By Alisha Mascarenhas
To be guided by soft signs requires listening on a subtler frequency than usual; attending to what’s quiet and shimmering beneath the surface impressions of the mind. This is not an easy task in New York City, where everywhere are threats of sensory aggressions, sirens, and structurally established determinants of where to walk, where to stand, which exit to take, and where to cross from one corner to the next.
To reach the site of Anna-Sophia Vukovich’s Soft Signs, just a few blocks from the contained wildness of Central Park, I take the C train uptown. At the station, a white arrow bisects the street number, 86, directing me where to exit. Along the way are the familiar directive symbols of traffic lights and crosswalk markings determining pedestrian obedience. Typical of urban public space, arriving oneself to a decided location requires navigating hard angles and functional lines. There is flow, but it appears uniform, predetermined, and known.
The building entrance to the gallery is a clean, cold foyer of some indistinct business tower. Then, down a narrowing hallway are the shushing motions of wings in a dark wind. Wet leaves, slick remnants on a windshield and a lot of vast, shadowy space to move inside of. On a mute brick wall, Anna-Sophia Vukovich’s paintings hang—rough edged canvases, suspended from smooth, light toned poplar branches. Oh Mountain! (2019) is a kind of freedom breathing open. Passing alongside the flurry of When the Wind is Up, Look Down (2019), my keen perception takes note of the arrows.
Two steady, vertical rows, evenly balanced on either side of the painting, pointing down. This is a symbol I recognize from signs in the city and on the highway. Determinant of movement; the flow of traffic, bodies, capital. The rows of arrows appear in the foreground of an expansive dispersion of streaks, like the residue of wind in a stormy sky. Remarkably, these lines orient the eyes to perceive a steadiness amidst the whirlwind, and act as guides to more focused thought. The almost subliminally familiar symbol of the arrows is in sharp relief to the otherwise flurried, scattered, sweeping streaks. The arrow’s functionality is displaced, and the authority of the symbol normally associated with traffic signs is brought into another state of mind. I am reminded of the passenger’s sensibility many hours into a road trip: seeing highway traffic signs as another part of the landscape passing by: both relaxed and focused at once.
Each painting in the exhibition shares some expression of this symbol: either as an arrow or blunt dash. A tension is implied between the dispersed flicker (wind, fire) and the sharp, steady gravity (earth, metal) of the arrows. This elemental dialectic invites a tracking of thinking amid continuous sensory impressions that come with simply being a person in the world. In a room buzzing with voices in discussion between sips, I follow a sequence of arrows, hyphenated lines, some intersecting in a cross. The tug of the lines feels magnetic: pulling and guiding the gaze. I am drawn into the flow suggested by the arrows while simultaneously being swept into the ephemeral nervous wisps and fleeting sensation within which the directive gestures are situated.
These signals are felt as a simple and frank statement, like watching a hand in the motion of some decisive gesture: This way, if you will. It is a kind of force, but invitational, and with a sense of reverence to the environment. “These pieces,” writes Vukovich in her artist statement, “have been influenced by the enormity of the sky, the rolling expansive foothills and humbling and peaceful presence of the Rocky Mountains.” The solemn gravity of mountains speak to the exalted dispersal of clouds lounging into the blue. Having spent three months immersed in this environment for an artist’s residency, the pieces Vukovich created in response decidedly maintain and elevate these polarities of the natural world, and the infinite space of nuance between.
Both the external realm of the place where the work was created, and the inner mental or spiritual process it evoked for the artist are indicated in the lush, expansive fields of green of Remember (2019); the moody, passionate violets of Oh Mountain! (2019) and the watery greys of Circumference Beyond Your Edges (2019). Vukovich is clear in the awe and humility that guides her decisive directions.
I return to the notion of tracking: following a lead out of curiosity and a desire for insight or revelation, rather than in submission to power or the establishment of a dominant order. I am moved by discernment of direction. Choosing a focus and deliberate orientation feels to me like writing: a determined inner gesture that selects this way and not that. Not because it is the right way, or the sure way. Traffic arrows on a skyscape are as unnatural as the formation of language to express a feeling. Not because of a certain outcome, but as a choice to move: to participate actively and deliberately in response to both inner guidance and external influence, into the unknown.
I visited this exhibition in mid-winter, a time of year for seeking, questioning, and consciously cultivating trust to step forth into the adventures of mystery. A dim season when the eyes seek out what little daylight we are graced with. Months later, the light is returning daily, crocuses are opening and everything is fresh and wet with awakening. The peoples of the Wet’suwet’en nation are in a colonial confrontation in protection of their traditional lands from violation through the Coastal GasLink pipeline. Stop. The government of the United States is tightening the borders, imposing new, and firmer rules and regulations that block low-income migrants from becoming protected residents. Stop. Everywhere are directives of where to go, and where not to. Everywhere are delineations of who is allowed where. Marks are being made, physical and metaphorical lines are being drawn.
In this moment of great rupture and social transformation, the shadow of the nation state and the violence of its borders are being made undeniably apparent. Through this, I bear in mind the shushing motions of Soft Signs. Fields of green with the word “remember” scrawled across the middle. Pale streaks of branches sweep across the morning sky and traces of feathers grace the surfaces of clouds.
As the imprints of Soft Signs have seeped into my consciousness over these last months, it’s now summer, and we are in the midst of a great social uprising. In protest against racially motivated police brutality, the people swarm daily across the Brooklyn Bridge. I focus into recollections of Vukovich’s paintings in my mind’s eye: quiet and persistent confrontations with hegemonic order and authority, with a devoted reverence for chaos. I am reminded that we are of the natural world, and that these structures of dominance and colonial rule have not always existed, and most importantly, they must not endure.
Soft Signs ran from November 13, 2019 to January 5, 2020 at W83 Gallery in New York City, NY.
Feature Image: (from left to right) When the wind is up, look down; Oh Mountain!, 2019 by Anna-Sophia Vukovich. Photo courtesy of the artist.