"Y-Y Diptych," 2021, gesso and liquid copper on unprimed upcycled canvas 30 x 24 inches

Solace in the Clouds: A Review of Meghan Arlen’s Obscured Geographies

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By Troy Paul Bloom

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

There is a unique sensation one gets from riding the window seat of an airplane. You are granted a view that, up until about a hundred years ago, no mortal in history had previous access to. Above the clouds you are able to gaze outwards at the heavens, and up to an untouched sky. The sun’s rays cast mile-long shadows across thick, pillowy clouds that are too unfathomably vast. This is a God-like position.

From these heights you can, if the conditions allow, look down too. Vast swaths of land, stretching out as far as the eye can see, trick the brain by their apparent infinitude. Mountains are flattened. Lakes and rivers are compressed. The millions of people below, impossible to see, are squeezed into nothing. From forty-thousand feet the world becomes a sea of abstraction.

Gallery installation view

Meghan Arlen’s new show, Obscured Geographies at Atamian Hovsepian Curatorial Practice, mirrors the distinct sensation of gliding across the sky and awing at the world below. But while this sensation can manifest in feelings of serenity, it can also be a potent reminder of humanity’s severe impact on the landscape. From this near transcendent perspective, so close to the heavens, Arlen reminds us of these very human concerns.

Through a variety of materials, mediums, and methods Arlen constructs modules of space that resemble patches of earth scarred by the marks of mankind. The world presented is not an idyllic Eden, unspoiled. These geographies are much more ambiguous.

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Arlen presents what feels like both metropolitan and rural views from above. The geometric lines in “Y-Y Diptych” (2021) feel like roads and highways, cutting across urban sprawl. The surface of “Instead I Got Got” (2023) feels like plots of land that have been wrung dry by neglect. Every terrain on display tells a unique story through the shapes, sizes and hues presented. Things are separated, fenced. The impact of constructed borders seems to be a key idea in this body of work.

“Instead I Got Got,” 2023, plaster, paper, tarlatan and paper towel on burlap, 20 x
30 inches

These themes are accentuated by both Arlen’s choice of materials – many of which have been recycled and repurposed – and their distinct arrangements. Canvas and linen act as a kind of base for her topographical structures. Factory-made corrugated material sits next to paint, sits next to plaster, sits next to copper, sits next to iron. Materials overlap, intersect, but are often separated clearly by the artist’s precise hand. There is a palpable level of care in the work, bordering on the fetishistic. When inspecting each piece closely it is hard not to feel that I am confronted with objects born from ritual.

In what is perhaps my favorite piece, “Synonyms” (2020), grids are formed by intersecting and overlapping lines. Unpredictable shapes blend and blur into one another. A large, gestural flash of white pours up from the bottom, curves, and stops halfway. A sign of a jobsite abandoned. The ground is being worked over, patched, and worked over again, always in flux. The innate human desire to pacify an ever-changing environment is on full display.

“Synonyms,” 2020, plaster, tarlatan, graphite powder, clay, paint and tissue on canvas, 18 x 34 inches

While the mastery of materials and their arrangement here are impressive, for me, the real engine of these artworks’ lay in Arlen’s utilization of color. They are calming. Soothing. Arlen’s decision to work with a desaturated palette imbues the work with a more natural – and distant – quality. The colors presented feel like they’re seen through a layer of atmosphere. Her piece, “Promise?” (2023), is the clearest example of this sensation. Through the image I can feel the cabin pressure. I can hear the white noise of a plane at cruising altitude. I am calm, soothed, and I am en route.

The muted whites, blacks, blues, oranges, browns and greens evoke an organic world. Through them you can almost smell the land, the dirt, the air. But there is a tension. The materials carrying these colors remind us that these are not things stripped from the forest floor or from freshly tilled soil. They are industrial, wholly manmade. Arlen’s variety of mediums are all born from the factory line.

Many of the pieces in Obscured Geographies border on the sculptural, breaking the simple flat plane of traditional painting. They are harder to categorize and feel nearer to the “Combines” of Robert Rauschenberg than to traditional painting. Rauschenberg, infamous for his combination of media and medium to ecstatic, maximal effect, seems to be channeled by Arlen, and cooled down. Arlen’s message is clear, restrained, and minimal.

People: Meghan Arlen

The human landscape is moving faster than ever before and our appetites have never been more insatiable. If we cannot course-correct, the negative side effects of runaway technological production may send our story backwards –or worse, to ruin. But the worlds Arlen is presenting are not merely obstructions to paradise. These are places where people work. Where people raise children. Civilization, for better or worse, sustains itself from these sites of production. This is where we live.

Sometimes the perspective from the surface can seem flat, oppressive. The path forward unclear. In a world that often feels on the brink of political, economic and ecological collapse it is all too easy to resign oneself to apathy and disillusionment. Arlen’s work, however, rejects this attitude by showing us a clearer, calmer perspective–one from above. The anxiety of cataclysm has been transmuted into something reaffirming, and resilient. By rejecting the surface-level noise these objects hint that solace can be found higher up, in quieter places.

Obscured Geographies by Meghan Arlen opened on January 18, 2024, at the Atamian Hovsepian Curatorial Practice

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