Custom Project for Meow Wolf's Convergence Station in Denver
Jillian Blackwell's Review
Shayna Cohn’s installation at Denver’s Meow Wolf beckons the viewer to slow down, to breathe deeply, to bask. A cave that wraps itself around a staircase, it is both fantastical and grounding at once, both like an underwater cavern and a galactic flight. The rippling walls are thickly layered with plaster, with precious barnacles growing out of the surface. The ceiling is a holographic net studded with plaster stalactites, the floor a dark, shimmering epoxy resin with a mirrorlike surface. The calm environment manages to hold the maximalist decoration without it being frenetic. Cohn bends the architecture of the space to her vision. Corners soften, the plaster creeps up and partially engulfs the handrail, and no surface is truly flat. All two stories of space are filled with a “hallucinatory amount of visual yum-yums,” as Cohn puts it.
The undulating plaster walls seem soft and satiny with a pastel pearlescent sheen. Embedded rhythmically across the surface are hundreds of ceramic parts, resinous blobs, mirrors, marbles, and small bits of the ceiling netting. Every ceramic leaf shape, rainbow arc, flower, and cluster were all created by Cohn’s own hand, representing hundreds of hours of care and labor. The forms are unpretentious without seeming childlike. The glazes encompass their own pastel spectrum; there are soft rainbow hues and speckled surfaces. Bulbous knobs of resin with hot pink streaks grow from the walls. Small mirrors angled in various directions bounce reflections of the ceiling, the floor, the walls, creating many echoes of the cave.
The already rich surface of the walls also encases a few dioramas, as Cohn calls them--plexiglass boxes that hold small biomorphic sculptures, which are lit with colorful led lights. These dioramas mimic and riff on the type of display one might find in a natural history museum. Cohn’s environments are altogether unnatural, with bright lights and manmade materials. The soft bodies of the sculptures are made with shimmering fabrics and clear tubes stuffed with shredded shiny sheets of plastic. The dioramas are microcosms of the larger space, their own underwater dominions. The dioramas entice the viewer to explore all the small niches of the space, to explore and inspect carefully. Moving through the space and up the stairs, the viewer hugs in quite tightly to the deeply textured walls, and yet the double-height space still feels tall and expansive.
Adding to the depth of the space is the cosmic floor, which is covered in an epoxy resin. The dark mirror-like surface swirls with iridescence like the billows of a nebula, but also reflects back all of the room in high detail. This intricate reflection pulls the viewer’s eye down, down past the surface of the floor, and on down ad infinitum. In contrast to the highly textured walls, the floor is flat, and yet is a vertiginous world unto itself. The ceiling especially is caught in the mirror of the floor. The surface of the ceiling is entirely cloaked in a net of dichroic film that bends and crinkles like wrapping on a present. Crystals dangle down, and large stalactites made of the same plaster of the walls hang jaggedly in space. These stalactites, studded with rhinestones, are reminiscent of a lady’s arms, swathed in elbow-length white satin gloves. The space is lit by dangling lights, which look like colorful ice cubes. The ceiling and floor, both dark and reflective, pull towards and away from each other, accentuating the height of the room.
Cohn taps into and examines our desire for beauty and mystique. All the shiny, shimmering materials that she uses were made to be beautiful, to capture the essence of fleeting phenomena in the natural world, but they can never escape their own artificiality. They are like a photocopy of a photocopy. This striving for an essential beauty is a noble act in itself, but it is also humorous--we all know that inimitable beauty cannot be copied. The Sparkle Cave enacts this on a greater scale: the space plays at referring to naturalistic things but also never denies its own contrivance.The atmosphere flickers like sunlight filtered through water, as light tumbles over the irregular walls, tingeing them blue and pink. Expansive music fills up the space of the room; it bubbles, gently rising and falling like waves. Cohn’s unprecious surfaces and materials invite familiarity, and yet these surfaces--rhinestone-studded, opalescent, and glittery--carry the tension of a fabricated transcendence, a manufactured striving for naturalistic wonder. Cohn at once holds up the beauty of these ersatz materials while not denying their inherent humor.
The Sparkle Cave is sensational in the truest sense of the word: it is a playground for the eyes, the ears, the fingertips. One cannot help but partake in the act of deep observation, taking it all in, curiosity spiking at each new precious bit. Every single part of the installation is the result of hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of labor, and that touch imbues every part with its own small power and radiance. The viewer may easily suspend judgment and just absorb the sense of joy which permeates. In this improbable landscape there are no facts--the tangibility of the place is found not through conception but through the highly palpable but incredibly surreal material of that specific place and time.