Brian Pera's sculptures about the suicide of his friend, Papatya Curtis, are not sentimental. They are colorful and brave and wildly sad, but they use none of the available sentiment — words and shapes and colors all comfortably ordered around grief — to explain loss.
The pieces that make up Pera's "I Thought I Might Find You Here," at Rhodes Clough-Hanson Gallery, are yarn, fabric, and wood assemblages in matte orange-red, black-currant purple, patagonia yellow, or not-my-first-rodeo teal. They look vital.
Pera first met Curtis in his neighborhood, at her yarn store, where he attended a weekly knit night. After her death in 2012, the yarn from the store was given away, and much of it now forms the raw materials of Pera's sculptures.
The five sculptures that comprise the visual center of the show are organized around a film and a slideshow. The film, screened in a small side-gallery but ambiently available throughout the main gallery, shows visuals of knitting alongside audio interviews of Curtis' friends, members of her knitting circle. The women talk about their late friend's warmth, her bad luck in love, the day of her death, and how they each, individually and as a group, encountered what happened. In the slideshow, typed sentences broadcast in sheets of color against a back wall, Pera tells his version of the story. He describes Curtis and he describes his grief, but he disclaims both descriptions, saying it isn't enough. "I won't hold your attention," he writes.
But he does hold our attention. The sculptures, the core of the show, have a progression. It is not clear if the emotional progression of the work matches the chronological order in which Pera built the pieces, but there is a definite spiritual chronology to the pieces — an invisible mountain, and Pera there climbing it. These are not memorials in the usual sense; they are the shapes grief makes in the body of someone grieving.
The first sculpture, your entry point, is freestanding but tethered to the low ceiling with a couple of bright chains. The body of the work is squarish, made of raw wood, some of the wood flecked with blue paint, some covered in orange muslin. There are spare knobs attached to odd sides of the work; a red belt; a line of hanging embroidery circles; a small wheel ... elements strapped together in slightly organized chaos; details sans the thing they are detailing. In the belly of the sculpture there is a child-sized bundle of chicken wire wrapped in plastic and bright cloth, left exposed.
Behind the first sculpture, backed up against a wall, two posts from a deconstructed bed frame stand at an angle. Between the posts is a waterfall-like sheet of yellow thread. Bound in the thread are about 50 doll-sized, porcelain arms. The arms were made by Pera's friend and collaborator, Nikkila Carrol, whose creations are anti-anatomical, shoulderless and strange, each frozen in a different gesture of failed defense. Next, there is a simple wooden chest attached to a hitch and mounted on wheels. The chest is draped with a colorful shawl, and the shawl is in turn draped with orange plastic construction fencing. This piece is compact but it has an implied motion. It asks to be taken somewhere. That call is answered by the fourth sculpture, a tower-like structure made of scrap wood and adorned with teal chimes and a heavy pink yarn hanging. If the chest asks to be dragged up a mountain, this tower is located at the summit of that climb. All the elements of the piece seem meant to blow in the wind.
Finally, there is a compact, animal-like form made with blue and purple shag layered over a tight wrap of teal fabric. This last piece feels more born than made. If the rest of the sculptures can be read as a kind of frantic organization undertaken during the journey of grieving, this final work feels like what is allowed to stay on in the world after that process — something entirely new, created under circumstances of dangerous necessity.