unwell (Editor’s note: fun fact, in the Victorian era, the tuberculosis epidemic made it fashionable to look ill! They romanticized pale skin, tiny waists from lack of appetite, rosy lips and cheeks, etc.). “Sigil,” depicts beautiful agony in the representation of a figure surrounded by dark grass while she lays on the ground with a presumable tree growing out of her stomach, small red hares surround her while the tree begins to grow. Each painting wonderfully makes you think about its abnormalities, as well as demonstrates the beauty of the unwell. 

Maia Stark’s exhibit Unwell can be found at Slate Art Gallery on Thirteenth Avenue. It opened on Sept. 9 and will continue until Oct. 2 as a part of the Art Now 2021 show. 

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