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Convalescence

"Thieves Bay," an etching by Mary Simpson, on display at Gallery 4Culture through April 28.
Three stills from the Super-8 film "Don't Ask What a River is For" by Mary Simpson, who has a solo show at Gallery 4Culture through April 28.

"Sequela" is a beautiful and kindly word. Its dictionary definition is "an aftereffect of disease or injury." I think of it when I look at Mary Simpson's distressed, old-fashioned etchings. There's a feeling that something has happened, and that the dislocated people and buildings in the etchings have been lifted from their surroundings and deposited on the white space of blank paper as if it were a place to rest a moment from the simple work of going on.

Simpson's show–14 etchings and two Super-8 films at Gallery 4Culture—is only up for two more days, so hurry to see it. Some of the etchings, such as Thieves Bay, consist of an image sitting alone on the paper. Others are groupings of objects—usually modest structures such as a barracks or a cabin—depicted in mismatched proportions and perspectives so they don't add up to a landscape, but suggest multiple times and places and situations jumbled together like some sort of lost-and-found box. I once kept a postcard for one of Simpson's shows on my desk for months because I didn't like the idea of discarding the already-discarded couple on it, their backs facing me as they tried, pridefully, to walk away.

Simpson studied creative writing in college and says her art is rooted in text. When I ask her what she was reading when she made this work, she says W. G. Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction, which bemoans the silence among German writers about the devastating air attacks by Allied forces on German cities during World War II, and William Carlos Williams's In the American Grain, which opens with the story of Red Eric, the Icelandic explorer (father of Leif Ericsson) propelled by a terrible past because, like his father before him, he has committed murder and been chased off his land. Talk about sequelae.

The show contains a new venture for Simpson: the films. At the opening, a crowd formed around them, with people dropping their bags to the floor and settling in to watch the 10-minute loop repeat. At this point, I've seen the films six times; they enthrall me.

They're grainy sequences of her prints stood up on a table and filmed in laborious stop-motion, set to haunting vocals by Robin Holcomb and abstract sound by Steve Roden. In Don't Ask What A River Is For, paper birds fly in V formation across a paper field of grass. Paper flames rise until a building disintegrates and falls over. There's a woman in a dress and what looks like a uniformed soldier on a horse. In Aftermath, a shady character bobs furtively across a bridge. Buildings glide by each other. An ominous puppet bird flaps its wings but doesn't take flight.

The innocent, old-timey illusion of stop-motion reveals the stitching together not only of single frames but also mysterious narrative fragments that weigh on each other like words in a poem. Things have been torn apart and put back together, and nothing is where it started.

jgraves@thestranger.com

 

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