Long Exhibition Review
Truth and Distortion in Memory
Why are movies sometimes a letdown when watching them after a few years, and why are some old photographs less interesting and vibrant than we recall? In A Little Birdie Told Me, on display in Texas State Gallery 1, Michael Villarreal explores an answer to these questions which deal with memory distortion. Comprised of spray paint, joint compound and insulation foam, Villarreal confronts us with an “unstriking’’ household object. In this work we see a rendition of old, off-white window blinds. It resembles a 3D depiction of blinds out of a comic strip. Their bulging, at times linear, at times bent panels seem to be the plush-toy version of actual window blinds. Resisting the urge to touch, my eyes imagined my hand grabbing—sinking into the foam and then letting go to see the fading imprint of my hand. The assumed hardened foam probably wouldn’t bend to my hand in actuality. It’s possibly as hard and solid as the wall on which it is hanging.
After recovering from my day dreams about the texture, I examine the red tongue-like protrusion in the center. This crimson-coloured object doesn’t invite me to squeeze it the way the blinds do. The optical texture is not one of inflated foam marshmallows, but rather something more along the lines of the back of a cat with prickly, coarse fur—with fur so thick, it could draw blood, were it to be rubbed the wrong way. It’s like a tongue outraged at being depressed under the weight of the heavy panels between which it is stuck and can’t escape. After I examine the tongue for a while, it dawns on me as to why I consider the red, prickly mass a tongue at all—the blinds make a face with the red being the tongue, a chin folded underneath, an upper and a lower lip, a nose and cheek folds. What started out looking like a child-like household item has now taken on a human face in the very center.
I wonder what the implications of such a scene are. The child-like window blinds now have a face in the center, which could draw blood if rubbed the wrong way. The nostalgic feel of this work takes me back to movies and flashbacks of my own childhood in which an innocent moment evolves into something grotesque. My reminiscent childhood naivety is what allows the object to suddenly take the form of something else. The title A Little Birdie Told Me supports such an evocation of childhood. This work taunts and haunts me at the same time. It’s as if I fall back into some old memory of childhood—at first sweet and dusty, yet familiar, but then realize the horns protruding and terror amasses.
But does Villarreal really intended to make such a dark work of art? After all, I did start by wanting to squeeze it. So, let’s look a little deeper at the clues he left us. The face bulges out of the foam, much like how Grandmother Willow in Disney’s Pocahontas frightens the raccoon at first during her transformation from an ordinary tree into a tree with an old face, but then later earns his trust. She was slightly creepy, too, but of good nature and she nurtured Pocahontas. Perhaps Villarreal is simply trying to encourage us to reminisce about the past. The tongue is, after all, playfully sticking out at us. I feel more on track now. But what about the title? Is its sole purpose to evoke childhood? An obvious answer that did come to mind at the gallery was that my so-called tongue is the “birdie.’’ It doesn’t look like a bird, though. Certainly not a small one as is implied by the ending of “ie’’ in birdie. This must be a huge bird—like Kevin from Disney-Pixar’s Up.
So is Villarreal just joking with us, or is there something substantial here? In his description, Villarreal mentions of his fabrication of everyday household objects. He fabricates life then. He fabricates our memories through 3D renditions of general objects, which are mundane enough to fit into many people’s childhood memories without striking them as something abnormal. Then, where the fabrication lies, he puts a twist on our memory by adding some element which doesn’t fit in… a tongue, or “birdie,’’ for example. This twist triggers other memories and experiences to appear, which play off of the original feeling and further it. As witnessed above, I immediately had three different feelings when viewing this work. This work ultimately, after wrestling with and evoking memories, proves that there is nothing concrete in life—that memories and moments of the past are still malleable. We recall events which actually happened in accordance with how we are currently feeling or want to remember.
At first, I was horrified by the hidden face in the blinds, but then comforted by Grandmother Willow—our own lives as well as history are thus still open to interpretation. I interpret this work in one (or many) way(s), and I am only one of the many who trickle into the Gallery and see it. The same work or some such event will be interpreted differently and this work really gets to the core of that thought. In A Little Birdie Told Me, Villarreal savors the fact that works and events are interpreted differently through time. In knowing that interpretations change, he is able to push this artwork further. He can distort—or fabricate—our memories and interpretations of works and events. Such a work which deals with time and memory is crucial to reflect upon, as we live in a world with ever growing use of technology. The way things happen or are said may be recorded and edited to reveal something different than the truth we recall and remember. In keeping this thought in the back of our minds, we may better respond to the world around us, be more careful with what we say and where we post it, and live a life of higher quality than otherwise.
Natasha M. Helms