Neurologist and author Oliver Sacks has written about all kinds of people whose memories have been ravaged. A musicologist he treated, for instance, was plagued by a brain infection that left him with a memory lasting only seconds. He could clearly recall events from his far past, but he was unable to keep track of new memories. It kept him in a precarious state of grasping for reality, like tightrope walking over an abyss.
For First Friday at The Brink Gallery, Gissette Padilla, a Venezuelan native who lives in Houston, Texas, explores the way even someone with a healthy brain struggles to pin down memories. "I'm interested in how memory is always being altered and rehashed," she says. "There's a close relationship between remembering, perceiving and imagining."
The exhibit, Retrieval from an Unconscious Mind, is made up of printmaking collages showing outlines of people paired with more abstract objects. She uses a printmaking process of overlapping images over and over until the repeating layers create chaos on the paper. In most of her pieces you can make out a familiar representation of a person or thing, but the rest of the space is filled with dreamlike, non-concrete designs.
Padilla recalls her eight years growing up in Venezuela before her father got his work visa and moved them to Houston. She remembers her grandmother's restaurant and the smell of the food there. The smell of gasoline, even now, transports her back to her native land as well. "I smell gasoline and it takes me back to where my grandmother lives, which was this bay," she says. "We could smell it from there. It's strange that I like itthe smell of gasolinebut it has a good memory for me."
Other parts of her early years remain hazy. And whereas some of us can go visit old haunts to reignite memories, Padilla hasn't been able to go back to Venezuela. Just as she was graduating high school, her father lost his job and therefore his work visa. That situation, she says, has prevented all of them from returning. In fact, Padilla had to stay in Texas for both undergrad, which she attended at the University of Houston, and grad school, which she finished in 2011 at the University of Texas at San Antonio. "I was really wanting to go to an art school," she says. "I'd applied and gotten into a few, got a few scholarships, but because of my status I couldn't really leave Texas. I didn't have a driver's license. All of that affected where I made and showed my work."
It also affected the substance of her work. Her life in Texas and her life in Venezuela are two separate worlds, like being reincarnated from one life to the other. Instead of letting that constraint get the best of her, it's become one of the main focuses of her body of work.
The abstract sections of her printsthe "voids," as she calls themsymbolize the parts of her memory she can't quite fill in. "The voids are just parts I don't recall," she says. "I try to make them up by adding this layer of chaos, but the fact is that's still a void, regardless of if you fill it up. The work is very much about that. It's about me trying to put these things together but no matter how hard I try they still don't exist to me anymore."
Sometimes, when there's a void, filling it with anything, however imprecise, is all we can do. Oliver Sacks tells the story of a woman whose short-term memory loss compels her to shake her doctor's hand each time she sees him as if meeting him for the first time. One day, the doctor hides a pin in his palm and pricks her hand during the handshake. From then on, though she still never recognizes him, the woman never shakes his hand again. Each time she's asked about it, she offers a different reason for not shaking his hand ("Must we always shake hands with people we meet?" she asks during one visit), though getting pricked on the hand isn't one of them.
Sacks' cases are dramatic, but the faultiness of personal memory is something we can all relate to.
"Memory ages in time," says Padilla. "It changes. It becomes a nostalgic moment as opposed to what it really was the first time around."
Such loss, such self-deceptionhowever unconsciousseems both heartbreaking and disturbing. But as an artist, Padilla indulges in it. She's inspired by the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where two exes, played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, go through a procedure to erase each other from their memories. Rather than being spotless, their minds continue to cling to tidbits of their lives together, though the memories are discombobulated.
"That movie had such great visuals," Padilla says. "It felt honest to what an odd dream would feel like. With the use of pattern, color and line, I am able to create a space that visually represents how a memory might look over time with missing parts and images overlapping each other."
Retrieval from an Unconscious Mind opens for First Friday at The Brink Gallery Fri., Jan. 4, with a reception from 5 to 8 PM. Free.