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Rupture and Regeneration: Sophia Belkin and Sasha Fishman in Resort’s Final Shows

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BmoreArt’s Picks: July 6-12

Extraction, exhaustion, and restoration are three words pinging around my mind after viewing the two shows currently up at Resort. These themes resonate because the shows, Sasha Fishman’s The Space Between Your Nostrils and Sophia Belkin’s Ground Swell, are the last ones for the downtown Baltimore gallery in its current form after three solid years of programming. 

Last November, a developer purchased a block of ten properties, which includes Resort at 235 Park Avenue and other businesses, for less than $1 million total. According to Resort co-directors and partners Seth Adelsberger and Alex Ebstein, the basic reason to close the gallery is that the project is not financially sustainable, and the uncertainty after the block’s sale was a signal to end things on their own terms. 

A triple-net lease made their building more affordable to rent, but it also required the tenant, rather than the owner, to pay for taxes, repairs, and code- and safety-related renovations. After investing their own money to bring it up to code, Adelsberger said that the gallery’s sales over the past three years have not been enough to keep the project moving. He said the developer expressed interest in keeping the gallery in that building, but the new owners’ plan to turn the buildings’ upper floors into apartments and make the first floors retail wouldn’t work for Ebstein and Adelsberger, who presently use all three floors and wouldn’t be able to afford just the first-floor rent at market rate. “As easy as it would be to blame the developers with the narrative of pushing out the artists, it’s not the case here,” Adelsberger wrote in an email.

Even if it’s not precisely another example of developers cashing in on an area’s low prices and pre-established cultural capital, the situation does follow a familiar trend of exhausted and underpaid artistic labor. “There’s no specific way in which the city is looking at these [businesses] block by block and making sure the parts of the community that create things to do are still there and aren’t getting priced out,” Ebstein said in a phone call. “I’m worried we’re going to move out and it will just sit empty.”

There is much to consider about depletion and extraction in a low- or no-budget art space within a gentrifying city, despite a solid track record of success for many of the artists Resort has exhibited. The gallery’s closing is coloring my analysis of the current shows and vice versa—and for the better, because there’s a small seed of hope in all of this.

 

Sasha Fishman: The Space Between Your Nostrils at Resort, featuring "Viscosity of Loss," 2021, resin, fiberglass, pigment
Sasha Fishman, "Priscilla Priscilla," 2021, individual hagfish casts using gelatin, glycerin, plaster, iodine, bismuth, and silicone

In the right corner of Sasha Fishman’s solo installation, The Space Between Your Nostrils, in Resort’s front window, what initially appears to be a pile of discarded cinnamon buns is actually gelatin, glycerin, plaster, iodine, bismuth, and silicone casts of coiled-up hagfish: a deep-sea dwelling “primitive, eel-like creature” according to Chapman University researcher Timothy Winegard. Hagfish have no jaws, eyes, scales, or bones, and when they’re agitated they emit ungodly amounts of slimy mucus as a defense mechanism. (Perhaps you saw a photo of the aftermath of a car accident on an Oregon highway a few years ago, after a truck carrying 7,500 pounds’ worth of hagfish crashed, spilling the creatures who then slicked the road and cars in a thick layer of fibrous, gill-clogging mucus.) 

Hagfish slime is one of many biologically produced materials scientists are studying for their potential as eco-friendly alternatives to the harmful industrial products that are destroying our planet and clogging our waterways. From the website for Chapman’s Comparative Biomaterials Lab: “Animals make outstanding materials for a wide variety of functions without the benefit of petroleum and without fouling their environment, and we believe that humans could do the same if we listen to the lessons biology has to teach.” 

As an artist, Fishman is trying to learn those lessons, too, through a seemingly endless quest for less toxic materials than the epoxy resin that used to be one of her main sculptural materials. Though not a scientist by degree, Fishman follows processes of scientific inquiry in her art practice, even scoring a 2020 research internship at the California Institute of Technology. She has experimented with hagfish skin and slime, the fungal structure mycelium, agar derived from algae, and chitosan from shrimp shells, among many other sources, as natural substitutes for toxic sculptural materials. “A sheet made from gelatin, water, and glycerin feels just like plastic,” Nora Belblidia wrote of Fishman’s trials in a 2019 article about artists blurring the art/science boundary for BmoreArt. 

 

Sasha Fishman, "Biofuel," 2021, spirulina algae, hand blown glass, tubing, airstone
Sasha Fishman: The Space Between Your Nostrils at Resort

The thrill of the hunt guides Fishman’s current practice, and that curious energy is what makes her solo show at Resort most compelling. Her work shows off a few sculpted objects, along with sheets and discs of bio-materials, all arranged in a seriously playful manner. 

