I Want To Believe At Paulina Peavy’s “The Artist Behind The Mask”

by Emily Colucci on September 29, 2016 Reviews

Paulina Peavy, Untitled, n.d., Mixed media (Courtesy Andrew Edlin Gallery)

Paulina Peavy, Untitled, n.d., Mixed media (Courtesy Andrew Edlin Gallery)

Paulina Peavy: The Artist Behind The Mask
Andrew Edlin Gallery
212 Bowery, New York, NY
On view until October 30, 2016

It’s not everyday you get to see collaborations between UFOs and artists in a Lower East Side gallery setting. But, Paulina Peavy’s The Artist Behind The Mask at Andrew Edlin Gallery is exactly that.

Andrew Edlin hosts Peavy’s show in their back gallery—which I guess is where you’d expect to find an alien-artist collaboration—devoting their much bigger space to the more well-known Susan Te Kahurangi King’s pop culture-infused drawings. The Artist Behind The Mask isn’t your typical show stopper. In fact, at first glance, the exhibition even looks a bit boring. Seven framed mixed media drawings hang on the wall, along with a few jewel and fabric-covered masks. It doesn’t exactly scream made-by aliens.

That changes after you read the press release.

Peavy’s mysterious life was worthy of an episode of The X-Files. in 1932 after she met a UFO named Lacamo during a séance in Long Beach, California. It was a match made in outer space. Not only did Lacamo divulge all the secrets of the universe, but she also became Peavy’s lifelong artistic collaborator. Lacamo’s signature even appears alongside Peavy’s own on some of her art. Paging Fox Mulder.

Installation view of Paulina Peavy: The Artist Behind The Mask (Courtesy Andrew Edlin Gallery; Photographer: Olya Vysotskaya)

Installation view of Paulina Peavy: The Artist Behind The Mask (Courtesy Andrew Edlin Gallery; Photographer: Olya Vysotskaya)

Art became a means for Peavy to publicize the knowledge she received from Lacamo. She created drawings, murals, paintings, books, masks and films (the show’s title refers to one of her surrealist films). According to Peavy’s bio on the gallery’s website, her grandson–Andrew Peavy–preserved a staggering amount of her artwork after her death in 1999. Her art remained unknown until December 2014 when Andrew Peavy’s sister-in-law showed some of Peavy’s paintings at an annual holiday sale at her home. Art consultant Katharine Armstrong fell in love with the work and showed it to a selection of experts. Enter Andrew Edlin Gallery.

Considering this bizarrely captivating history, The Artist Behind The Mask feels too reserved and sparse with merely seven drawings and five masks. It looks like a conventionally hung showroom in any white-walled gallery. That would be fine, but Peavy is not a typical artist. When an artist is communicating with extraterrestrials, a little curatorial creativity should be mandatory. With hints at Peavy’s prolific and multifaceted output in the press release, showing a larger range of her work, including her films and books, seemed necessary even if it crowded the small back gallery. The New Museum’s The Keeper recently proved that this “more is more” aesthetic can work even in institutional settings. And Andrew Edlin certainly hasn’t been shy in the past about inventive installations as seen in Terence Koh’s Bee Chapel.

Paulina Peavy, Untitled, 1984, Mixed media on paper (Courtesy of Andrew Edlin Gallery)

Paulina Peavy, Untitled, 1984, Mixed media on paper (Courtesy of Andrew Edlin Gallery)

Despite this narrow selection of works and restrained hanging style, the show still conveys Peavy’s unwavering strength of vision. Take, for example, her mixed media drawings, which resemble the occult-based abstractions of Hilma af Klint recently displayed on the fourth floor of the New Museum’s The Keeper. More amorphous than Klint’s geometric works, Peavy’s drawings depict fluid shapes reminiscent of both the vastness of outer space and a womb. These nebulous blobs are traversed by bright, energetic lines and various collaged letters. Looking at her drawings is like teetering on the edge of a black hole.

Granted, it’s hard to understand what exactly she’s trying to tell us. She lays out many of her philosophies in a memorably titled book The Story Of My Life With A UFO. The gallery provided me with a copy of this hefty 194-page tome, which discusses how the universe evolves in 12,000-year cycles. These cycles are apparently separated into four 3,000-year periods that correspond to the seasons. She also rails against men and discusses our evolution into an androgynous one-gender. And these are just the ideas that I can figure out. Her worldview is better digested in abstractions.

Paulina Peavy, Untitled, n.d. Mixed media (Courtesy Andrew Edlin Gallery)

Paulina Peavy, Untitled, n.d., Mixed media (Courtesy Andrew Edlin Gallery)

Successful as the drawings are, Peavy’s masks, decorated with brooches, earrings and other baubles, provide the most engaging moments of the exhibition. Assembled as if any object would do the job, the masks have a frantic and often uncanny feel to them. For example, a mask made with numerous tassels perhaps torn from curtains takes on a haunting and decadent aura. It’s almost as if they came from the props department of the opulent orgy scenes in Eyes Wide Shut or one of Jack Smith’s utopian films like Flaming Creatures. They feel otherworldly.

But, the masks take on another level of meaning once you learn that she frequently wore these masks while making her art in order to better channel Lacamo. You can’t help but imagine Peavy donning these costumes while creating the nearby drawings in Andrew Edlin Gallery. This gives an intimate, if unexpected, glimpse into Peavy’s artistic process. It also provides a freaky mental image that sticks with you long after you leave the gallery. Like the entire show, this small tidbit of biographical information opens up a deeper understanding and appreciation of Peavy’s work, allowing viewers to connect to even the strangest of artistic motivations.

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