Lauren Roche: Collected Vessels

Review by Leia Wambach

Bockley Gallery
Mar 9–Apr 28, 2018

The word vessel has four definitions. I like them all.

A vessel is a hollow container, especially one to hold liquid. Or a person said to embody a particular quality, often biblical. Think, “I am a holy vessel  of God’s will upon Earth.” Vessels are the tiny tubes in our bodies that carry blood. They are also large boats, the commercial or warring kind.

Women, of course, make the best vessels.

In her latest solo exhibition, Lauren Roche presents seven new mixed media works on paper, each depicting ritualized moments of female burden, tending, and release. The large-ish tableaus are populated by nude women and animals, the animals not tamed pets so much as ceremonial collaborators. The women share a pronounced likeness. Sisters? A person who has replicated or divided herself?

Though their precise motivations for convening are unclear, I don’t question these beings’ desire for refuge. Some women appear wounded or exhausted. One sits dull and empty as tears run down her face. Another glances back the way she came, worried perhaps that she has been followed. Many, though, look to each other. They touch hands and embrace. They kiss and cry. They harvest their black blood and tears. They rest. Through her attention to gesture and glance—a carefulness at odds with the intuitive chaos elsewhere in her work—Roche grants these icon-women a nuanced group psychology. I see evidence of trauma, but also the willful determination to re-make love and secure comfort.

A vessel is a hollow container. And a woman?

I find myself unexpectedly lonely for them, these women. I crave an invitation into their ritual intimacy, but know by looking that I don’t match. Their sister-sameness is soothing, but it also excludes. Here is a ceremonial manifestation of womanhood—naked, nurturing, raw. It is at once identifiable and painfully absent, a lost dream. In an artist talk, Roche mentions that she began creating these works after the death of a close female friend, to keep this friend around or maybe to put her away. Roche matches her intimacy with recklessness. Preliminary background markings get painted over with murky washes in impulsive strokes. Patterns on rugs and couches squish and smear. I find stray hairs embedded in the paint. A particularly striking example of her can’t-(won’t)-be-bothered approach is found in Collected Vessels, the exhibition’s namesake work. Look at the women seated to the far left of the scene. Each have repeat parts, a two-facedness that could have been concealed but which Roche keeps and emphasizes. The woman in the bottom left corner of the piece also displays a doubled crotch. I read these mutations as Roche’s miscalculations left intact, a subversion of habitual feminine smoothing and correcting. Here, their complicated bodies are left alone.

Some of Roche’s impulses are more dangerous. Many of her women have painted skin. Several faces have red masks or are blacked out entirely. Roche explains this as an intuitive reaction to facial expressions that appear overly vulnerable to her. Responding to her own unease, she provides them with a veil to match their rawness. I appreciate this personally revealing gesture. It speaks to Roche’s own pain, but feels like a scavenged marker of sacredness.

I have my own hunger for absent ritual; viewing these works made that clear to me. Sometimes I am the robber, taking what fits to fill in the gaps  — burning sweetgrass, bending into downward dog. Roche, too, improvises ceremony, collecting what surfaces from within her mind. She compiles an imperfect sacred space, filling it with replicas of a lost loved-one—her vessels. Maybe they are boats this time, made specifically to cross large and dangerous stretches of water.