Hai-Hsin Huang's "Birthday Party" uses colors set in a minor key to recall disaster-preparedness drills from the artist's childhood. (Hai-Hsin Huang)
KT HawbakerChicago Tribune
In between killing Olive Gardens and gazing into an abyss of student debt, millennials are often labeled the “Most Anxious Generation” — a title that curator and artist Gwendolyn Zabicki took to heart with her latest show, “On Anxiety,” which opened Friday at the College of DuPage’s Cleve Carney Art Gallery.
An exploration of tension, worry and panic, the show aims to use artistic narratives to start discussions about mental health. The Tribune spoke with Zabicki about the exhibition and what it means to curate a feeling.
The following is an edited transcript.
Q: What’s the story behind the show?
A: I think there's a lot to be anxious about. There are things like climate change, immigration status and reproductive rights, but there's also a continuous low-grade anxiety — the kind that most people have but have learned to ignore. At this time, students and young people have a lot to be anxious about. I really wanted to this show to be at a university or a school, where young people could see it.
Q: Specifically so young folks can see reflections of their own anxieties?
A: I think it's helpful and comforting to see that other people are anxious about the same subjects. I also hope that young artists see it and say, “Oh, I didn't feel like this is something you can make art about.”
Q: Tell me more about the experience of curating anxiety.
A: The artists in this show are by all accounts successful and doing well in their careers. But as an artist and a curator, I've noticed that my colleagues are addressing anxiety in their work. It would just make sense as a group.
Q: When did the process begin?
A: I actually started this years ago. I was reading "Fear and Trembling" by Soren Kierkegaard, and he wrote so beautifully about anxiety. He said, "Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom." I knew it was something I had to use. He so beautifully explains how one form of anxiety can be when you’re lost in the infinite, when you're unable to choose what it is that you want to do. That's the kind of anxiety that I feel, when I’m overwhelmed by choices and I’m anxious about choosing the wrong thing.
I really think that Kierkegaard was writing about FOMO — the fear of missing out — years before anybody else was even talking about it.
I hate to bring up social media, but it's so easy to look on Instagram and see what your friends are doing. It's easier than ever to feel like you're not measuring up or you're wasting your time or you're doing the wrong thing.
A section of Celeste Rapone's "Peeling Onions" (Tom Van Eynde photo)
Q: Let's talk more about the media employed by the show — it's all painting.
A: It is all painting. It's a very figurative show. With a figure, it's so easy to see that contortion and despair in the face.
In particular, I am thinking of Celeste Rapone's painting — her figures are always contorted and straining and mashed into the frame of the painting. They're always exhausted, and they look like they're straining, but they're also striving. They're always trying to live up to some kind of standard or ideal. They're trying to be a perfect spouse or a CrossFit athlete — something that they are pressured into doing by society.
That’s the other kind of loss that Kierkegaard writes about — you can also be lost in the finite, when you don't do things because you want to do them. You're doing them because it's what you're supposed to do. “Oh, I'm an adult, I'm supposed to get married, I'm supposed to have a job, I'm supposed to have a kid.” You go so far doing these things that you're supposed to do and then one day you wake up and realize that ‘This isn't me, this isn't what I want. I'm just kind of doing this.’ When I look at Celeste's paintings I think about that person who's lost in the finite, trying to live up to some kind of unrealistic ideal.
Q: Is there a particular piece that speaks to both forms of anxiety at once?
A: One of my favorites in this show is “Birthday Party” by Hai-Hsin Huang. It’s a beautiful, giant painting, but it's such a stressful image. It's of children at a birthday party, and the cake is giving off this blinding light as it’s collapsing — all of the candles are smoking, and the children look visibly upset. They're covering their ears, they're covering their eyes.
She grew up in Taiwan, and she said they were always doing this disaster-preparedness drills when she was a kid. In school, they were always worried about what mainland China was going to do, so Taiwan was preparing for the worst. It recurs in her work. People are laughing, they're having a good time, but there are also people throwing up, hiding under tables and doing CPR. It's a mixture of extreme happiness and terror, total chaos.
“On Anxiety” runs through Oct. 13 at the Cleve Carney Art Gallery, 425 Fawell Blvd., Glen Ellyn.
A reception will be held at 3 p.m. Sept. 8. Visitors can RSVP at www.clevecarneygallery.org for a bus from Chicago to the event.