“Marta Lee & Anika Steppe: Kind of About Michigan” at UT VAC
A road trip to adolescent haunts in Michigan results in a touching collaboration that stops short of sentimentality
REVIEWED BY MELANY JEAN, FRI., OCT. 13, 2017
Familiarity breeds abstraction. Handwriting mutates into barely legible strings, longtime friends create an ever-abbreviating verbal shorthand that at times elides the verbal altogether, and memories of long summers at your grandparents’ house distill down to and spark into remembrance by the pattern of their couch set. A shared road trip necessitates one kind of familiarity, and the return to places from your childhood unearths another. For “Kind of About Michigan,” two friends and University of Texas MFA students take on both. For the project, Marta Lee and Anika Steppe went on a summer road trip to adolescent memory pit stops in Michigan and chronicled alongside one another what they saw. The results are a touching collaboration that explores and ruptures the sentimentality of those intimacies.
The works often block off space in rectangular patches, bringing to mind a quilt and the comfort that comes with one. Photographs and paintings of buildings are composed such that they are patched together by bricks and peeling squares of layered paint. Cabin rooms and exteriors are color-blocked into rectangles of textile patterns, windows, grass, doorways, and blocks of sky. A tiny acryla-gouache painting by Steppe serves as a key. From Aunt Ter’s Quilt: North America as seen by Anika, age 7 shows in a few square inches a painted rendering of a literal quilt patch with a child’s warped sketch of the Michigan state outline. This outline is roughly repeated in Steppe’s photograph Mapping Michigan by Hand, which captures two individuals using hands to map the bipartite state, as many a Michigander has done. This resourceful shorthand for mapping the state alights on what the project is about, kind of about Michigan, but really about what place means and how one’s familiarity with it warps over time, loses specificity and becomes a general outline to fill with memory.
A favorite coupling is a photograph and painting, both titled Esther’s Bathroom. Displayed side-by-side, the works beautifully and distinctly show the same space, a bathroom wall with a mirror, delicately patterned over with the shadows of a fern outside. Lee’s pastel-hued painting features a robe on a hanger, presumably hung in front of the mirror also seen in Steppe’s black-and-white photograph, though it is more difficult to identify it as a mirror in the painting. The two tweaked, slightly hazy personal perspectives inform and clarify one another, as continues to be true throughout the exhibition.
The show brushes up against but succeeds in stopping short of sentimentality, because the artists are frank about a significant component of such a project and summer: boredom. There are endless anonymous buildings and waystations; time-killing games represented occasionally too literally (a life-size replica of a playing card feels off); and a goofy choreographed music video, the type you make with a friend you’re deeply comfortable with when you’ve run out of everything else to do.
UT Visual Arts Center, 23rd & Trinity
Through Oct. 20