Review: Remembering her mom the crux of artist Tori Tinsley’s solo show

A sense of solitude surrounds Atlanta-based artist Tori Tinsley’s solo show at Eyedrum “Locating Barbara” like a thick fog. It is the solitude of grief and its isolating inexpressibility.

But it is also the solitude of suffering, trapped in daily physical routines that often isolate the sick and dying.

“Locating Barbara” centers on Tinsley’s mother’s decline from frontotemporal degeneration (FTD), a form of dementia that creates changes in personality, social behavior and language.

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Tinsley’s focus in this solo exhibition is on her mother in the throes of her illness, a tiny figure dwarfed in a double bed in “Mom in Bed” or whose face is erased by the water streaming from the shower head in “Showertime.” Tinsley observes from a distance, consigned to the margins of the terrible thing that has stolen her mother. Tinsley’s implication is clear: It’s her mother. But it’s also not her mother: We never really see her face, only her body or a mass of brown hair or a distant, blurry face. The illness has stolen Barbara, and “Locating Barbara” is an effort to get her back in remembering not just the illness, but the person trapped inside of it.

One of the most poignant examples of getting Barbara back unfolds in the rear of the gallery, where Tinsley has created the stop-motion animated film “Barbara in Three Parts,” narrated in the mellifluous Southern accents of her mother’s sister and brother in which they recall moments of triumph and misadventure in their sister’s life. The film’s only shortcoming is its brevity.

Tinsley uses video, sculpture and painting rendered in a purposefully crude, childish style reminiscent of Dana Schutz, George Condo and Philip Guston to evoke the emotions, the feelings of the loss of her mother rather than some documentarian reality. “Locating Barbara” is a soft, squishy, wet with tears and kisses evocation of love. It’s the sweetness of sloppy pottery and valentines presented to mothers by little children, the kind of fierce love that comes smeared with chocolate and dirty fingernails.

Tinsley’s sculptures are especially touching in all of their sloppy, gooey sweetness. A sculpture in cardboard, masking tape and stuffed fabric, “Her Hugs” is a hulking, grinning, flesh-pink figure with dangling gorilla arms that gets at the enormous, all-consuming love of a mother for her child and vice versa. The goofy figure is part monster, part cuddle-fiend. That Tinsley’s mother is also a mess spewing down feathers and barely held together with masking tape conveys Barbara’s physical deterioration: She’s a memory barely held together by the artist’s will.

Tinsley has also re-created furniture from her mother’s home in cardboard, masking tape and acrylic paint: a mahogany chest of drawers down to the brass hardware or a low table with a china plate of chocolate chip cookies — also rendered in tape and cardboard and layers of acrylic paint. Tinsley takes the materials of childhood crafts and school projects and turns them into fonts of devotion: an expression of the kind of love that is all the more intense for being homemade.

For the same reason that those primitive sculptures are so affecting, I found the greatest resonance in the very tiny, snapshot-scaled paintings Tinsley uses to capture her mother drifting, head tilted heavenward, in a swimming pool, or just her mother’s naked, pink feet in “Mom Feet With Little Toe.” There is an intimacy in those miniature vignettes that somehow registered larger than a 60-by-48-inch painting of Tinsley’s mother naked in the shower. Those diminutive pieces feel like barely held onto memories, something both visible, but also slipping away.

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