Olivia Faith Harwood paints in a disarmingly playful graphic style. Freighted with dense layers of symbols and patterns excerpted from tarot cards, the circus, and Halloween, the artist’s surreal tableaux play tricks on the viewer’s capacity to distinguish figure from ground. Rather than a single unified perspective, Harwood often renders a series of limited, sometimes transparent, overlapping planes, which seem to multiply like the reflections in a house of mirrors. In Haunted Figurine, 2021, three renderings of framed pictures hover around a full-body portrait of a cat woman whose skeleton is partially exposed. In concert, these three images murmur about the artifice of representation. Does the still life in the top-left corner portray an artwork made with pigment or embroidery thread? What about the mascaraed eye, set within a frame near the subject’s right elbow: Is it floating in space, or is it “painted” on a transparent support?
In the foreground of Ritual, 2021, several apathetic fetishists (two of whom sport halos) cluster around a winged figure (sans halo) in a fetal position. Behind them, at the top of a forested hill, a bonfire rages. Its leaping flames are partially obscured by an amorphous slate-gray shape, whose outline resembles that of the composite beast conjured by Max Ernst in his painting The Fireside Angel, 1937. Though Harwood’s form looks like a shadow, it somehow casts a second penumbra on the hillside. In the dark, our imaginations can transform even the most banal objects into spectral threats. Likewise, the discomfort produced by encounters with unfamiliar expressions of human sexuality here may imply the phantom presence of our own sources of desire and shame.
The sense of instability and paranoia that wends its way through Harwood’s exhibition is accentuated by the show’s title: “Possessions, Possessions.” Her theme puckishly suggests that the bond of servitude between human beings and their tools, costumes, games, and ceremonies runs both ways. Without human intervention, cloaks, daggers, crystal balls, and six-sided dice are inert; nevertheless, they repeatedly provoke our engagement in time-honored rituals of troublemaking.