The new exhibit at the Firehouse Art Center, titled “One Thing, and then Another,” explores the liminal space between reality and the surreal. Four painters, from around the country, display works that exist in the gray space between.
The word liminal refers to being in an intermediate state, or a phase, according to Mirriam-Webster Dictionary. Architects refer to liminal space when discussing thresholds, as referenced in the International Scientific Journal. Another use describes sensory thresholds, a state of barely perceiving, the edge of a response to a form of stimulus. All of which is a lot of words to talk about transition and art that exists in a state between things.
The four painters, Joseph Cavalieri, Mark Farrell, Sam Birks Fisher and Sierra Montoya Barela, coexist at a crossroads within their own media and methods.
Cavalieri paints colorful old New York City police cars on precise, patterned gray backdrops. Farrell’s depictions of placid suburbia hide images of horror. The works Fisher submitted to the show examine the space between nature and humanity in central Washington State, but also between her own styles of art. Barela’s work presents depictions of realist objects, juxtaposed against conflicting symbols and altered perspectives.
“All of the artists are doing really interesting things, and I’m excited to see the works in the space,” said Brandy Coons, curator at the Firehouse Art Center. “We’re lucky to be able to bring works to the gallery from the east coast, west coast and nearby Denver that otherwise might never be seen together.”
Cavalieri, presenting as Josefina Cavalina, has four large oil paintings in the exhibition. The historic police cars, part of a series titled Peace or Violence, question the roles of policing both historically and in current conversation.
Two of the pieces were inspired by the novel Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, where Gulliver was tied down by the tiny Lilliputians. Tiny figures can be seen surrounding the cars, casting ropes over them in an effort to slow them down.
“Living in New York City, and there were all these protests and rallies near where I live, with police cars being set on fire and it really struck me. I feel like it’s responding to the story of what’s been happening in policing in America, where they still have all this freedom and the people are doing everything they can to slow them down,” Cavalieri said.
Cavalieri said he loved the challenge of working on these large canvases, and leaned into his graphic design background when coming up with the concept.
“I really loved this combination of a very realistic representation of these cars contrasted with these very abstract backgrounds that play with patterns and shadows,” Cavalieri said.
Coons said that the intention for the show was not a political agenda or specific message.
“That being said, all art, and the experience of it, is a conversation about the complexities of life and I think it’s a myth that we can divorce political concerns from anything else and still have a meaningful conversation of any kind,” Coons said.
Farrell described his work as a snapshot of different states being combined, not necessarily ephemeral — not lasting for a long time — or conceptual but with each work being its own physical manifestation.
“The paintings started based on photographs, but at a certain point I let it have a life beyond the source material,” Farrell said in an email.
Farrell’s work, oil on canvas, are almost reminiscent of crayon drawings. The paintings are awash with vibrant colors, but are full of strange figures and hidden details.
“I think the title ‘One Thing, and Then Another’ implies that much of the work in the show appears one way on first inspection but changes when the viewer learns the story behind it,” Farrell said. “My paintings appear to simply be depictions of Suburbia at first, but their relationship with Halloween and the horror movie genre, as well as the way they’re painted, subverts our initial idea of the suburbs.”
Fisher is an artist living an hour-and-a-half outside Seattle in the town of Ellensburg. The work she’s showcasing sits in a middle point between her more traditional oil landscapes and a personal, almost abstract diarist style.
“The town I live in now is very much a small town in transition,” Fisher said. “We have a lot of transplants moving back after living in or near the city. Due to high real estate costs on the other side of the mountain, many are seeking space and a quieter life. Now it’s getting expensive as the demand has risen.”
On Fisher’s website, she describes diverging from her more abstract style to make more traditional landscape paintings after returning to the Pacific Northwest. She began looking outward at her environment, working to depict almost photorealistic paintings of her “beautiful place in the world,” she said.
“There is an appreciation for the space and sky here in Eastern Washington but you are never truly free of human intrusion,” Fisher said. “A man made object is always a glance away and to me, these human markers always stand out. In that sense, my work does occupy the liminal space. That gray area between nature and human.”
In the press release for the exhibit, the Firehouse Art Center describes Montoya Barela’s work as living in the realm of still lifes and invented or imagined spaces. Montoya Barela’s work present mundane and everyday objects, from a vase of flowers or a box of cereal in bright colors, in slightly skewed perspectives that evoke a surreal visual dissonance. One piece in particular stands out, a painting of a Greek-style bust of a woman, with half the face replaced by a photorealistic depiction of Britney Spears.
"In both paintings I’m showing there are references to Classical Greek busts as well as references to more modern day icons Henri Matisse and Britney Spears in her 'Baby One More Time' era," Montoya Barela said. "The construction of both of the paintings also have references to digital tools - copy/paste photoshop collage, an image watermark alluding to ownership, copyright, taken imagery. The oscillation between past and present displays a foreverness in life and art. Sometimes things last forever and sometimes they’re remembered a million times differently than they ever were."
“If there’s a message to the show, it’s that there’s always more to see if you take the time to look,” Coons said. “There are layers in perception and presentation within each of the paintings, and each artist has a different style or way to explore those ideas. It’s exciting to present a show of only paintings, displayed minimally, and still be able to talk about so many ideas and techniques.”
The “One Thing and then Another” exhibit runs from May 13 through July 4 in the main gallery at the Firehouse Art Center. Running concurrently in the South Gallery from May 13 through May 30 is a collection of presidential iconography from the Grover Cleveland Art Appreciation Society.
The pop-up museum, permanently residing in the home of curator Eric Anderson, contains over 200 pieces of Grover Cleveland art. A fraction of the pieces will be on display at the Firehouse Art Center for the exhibition.
Anderson started the collection in 2018 by commissioning cartoonists and artists at Denver Comic Con, and it escalated from there.
“Why should Lincoln and Washington get all the glory,” Anderson mused. “We like to think of Grover Cleveland as America’s most average president, and we think that makes him more interesting. We are inspired by his quote, ‘Someday I’ll be better remembered.’”
Cleveland was the United States 22nd and 24th president from 1885-1889 and then 1893-1897, and was the only president to leave the White House and return for a second term four years later, according to the official White House website.
This will be the museum’s fourth pop-up event since the collection began.
“We have a wide variety of Grover Cleveland art in a lot of mediums and formats, from oil and watercolors, to pencil and ink drawings, digital pieces, as well as embroidery, knitting, 3D printings, painted rocks, even a rubber mask,” Anderson said.
“We believe we have America’s largest collection of contemporary Grover Cleveland-themed art,” Anderson said. “We try to commission artists to create 4-6 pieces per year, and then we find and buy existing pieces of Grover Cleveland art that we find. And yes, we’re as surprised as you are that there are existing pieces of Grover Cleveland art! Then we also get donations from artists and, at our Pop-up Museum, we always have an art table and encourage visitors to draw a picture of Grover.”
Both “One Thing and, then Another” and the Grover Cleveland Art Appreciation Society will be live-streamed from the Firehouse Art Center facebook page on May 14.