Curated by Samantha De Tillio
On view: May 24 - July 30, 2017
View of Annwn, 2016, 25:00 minutes
Aaron Pexa: The Glassiness of Theater, Film, and Middle Light
Since 2013, Aaron Pexa has been making multimedia work that manifests curiosity and a sense of bewilderment through surrealist glass scenes, combined with spoken-word soundtracks and original scores, all of which reframe everyday objects with fantastical narratives and opportunities for storytelling. The poetic materiality of his videos overflows into his installations, which explore the process of creation and the symbiotic relationship between glass and light.
Aaron Pexa: The Spoils of Annwn builds from Pexa’s current body of work inspired by “Preiddeu Annwn (The Spoils of Annwn),” an epic poem from the famous Middle Welsh manuscript the Book of Taliesin. The book tells the tale of a tragic overseas journey made by King Arthur and his knights to Annwn—an Otherworld of unearthly delights inhabited by faeries. The installation includes works in video, illustration, neon, light sculpture, and porcelain, as well as four of the artist’s earlier video works, which contextualize Pexa’s current project within his greater artistic practice.
The Annwn project embodies the concept of “werifesteria,” an Old English term that means to wander longingly through the forest in search of mystery. This mystery is expressed in View of Annwn (2016), particularly the soundtrack of ambient forest sounds—bird songs, rustling leaves, and spring peepers (a small chorus frog)—laid over fantastical, atmospheric sounds—a woman’s whisper, a galloping horse. The juxtaposition references the spiritual yet dangerous nature of the forest, particularly the forest of the faeries.
Pexa uses musical soundtracks, narrative language, and various experimental film techniques throughout his earlier videos, including Land of Ruby (2013), Journey to the Center of the Earth (2014), Parlor Trick (2014), and Back Door @ the Pendleton (2014) in order to create emotive storytelling experiences. Elements of theater, experimental film, and science fiction are particularly evident in Land of Ruby, which references the ancient art of shadow puppetry. The video also incorporates experimental and avant-garde film techniques such as dreamlike states, disorienting effects, and the over-amplification of common sounds such as breaking glass and barking dogs—techniques used by pioneering filmmaker Maya Deren (1917–1961).
Land of Ruby and Journey to the Center of the Earth are also indebted to classic science fiction anthology series, such as Science Fiction Theatre (1955–57) and The Twilight Zone (1959–64). In Journey to the Center of the Earth this comes through the narration style—a disembodied voice that addresses the audience directly to set a scene or convey information, and in Land of Ruby through hypnotic op-art visual effects. The foreboding soundtrack and hellish set of Journey to the Center of the Earth also recall Disney’s experimental Fantasia (1940), particularly the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence, which shows various spirits dancing under the control of a demonic figure, set to the music of Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881), arranged by Leopold Stokowski (1892–1977). Both Pexa’s Journey to the Center of the Earth and Fantasia’s “Night on Bald Mountain” have cautiously optimistic resolutions.
Parlor Trick creates a similar emotive journey with Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s (1844–1908) symphonic suite Scheherazade (1888). The decadence and inevitable crumbling of the American Gilded Age are portrayed by gold animals set against period wallpaper, all violently engulfed in flames. The inclusion of a lion, bear, fox, and chicken recall how the animals are anthropomorphized to present morals in traditional folktales. The destruction eases as the video progresses, and this, combined with Pexa’s choice to overlay excerpts of Scheherazade in reverse order, leaves the viewer an impression of the hopefulness of regeneration.
Aaron Pexa: The Spoils of Annwn illustrates the evolution of the artist’s interest in folklore to the incorporation of legend through historical literature. Pexa combines his own reading of “Preddieu Annwn” with Evangeline Walton’s (1907–1996) fantasy novel Prince of Annwn (1974). It proves an important resource for the artist and his visual imagery, which is focused on the otherworldly beasts and creatures inhabiting the isle and employs varying levels of realism and fantasy. Light plays an important role in both Pexa’s work and Walton’s Annwn. Pexa has been investigating the symbiotic relationship between light and glass throughout his career in his videos and his installation The Lucent Parlor (2015), in which he integrated light through candle wall sconces. Walton describes Annwn as “... the true World of Middle Light. Here neither your blazing sun nor your black night ever comes. Here, in this gentle light, in the all-healing womb of the Mother, the battered and misshapen may find new shape.”
Pexa has given shape to the beasts of Annwn, and crafted them into neon and light sculptures. He grants each of them one of Walton’s three light qualities: the Hound of Annwn (2016), whose "whiteness ... blazed like flame and shone like snow" and whose eyes glowed as “red as fire;” the Hawk of Annwn (2017) whose “myriad [of] shimmering, ever-changing feathers ... red-shot, green-shot, purple-shot darkness that all melted together into one blackness; a blackness that seized and transformed and conquered all light;” and the Bird of Rhiannon (2017), “gold as morning,” depicted by Pexa with a halo of amber.
These pieces come together through use of light, glass, and fantasy to form a body of work that grows from techniques and themes explored in the artist’s earlier videos. Pexa’s ability to engulf viewers within a visual and aural enlivening of Annwn results in an exhibition that transports viewers into this world of fantasy.
About the artist: Based in Providence, RI, Pexa received his Masters of Fine Art in Glass from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2014, and has a dual Masters in Architecture and Urban Design from Washington University in Saint Louis, as well as a Bachelors in Studio Art from Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota. Prior to RISD, Pexa worked as an architect and urban designer in London and New Orleans. He has won numerous awards including a RISD travel grant to research glassmaking techniques along Finland’s Glass Trail, a Chinese Government Scholarship to study Mandarin at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou and promote cross-cultural exchange, and a fellowship at the Creative Glass Center of America at Wheaton Arts in Millville, New Jersey. His most recent project, The Lucent Parlor, was created during this residency. Additional notable projects by Pexa include Back Door @ The Pendleton, Parlor Trick, and Land of Ruby. Aaron Pexa is represented by Cade Tompkins Projects.
About the curator: Samantha De Tillio is a Brooklyn-based curator and writer. She is currently Assistant Curator at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD), where she specializes in post-war and contemporary craft. Her current exhibition Crochet Coral Reef: TOXIC SEAS is open through January 2017, and her upcoming exhibition Judith Leiber: Crafting a New York Story opens April 4, 2017; she will also be a panelist at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU in February 2017. De Tillio has a Master of Arts in the History of Decorative Arts from the Smithsonian Associates with George Mason University, Washington, DC, a Bachelor of Arts in History from the University at Albany with minors in Ancient Greek and Roman Civilizations, and Spanish. De Tillio is also a regular contributor to GLASS: The UrbanGlass Quarterly.
 Preiddeu Annwn: The Spoils of Annwn as translated by Sarah Higley (2007) for The Camelot Project: A Robbins Library Digital Project at the University of Rochester, NY. http://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/preiddeu-annwn