Laughing and Crying: Alice Gadzinski at Creative Alliance

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Alice Gadzinski: Haute Glue is an Opportunity to Appreciate and Mourn a Talented Artist by Cara Ober

I loved Alice Gadzinski’s work the first moment I saw it. It has a certain undeniable energy, beckoning like a magnetic stranger in a crowded room. You see me and I see you, this work says. It telegraphs an earnest invite to converse, to expose our shortcomings and our beautiful-weird selves, to allow ourselves to revel in that connection. In many ways, Alice’s work owns the experience of being an artist.

My first sighting was in MICA’s Lazarus Center gallery, part of MFA Thesis shows, and the work included a life-size paper mache couch in bright green, an ornate chair in Pepto Bismal pink, and a giant sparkling Geritol sign of dangling iridescent sequins. I was there to interview Alice and a few other graduate students as a juror for a grant. Listening to her talk about her obsessive love-hate relationship with early television shows like Lawrence Welk and its campy commercials, I remember thinking, “This is an artist who will go far because she knows what she wants.”

The work was attention-grabbing, funny, and well-made, but beyond that, there was a palpable sense of conviction, that this artist was wholly dedicated to a line of inquiry, regardless of whether it was cool or popular or clever. She allowed her curiosity about materials and concepts to grow organically and even dictate her decisions in life.

Alice was an immediate breath of fresh air. She didn’t seem preoccupied with fame or others’ definitions of success; she just loved making her work and doing so in the best way possible. For me, it’s gratifying to meet an artist just out of graduate school with a confident, mature attitude about their career. Like Alice, I believe that we find success in the process, in doing the work we are called to do. It’s not about fame or fortune. It’s not a competition. Even as a recent MFA graduate, Alice had the maturity to trust in her own admittedly crazy ideas and to throw herself into them headlong without feeling self-conscious about it. To me, this is a sign of longevity and productivity in one’s art career and why it’s so heart-crushingly painful to even attempt to write about a posthumous show of work by the late and great Alice Gadzinski.

It’s just not fair. It’s not fucking fair. I don’t want to see this ecstatic, hilarious, oddball-amazing work, knowing that the artist’s life was cut short by breast cancer at age 30.

And while I can appreciate seeing her huge selection of sculpture, photography, prints, and collage at Creative Alliance, the residency program where she lived and worked at the end of her life, it hurts. For me, there was always an elusive dark quality in Alice’s work, a combination of camp and saccharine comedy layered over top of something far more serious – a human sense of loss and longing – that attracted me, that continues to speak to me.

The other part of writing this that is particularly haunting for me is that I visited Alice in her studio at Creative Alliance on June 28, 2017. She had just finished chemotherapy and invited me to interview her. Her doctors had told her that the worst was behind her and she was officially on the mend. She wanted to talk openly about the exceptionally shitty experience of having cancer, of being part of a supportive art community who gave her the space to heal, and about her goals for the future.

Listening to this audio where we talk about her future projects – and then seeing some of them, completed lovingly by others including her fiancé, Michael Benevenia, in the gallery, is incredibly hard. She was still sick during our visit, but so ready, finally, after months of feeling wretchedly ill with zero energy from chemotherapy treatments, after a year where all her hair and even her fingernails fell off, keeping her from making art. She taught herself to crochet because it was the one practice she could do that didn’t require fingernails.

After the interview, recorded with her permission, I left her studio feeling blown away by her strength and calmness, so impressed with her resolve for her future full of the art she had been envisioning for years. I had planned to run the interview soon after, in conjunction with Alice’s new projects on the horizon, and kept expecting to hear from her. I was waiting for the perfect moment, a time most beneficial to her, to share her experience as a triumph, to talk honestly about the suffering she had endured and wanted to share but to ultimately celebrate her return to art making. I knew that she was about to have surgery and radiation to finish up her treatment, so I didn’t want to bother her. I had a sense that she would contact me when she was ready.

I was shocked to hear that Alice passed away on March 10, 2018 at the age of 30 after a year of battling breast cancer.

“Her work was amazing, and while it’s very serious she always managed to inject a sense of humor into it. It made you think but it also made you smile,” Doreen Bolger, former Director of the BMA, said to the Baltimore Sun at that time. “Many live a long time but accomplish little. As a young woman, Alice accomplished an enormous amount. I think of the creativity, joy and love she would have brought to the world. So many admired her. What has happened is so unfair.”

I spoke to Alice’s finacee, Michael Benevenia, about the work and he described it as a search for authentic experience by investigating that which is inauthentic.

“Alice first told me about Lawrence Welk,” he admits. “I had never seen or heard of the show before. We used to watch clips on YouTube constantly. She was fascinated by the show because she saw them as doing the whole elaborate show in an un-ironic way. All except for Jo Ann Castle, the piano act, Alice saw her as “in” on seeing how crazy the whole show was. I think Alice saw herself as Jo Ann Castle trying to simultaneously see the crazy bubble world but also helping to create it.”

On the ideas behind her over-the-top assemblages of baby dolls, fake jewels, silk flowers, trash, kitch memorabilia and her paper mache sculptures of giant cigarette butts and lipstick, Benevenia sees them as gently critical of nostalgia, rather than idealizing it.

