"What I have to say is a joke in the back room that isn't said very loudly." This is how Dawn Cerny described her work to me in a podcast a few months ago. I didn't really understand until I saw her new installation about war and death at the Henry Art Gallery, called We're All Going to Die (Except for You).
The first thing to know about Cerny—still a young Seattle artist—is that she has a powerful sense of humor. It can be misread as charming goofiness but it's strange, dark, and expansive. I don't exactly know its limits.
The second thing to know is that she speaks in paper, and from behind the muffling doors of multiple other sources. I used to think it was lack of confidence, but that's not it. Her reliance on historic collections is equally not motivated by any topical agenda. Cerny's radically open new installation, which is performative and concrete at once, bears the marks of artists from Robert Gober, Fred Wilson, and Nedko Solakov to Suzanne Lacy.
Most of what's at the Henry is not actually made of paper. It's found or bought material arranged in two separate rooms. One room is for the dead, with taxidermied owls, a stand of funerary flower arrangements, Civil War–era mourning dresses, and 150-year-old photographs of dead infants with their families. The other room is for the not-yet-dead—it's a waiting room. On the coffee table is a National Geographic Traveler magazine. Its headline reads, wickedly, "Sudden Journeys: Adventures in Last-Minute Travel."
But the few parts of the installation that Cerny made are paper: sketchy watercolor paintings of macabre, heavy metal–style T-shirts, and a river of dozens of paper soldiers, sprouting red string for blood. The soldiers are on the floor in a roped-off area of the waiting room with gilt-framed landscape paintings (and a photograph of Ana Mendieta's silhouette on the land, all from the Henry's collection) on the wall. At least that's how the room once was. Cerny will spend every Saturday in the installation, changing it as people come in and out.
The backdrop is the current American war, which Cerny's brother is training to fight. After visually rummaging through the remains of the long-dead in one gallery, you arrive in the green-painted waiting room. It's a kind gesture to offer a place to sit. It also makes it hard to hold it together now that the body has stopped and the mind gets going. Instead of perusing the books on death Cerny provided on a little bookshelf, I just sat there, overcome.