There is a recognizable laboratory scene of sorts: A green-glowing uranium-glass cast of the artist’s jaw (“Tongue’s Thrust”) spits water into a kiddie-pool-sized resin and fiberglass fountain shell (“Viscosity of Loss”). “Mr. Winemaker,” a little papier-mache horse with tentacular back legs and a grape-studded mane, preens next to the resin pool. The walls are smeared with soft gray clay (recycled from Baltimore Clayworks) and iridescent mica collected from where Fishman’s parents live. A smooth slab resembling a big kombucha SCOBY hangs from a resin hook on the installation’s left side. Below, a blown-glass vessel holds a bubbling liquid, dyed a brilliant green from spirulina, a cyanobacterium that’s safe to eat and often used as a health supplement in fancy organic juices. Hanging from the ceiling, a tanned hagfish skin is almost brought back to life, wiggling in the wind from the antique fan that blows on it. Piled in a back corner of the shallow space is a creepy mass of molted cicada nymph shells, which Fishman has been collecting since the recent emergence of the 17-year Brood X cicada. 

As individual pieces and parts, this is all a bit comically inscrutable. As a whole, the installation is evidence of the messy path toward discovery. Fishman’s work is all about the process, experimentation, and potential: What could these biomaterials replace, and how much scaling up would their extraction require in order to make a measurable difference? In her search, Fishman encounters other ethical knots: to procure hagfish mucus, for example, one must basically torture the creature. Extracting proteins and polymers from natural sources may also have unintended consequences on native ecosystems. 

 

Sasha Fishman, "Tongue Thrust," 2021, kiln cast uranium glass from CT scan
Sasha Fishman: The Space Between Your Nostrils, featuring "Mr. Winemaker," 2021, wine, paper, plastic grapes, cement, PVA, tape, newspaper, wax, spirulina, salt, water

Since the Brood X emergence, Fishman has asked people to collect molted cicada shells with her, and to deposit them in boxes left around the city; they’ll be used in an upcoming workshop to extract the bioplastic chitosan. At the workshop, she plans to lead a discussion about ethical quandaries that arise in her work, such as “the scale of individual versus industrial, how extraction has impacted certain communities, and how to establish an extraction threshold.”

These questions are important not only for Fishman in her quest for more sustainable art materials, but for anyone interested in staving off this planet’s destruction. They’re also critical considerations for people working in the arts who aren’t necessarily elbow-deep constructing something out of dangerous plastics. 

 

Sophia Belkin, "Wing" (detail)

Back in Resort’s main gallery, Sophia Belkin’s solo show, Ground Swell, explores how what might appear as dormancy is actually a wildly generative phase for living creatures. Like Fishman, Belkin was inspired by the Brood X cicadas. Rather than attending to the cicadas’ inherent physical beauty/intrigue (their beady red eyes and hazard-orange accents), or their unbelievably loud and large swarms, Belkin’s dyed-textile and embroidered paintings give form to what we cannot always observe: the mysterious secret growth that living things accomplish. Contrary to some assumptions, the periodical cicada doesn’t just spend seventeen years hibernating; it has a long life in its own underground ecosystem, suckling tree-root sap, growing, and getting ready for a short few weeks with the rest of us above.

Belkin’s large tapestry “Tidal Track” is an irregular polygon awash with moody, bruised shades interrupted by a maze of bleached-blue pathways that flow around small obstacles—sort of cellular, leafy, watery shapes appliquéd to the surface and around the border. The unpredictability of the dye’s path creates an attractive tension with the precise, machine-embroidered designs that line the border. The small patch compositions are individually lovely, with stitched waves, wings, and other shapes that vaguely remind you of the cellular structures from biology class. These little moments of wonder can be read on both micro and macro levels: fictive examinations of bacteria on microscope slides or visualizations of planetary bodies billions of miles away from each other. 

 

Sophia Belkin: Ground Swell at Resort
Sophia Belkin, "Wing," 2021, embroidery, bleach, dyed fabrics, clay, flocking, magnets
Sophia Belkin, "Tidal Track" (detail)

Even though the embroidered parts give structure and presence to the more ambient visual elements of Belkin’s compositions, their overall forms are anything but rigid. In “Xylem Lens,” a vining-plant-like form crawls across the surface, appliquéd to the canvas with thick stitches of green, orange, and lilac thread. Photographs of organic matter such as plant heads, flowers, and mushroom gills, as well as hoses, tubes, and chain links, are printed on chiffon and cut into shapes that create the vine/plant forms. These shapes and images stand out from the background field, which is dyed with pale yellow, green-gray, and light pink/purple shades and splotches that pool harmoniously. 

The aforementioned “pathways” appear in other works on view, but at different points they recall topographical maps, ripples, and underground tunnels and channels—or any or all of these at once. The title of the small “Topographic Capillary” suggests this simultaneous macro/micro view. The modular composition combines the bleached pathways with bulbous swatches containing embroidered leaf shapes as well as photographic images of a potted plant, a dartboard, and a poster-tattered building exterior. In a post-industrial city like Baltimore, the organic and inorganic are mixed like this in the built environment, imposing upon or reclaiming one or the other.

