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October 20, 2019

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A picture’s worth a few stitched words in Whitmore’s ‘Hello Sweetie’

Hello Sweetie

One of the works in Mikayla Whitmore’s first solo exhibition at Kleven Contemporary, Hello Sweetie.

The Details

Hello Sweetie
Through May 26; Thursday-Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
Kleven Contemporary, 520 E. Fremont St.
Three and a half stars

The business of memories is fascinating stuff. Often the details of a distant quarrel or a romantic encounter morph into a surreal dream. Faces blur in anger or joy, the curve of a lip or the tilt of a head erode with time and waning obsession. But a minute haunting fact usually remains, one that promises to unravel misunderstandings and unrequited love. It’s hard to predict which erratic specific will eventually gnaw at the mind: a gesture, a smell or a song.

For some, the crux of a moment can be reduced to the psychic imprint of a simple phrase. Hello Sweetie, Mikayla Whitmore’s first solo exhibition at Kleven Contemporary, ruminates on these phrases, pinning them down quite literally with needle and thread.

Each of Hello’s eight ink-jet prints integrates image and text. Whitmore begins with fleeting glimpses of obscured settings, figures out of focus coupled with anonymous but familiar locations. Embedded within each image is a word or phrase, physically stitched into the body of the print.

At first, the text is disjointed from the photograph. The image, by virtue of visual hierarchy, wants to dominate the message. Although eclipsed by confounding photos of darkly blurred shapes, even crisp images are disorienting: the remote section of a rural salt bed, the unmoored vista of a cityscape taken from many stories above. Gradually the sewn hieroglyphics, which double as titles, assert themselves. Misleading as errant symbols, the suspended words work to imbue meaning within the blurred vision of a figure hidden by shadows or the lonely banality of a nondescript high-rise.

As much as the embroidered fragility humanizes each image, the physicality of the sewing makes these fleeting moments more tangible. It also betrays an obsessive preoccupation. The process of stitching the words into place suggests a mind turning the phrase over and over for substance. What did he/she/they mean when they said that?

Each print is a place of deep reflection. “Jeepers” meekly pinpoints the remote terror of a harsh salt lake bed. The excellent duo of “Everything” and “Ends” pairs disembodied Christmas lights with the existential disorientation of midtown, mid-skyscraper.

The press release claims that Whitmore is broadly questioning the authenticity of terms of endearment, specifically the sweet nothings men say to women. The problem is that only a couple of the phrases are identifiable as such. Most of the text is neutral, neither sweet nor “nothing,” possessing the capacity to capture the viewer’s empathy by virtue of its universality.

At its heart, Hello Sweetie wrestles with the demons of vulnerability and loss, obsessed with the promise of a simple word to unravel just where things went wrong.

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