“Alice was very aware of the societal flaws and problems of the 50s and 60s,” Benevenia explains. “She didn’t think that was a golden age to go back to. She used imagery and objects from that time to subvert those ideas. The assemblages and some of the paper mache sculptures almost act like camouflage. On a quick glimpse, it’s all gendered colors and objects from the 60s, then on a close glance you see the cake topper bride is attached to a spring so she can kick the groom in the head. It’s funny and happy but also dark. I think what made Alice’s work so powerful was the refusal to let the dark overshadow the joy. Alice always saw hope that things were going to get better.”

Despite the abject and camp nature of each object or the materials combined to make it, there is the sense of an authentic battle being fought that is both unexpected and strangely moving; it’s exciting to see this thread moving throughout all the work in the gallery. This exhibition includes works from Alice’s MICA MFA Thesis show, new and unfinished works, and those finished by others; it’s a curatorial hodgepodge and the show would be curated quite differently if Alice were still with us. For me, it becomes even more obvious that this work comes from an artist in a state of becoming more and more unique, hot on the trail of finding her voice, and I can visualize the next steps that she would have taken and see the possibilities that were becoming more and more present as she progressed.

According to Alice’s sister, Emily Gadzinski, “Alice would have never shown some of these pieces but because reality is different now, these works feel more important in thinking about Alice as both an artist and a person. It was important to me to show Alice’s work in a continuum, each idea leading into the next. One series of sculptures builds off of an idea that can be located in the previous series. We tried to exhibit the works in a way that described this idea while also suggesting a timeline, with newer sculptures in the front half of the space and the earlier pieces in the back half. Haute Glue is Alice’s final residency exhibition at Creative Alliance, which is also referred to as a “memorial exhibition.” While that is indeed the case, it is important to me that her work lives beyond this tragedy and is shown to new audiences.”

Whether you view the objects on display in the gallery as artistic experiment or masterpiece, you will feel an overriding sense of the artist’s personality in a direct and human way. This work is goofy and playful at times, deadly serious at others. The artist’s insistence on humor as a method for communication, especially in an art world that takes itself way too seriously, in the face of life’s most serious battle, makes it even more poignant. There’s a sense of honest connection here and the guileless admission that Alice was a unique individual with very strong tastes and preferences that have the power to reach broadly across age, gender, and race. Above all else, Alice was an incredibly real human and much of her work celebrates the vulnerability we all share, uniting rather than dividing.

“I meet Alice the day after her birthday in 2014 at MICA’s admitted students day,” says Benevenia. “Meeting her and seeing her work cemented my choice to go to Rinehart. The first year of grad school Alice became my best friend. Over the course of 2015 something that had been slowly building clicked and we started dating. I never meet anyone who had the ability to literally make anything out of trash, who had that much charisma and intellect and an incredible work ethic.”

The most difficult part of all of this is to figure out how to proceed. In our interview, Alice was adamant that she didn’t want to become an artist whose work was identified with breast cancer, especially after her prodigious use of the color pink. However, she didn’t want to deny or sugar-coat the experience either. She wanted people to learn something from her battle with cancer, even if that one thing was *NOT* to refer to it as a battle at all, but simply something shitty that can happen to anyone.

“I have tried to be honest about how shitty it was,” she said that day. “Because people were using a lot of language, saying you’re so strong, you’re so amazing… That’s a lot of the breast cancer rhetoric – strength and courage, defeat cancer – and it doesn’t feel like that some days. That’s not helpful. Why can’t we say this sucks a lot? Why do we always have to conquer it, because it feels like you’re not a lot of the time. Can we just say that I feel really sick, so that it feels normal to feel?”

Alice was generous in a way that reinforced the vulnerability in her work, and it’s hard to second guess what she would have wanted of us – in regards to her work, her legacy, and her lilting voice in an audio file that’s been in my phone for far too long.

“I read recently that Kurt Vonnegut wrote every book of his for his sister Alice who also died young, and that he struggled to write after she died because he lost his audience,” says Benevenia. “I am not saying my work is at the level of Vonnegut, but over the four years I knew Alice my practice evolved into making work for her to react to. It has been hard to make work, now that she is gone. Alice and I could make a date out of sitting in the chemo infusion center, never passed up sharing a good cookie, and supported each other’s wacky artistic practices unconditionally. She was the best.”

I had planned to transcribe our conversation, to edit it for privacy purposes, and publish as such, but in the process of writing this I have encountered many people, especially her family and close friends, who have said that they want to hear her voice, even if it’s heartbreaking. For this reason, I am including our conversation from Alice’s Creative Alliance studio as a sound file. You are welcome to listen to it as many times as you need to. (Just for the record, I hate the sound of my voice next to hers. I think I sound idiotic, insensitive, and I want to cut myself out of it, but I’m just going to leave it.)

Listening to her voice, what sticks with me the most is her optimism. “I have had a year of being here where I haven’t been as involved as I want to be, or having made as much work as I wanted to,” she said. “But I’ll be fine and the next two years will be incredible. I have things planned, including the show here, and I want to collaborate with friends.”

Photo by Justin Tsucalas, courtesy of MICA

Alice Gadzinski: Haute Glue will be up at Creative Alliance through January 12, 2019. 

Many thanks to Michael Benevenia and Emily Gadzinski for their help with this article.

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