Solo Exhibition at Small Engine Gallery, Albuquerque, NM, June 2016
Bed and Butter: Where the Innocent and Risqué Go Together
By Sara MacNeil
Serena Stevens Bed and Butter is a curious reality of promotional images combined with arbitrary stimuli contemplating memory and representation. Her solo show at The Small Engine Gallery is a bustle of human portrayal interrupted by globs of butter, blow-up dolls, flamingos, and carnival rides. Surrealist photomontages and layered gestural paintings present unlikely combinations, such as a gigantic bumble bee looming over twins in baby blue dresses. A depiction of a creamy yellow substance, barely distinguishable as butter at first, infiltrates pictures of wholesome 1950’s mattress advertisements. Stevens decontextualizes images of sex comparing and contrasting porn with propaganda. She finds cohesion within this diverging jumble of images from the past and the present through inventive choices.
“Childhood” (2016) is a disconcerting chaos bustling with various representations of innocence questioning the reliability of memory. The industrious painting depicts a dreamlike adolescence of collectible trinkets and symbolic animals. Stevens puzzles together a toy train, a zebra, an alligator’s mouth, a butterfly’s wing, half of a toddler’s leg, and a painted image of herself when she was young creating an abstract flashback from youth. Connecting mismatched moments, Stevens reminisces on childhood impressions referencing the biased nature of remembrance.
In this exhibition, memory is not the only thing that has the potential for corruption. Two black and white portraits of babies hang side by side with cut-outs of pornographic images glued inside of their eyes. A desensitized loss of innocence is suggested with the creepiness of pasting smut into the eyes of a child. Placed in the context of an exhibition containing an overwhelming amount of advertisements along with allusions to personal history, Stevens draws the conclusion that warped versions of reality constructed by the media and individual memory debauch the age of infancy.
With the irony of coupling youth with the erotic, Stevens’ images of sex present nothing raunchy about fornication. Cut-outs of a couple having sex obscure advertisements of pristine model kitchens. The copulating hairless, clean bodies show a likeness to the sanitized kitchen display. A naked woman smiling while penetrated from behind looks the same as the photograph of a 1950’s woman covered in striped pajamas smiling at her husband from a separate bed. Images of butter oddly appear as appealing as the represented sexual act. Likening 1950’s advertisements to today’s pornography market, and condiments to sex, questions the truth of these representations.
Not only does Stevens investigate the accuracy of memory and representation, but her display choices call attention to how much control images of sex really have. In the exhibition, pornographic images have their special place in the back room of the gallery. Exclusive time and attention is devoted to these taboo photographs that hold too much shock value to be the first to be seen. These images end the exhibition leaving the lasting impression that prohibition gives pornography power.
Stevens’ photomontages examine how images affect identity by embedding historical and individual memory. The exhibition shows that the use of sex to sell does not look much different than presenting the ideal American family for marketing purposes. By contemplating these images we come to understand how the media creates and exploits our desires hopefully gaining more agency as individuals.