Russian-born, Austin-based artist Yuliya Lanina (profiled previously in Sightlines) is known for her surreal multimedia works, including paintings, installations, and performances. For her new solo show “Misread Signs,” she’s transformed Austin’s Grayduck Gallery into a kind of warped circus.
In the gallery’s main room, a series of paintings form a menagerie of part-human part-animal chimeras: a bird’s head and wings with the body of a woman; a big cat with its arms folded in front of its chest; a skeletal torso whose head is not a skull, but a blooming bouquet of eyes. The gaze is a common theme: not only are eyes themselves a frequent motif, but these creatures stare outwards. Their focus on the spectator or the fourth wall feels shocking, reminiscent of Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty.
The figures sometimes hold a single object, and many of them are adorned with Día de los Muertos-esque skeletal and floral motifs. These symbolism-laden visual themes, combined with the heavily spiritual valence of many the paintings’ titles (“Mystic”; “Black Cloak”; “Wise Woman”), suggest that one might read the figures as a hall of ancestors, called up for consultation or celebration, and not just as a Surrealist deep-dive into the unconscious mind. In these paintings, Lanina’s figures are mostly suspended in voids of thick white paint, creating a sense of depthlessness; the place they speak from is not a place at all.
“Misread Signs'” big top attraction is an eponymous 3-channel animation on a 12-minute loop, with an immersive stereo soundtrack from Austin-based composer José Martinez. “Misread Signs” was shown earlier this year at the Blanton Museum of Art’s SoundSpace event.
In the video, a meadow of flowers blooms from the gallery floor and produces eyes, which begin to cry; a pair of photorealistic eyes weep in the center of a painted face; the world is born, grows crowded, and then wilts again. Lanina’s video stretches across three walls at oblique angles. Rather than playing with split-screen effects among the three screens, torqueing the viewer’s attention, Lanina uses the space to create an immersive (but never claustrophobic) panoramic effect.
The animation is populated by the figures from the paintings in the main hall, but here they’re set in motion: the bird from “Mystic” prances across the screen, and the leather-clad creature in “Mistress” moves its heavily-lipsticked mouth. For these sequences, Grayduck owner and director Jill Schroeder told me, Lanina scanned in the paintings and then digitally animated them, creating a smooth, keyframed effect. Other elements of the animation have a low frame rate, stop-motion aesthetic, creating a pleasing contrast between analog and digital collage.
“Misread Signs” has more of an emotional arc than a plot, per se. Between sequences the film goes completely dark, like a curtain call between acts in a black-box theater, enhancing the stage-like quality of the exhibit even in the absence of Lanina’s performance.
Martinez’s soundtrack is gorgeous and haunting. Hearing it from the gallery’s main room, with the film hidden behind (and much of the audio’s intricate high-end muffled by) a dark curtain, permeates the entire show with an unsettling sonic ambience. In the show’s second room, the score enhances (but never speaks over) the film’s themes of the unintelligibility of language, the anxiety of touching and being touched, and rebirth and resurrection.
I particularly loved the percussive elements that flirted with, but never latched onto, melodies, as well as the fragments of speech in the soundtrack: “There’s something I want to tell you,” “Give up control.” This language hovers between exposition and dialogue, resonating emotionally and generating suspense without directing the viewer to any specific or narrow interpretations of their meaning. Notions of secrecy and control, understanding and being understood, and navigating pain are all elevated here and imbued with a moving existential urgency.
Facing the animation, a series of small shelves hold seven sculptures (“Grackle,” 2019). These, too, are chimeric, their bodies the skeletons of birds and their heads human baby dolls ringed around the neck with vulture-like tufts of feathers. In the flickering light of “Misread Signs,” several of their eyes glow with steady LED light.
In Lanina’s performance at the Blanton, she communed with these sculptures, bringing them into the context of the film’s emotional narrative. Here, though, they have a slightly bathetic quality, like the creepy-cute dolls’-headed animatronic spider from “Toy Story.” Next to the film’s wealth of images, carefully intertwined with sounds, the “Grackle” figures held my interest less as sculptures than as objects of potential interaction, closed-off from that possibility by the absence of the artist herself.
The exhibition’s layout forces visitors to view the paintings a second time when exiting Lanina’s theater. For me, this produced an unexpected surprise. After seeing the figures animated, the paintings seemed unnaturally still — dead, almost — as if the zoo’s gift shop offered taxidermy. To feel a painting transformed from a still-life or portrait into a living being frozen in time was uncanny, and deeply moving.
I also noticed new aspects to the paintings: what previously had seemed like insignificant lines were suddenly apparent as hinges for stop-motion animation, seams physically cut through the characters. Nothing underscores the exhibition’s themes of trauma and recovery more for me than these seams. Just as a bone must sometimes be broken again in order to heal correctly, Lanina violently severed these creatures’ bodies in order to bring them to life.