For years, Saya Woolfalk’s artworks have detailed her imaginings of the “Empathics,” her “fictional race of women who are able to alter their genetic make-up and fuse with plants. With each body of work, Woolfalk continues to build the narrative of these women’s lives, and questions the utopian possibilities of cultural hybridity,” the New York artist writes on her website.
The symbolizm and mytholigies in Woolfalk’s installations—like “Heart of a Museum,” at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire, from Oct. 19, 2023, to Feb. 4, 2024—are not nessarily decipherable. Instead they embody a ritualistic feeling—like futuristic mystical shrines. Signs here explain that Woolfalk draws on science fiction, feminism, anthropology and fashion “to question and unhinge existing categories we use to understand our civilization. Through ‘the Empathic Universe,’ Woolfalk explores the tradition in which humans attempt to control chaos by telling stories.”
A darkened gallery is filled with trance music. On the left is “Plucked from a Jangling Infinity (for Daphna Mitchell, my mother-in-law),” 2023. The title comes from a poem by Mitchell. Flat shapes of specled fused glass and painted steel dangle from the ceiling by aircraft cable and give an impression of diagrams of the cosmos. Projections bubble across them as stars, butterflies, and crystals float around. On social media, Woolfalk has described the artwork as “glass shattered into pieces and surrounded by constellations.”
On the right is “Holding Space (for Candida Alvarez, my friend),” 2023, which Woolfalk has written was “inspired by a painting made by my friend and mentor Candida Alvarez called ‘Estoy Bien.’” Projections bubble up a flat silhouette of an upside-down blue female (appearing) figure. A diamond design of metal bars spreads out to trace the figure’s head to arms to legs like, perhaps, a nervous system. The figure is surrounded by translucent gourd jugs and pots. Pillows on the floor invite you to sit or lay down and watch.
Woolfalk’s designs, produced with a team of studio collaborators, favor kaleidoscopic symmetry, cross-sections of people, and networks or constellations of nodes and lines of, perhaps, energy. They can bring to mind mystical diagrams like the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, which is said to map the origins of the universe and paths to enlightenment.
A long hall leading to the darkened gallery is wallpapered with Woolfalk’s printed mural “Woods Women (from Mrs. Stephanie Harley, my fourth grade teacher),” 2023. On one wall, twin silhouettes of female figures, diagramed with skeleton or organs, frame pink flowering trees, which in turn frame twin full moons. On the opposite wall, shards of a starry night sky figure scatter across a field of plants and flowers and moons. The designs are in earth browns and dried blood reds. Woolfalk has written, “In this section of the gallery, my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Stephanie Harley, has designed educational activities that highlight local creation myths.”
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