“Spring Dissonance,” and its neighbor “Twilight Wavelength Tunnels,” both feel chaotic or entropic—lively and alive. The latter’s dark color palette brightens with pops of light, which suits its title, and the embroidered shapes bursting on the surface are dispersed and abstract. These shapes contain some of those dyed tunnel patterns and liquid color fields; others are printed photos of bicycle wheels, stones, and leaves. “Spring Dissonance” shares that color palette but is a bit brighter overall, as if it were lit by the sun at a different time of day, the small shapes scattering over its surface with abundance, budding off of each other. 

 

Sophia Belkin, "Hot Spring Wavellite," 2021, embroidery, dyed linen, and printed chiffon on dyed canvas
Sophia Belkin, "Spring Dissonance," 2021, embroidery, dyed linen, and printed chiffon on dyed canvas

Another large stretched piece, “Hot Spring Wavellite” mirrors the general structure of many other works here. This background is robust with peach, ice blue, grape, and moss green, and many of the pools of color appear pocked or dimpled, the way the sand looks after the tide recedes and exposes dozens of pearly coquina clams burrowing on the Gulf beaches. The marks also recall those billions of cicada holes in the dirt around trees that we got to marvel at this spring. Along with all of the poetics, this piece contains a few literal signifiers of time, growth, and evidence of such: one patch holds an image of a little clock, another holds a tiny red tomato, ripe for plucking. 

Seeing another artist-run space shut down doesn’t feel great, but the present conditions cannot make it a sustainable endeavor. The pandemic year has prompted reflection on our own capacity to work, and our relationships with productivity. And this spring, when life started to return, we got to consider the cicada and its weird, magical existence and ask: What is “dormant,” what is “productive,” and for whom? When is rest productive and protective? This context creates a useful interpretive frame for the work of Fishman and Belkin at Resort, who both deal with the nature of work, working with nature, and following an intuitive logic, perhaps a mimicry of nature’s logic. Part of what makes the natural world so stupefyingly wondrous is that it does its own thing, that it knows what to do—when to rest, when to build, when to gather and conserve energy. These are lessons humans would benefit from relearning, too, for ourselves and everything around us. 

 

Sophia Belkin, "Topographic Capillary," 2020, embroidery, printed fabric, dyed cotton, and denim

Changes, lulls, and peaks of activity are inherent to a DIY scene like Baltimore’s, which has “never revolved around money,” I wrote for the Baltimore Beat when Resort first opened in 2018. I still appreciate that aspect of the scene, but of course the only problem with having no money is, well, having no money. There aren’t enough municipal, state, or federal resources allocated to the arts—or to housing, healthcare, or any other basic social welfare that everybody needs. There aren’t enough collectors or museums buying local art from local galleries, which can be life-changing for people but also doesn’t help on a systemic level. And unless you enter the art world already wealthy, or you strike gold early enough, you’re likely locked into low-wage jobs trying to break even. 

Because they believe in their projects, artists sink their own funds and labor into buildings they don’t own, knowing that their legal claim to that space is tenuous, and eventually find the costs impossible to keep up with. And in certain areas, these spaces can get swept up in the extractive machine of development and displacement, along with small businesses and neighbors who reside around them. How to organize against that disruptive, destructive cycle? How do we build and sustain a community? The specific answers to these questions remain to be seen and are constantly in development. This work may also require more of those nonprofits and city agencies to follow through on their claim to value and invest in the people who live in their city and the “vibrancy” that art brings to it. This means money. 

Such uncertainty and lull can suck the energy out of life, but working your ass off for little payoff only leads to burnout—and nothing can grow from that. The closure of Resort is somewhat bittersweet for its directors, who prioritized giving emerging Baltimore artists exhibitions. “We accomplished what we wanted to do,” Ebstein said of her and Adelsberger’s work with Resort. “All the shows we put together we were so proud of, working with artists that we believe in.”

 

Sophia Belkin: Ground Swell at Resort
Sasha Fishman

*****

Sophia Belkin: Ground Swell and Sasha Fishman: The Space Between Your Nostrils are on view at Resort through the end of July. For more info on Fishman’s July 9 workshop at The Shed Space, visit the artist’s website

 

Header image (Clockwise from top left): Details of Sasha Fishman, “Lesions 1-6,” 2021, resin, silicone, image transfer; Sophia Belkin, “Unraveling,” 2021, embroidery and printed fabrics on dyed denim; Sasha Fishman, “Viscosity of Loss,” 2021, resin, fiberglass, pigment (holding “Priscilla Priscilla,” 2021, individual hagfish casts); Sophia Belkin, “Labyrinth Limb,” 2020, embroidery, printed chiffon on dyed canvas

Images courtesy of Resort

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