Jessalyn Aaland’s eleven-piece exhibit at Swarm Gallery, titled Thank You for Your Waiting, is as much an exercise in emptiness as it is a meditation on the chimerical nature of space and stuff. The series of mixed-media collages takes Aaland’s trademark stickers and magazine cutouts and lets them loose into vaguely surreal, shadowless 2D realms. Some of these spaces resemble living rooms, deserts, and landfills, though we can’t quite be sure; in one “desert,” there’s a clock hanging on the sky.
It’s tempting to catalog every tiny sticker Aaland uses, but then, there are hundreds of them (a rubber tire, a hair bow, a bottle of glue, rattlesnakes, ladders, a freeway map, a watermelon). “A Way Out” features a sand dune riddled with anachronistic detritus — retro appliances, cat-eye spectacles, View-Master reels — and brand-name items like Comet cleaner and Spam. On the other side of the gallery, “A Way In” is a burial ground for abandoned toys (atop the heap, you can spy a thin layer of flowers growing).
When looking at metastatic clumps of itty-bitty pictures, it’s impossible not to lean in, seized by the childlike desire to (at least visually) pluck them up like pieces of bright worn glass found on a beach. Fond of saturated color, Aaland likes to get her cutouts from travel books, children’s encyclopedias, and pre-1970s issues of National Geographic. The stickers — once a childhood fascination, now a mainstay of her toolbox — offer a rebuttal to her works’ flatness and a hint of glitter for the eye.
One could very well dwell on the show’s surface aesthetics and leave satisfied, but there’s a compelling, insidious subtext to the whole scrapbooking effect. Thank You for Your Waiting — and Aaland’s style writ large — rehabilitates the reviled phenomenon of “clutter.” In Aaland’s hands, the notion of “mess” — which we, with Puritanical fervor, attempt to scrub from our lives — becomes a mode of contemplation, redirecting and reorganizing the way the viewer takes space and built environments for granted. After all, with images sliced with an X-acto knife and stickers, there’s an understanding that this mess is contained, bounded — that the clutter can’t bleed out from the collages to contaminate its surroundings, or us.
But equally striking about Aaland’s meticulous curation of these mini-worlds is what she leaves out. In spite of their fullness, her pieces contain large swaths of negative space. Not a single human appears in Thank You for Your Waiting. Instead, the pieces rely on the power of objects — circles of empty chairs, open umbrellas, cups of coffee — to imply the ghost of human presence. Even the exhibit’s omnipresent smiley faces — e.g., in the form of a circle of small succulent plants in “Every Day Is a New Day” — seem to mask a meaningful emptiness. For all the clutter that abounds in the exhibit, an equal measure of silence resounds.