Sleep consists of four videos, eight multimedia collages and five sculptures (not to mention several architectural structures) on the CAC’s second floor. Varelas spent three weeks in town creating a site-specific installation, and the small but thoughtful decisions he and guest curator Xenia Kalpaktsoglou made successfully lay claim to an exhibition hall that can be a challenge to master. The artist’s work is well suited for such, in Varelas’ use of monumental installation mounting techniques and large-scale sculptural figures.
Varelas displays a penchant for existentialist and surrealist literary references throughout Sleep, reflecting the absurdity and helplessness of those affected by the 2008 financial crisis. The first video one encounters, “Not I,” is based upon the eponymous play by Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. In Beckett’s version, an actress recites a monologue in which she describes traumatic events, which (despite her knowledge of specific details) she insists did not happen to her — hence the title.
As in Beckett’s version, Varelas’ viewer only sees a close up of a red-lipped mouth. However, (unlike Beckett’s constantly-narrating ever-dramatic mouth) Varelas’ mouth is mute, nonchalantly chewing gum and blowing bubbles. This variation on Beckett’s play is a clear indictment of the universal apathy toward the financial scandals that rocked the globe some scant four years ago.
Adding ominous audio to the atmosphere is Varelas’ film, The Giant, projected high on the northernmost wall of that gallery. A four-minute loop of a green-faced metal clown coin bank that clanks a metal hand into its mouth every few seconds, the title implies not just size but calls to mind something unmanageable.
Three painted steel objects comprise “Candies,” and they are presumably treats for “Giant,” which faces it. Here again, the artist plays with exaggerated scale and implication. The three items (a bent metal fence, the column of a common street lamppost and a metal pipe, pinched on either end and poked through) are the detritus of urban existence, painted reddish pink for the all-seeing ogre above.
In Varelas’ full-length, larger-than-life collages “Ghost 1-4,” figures are mounted upon shallow plywood shadowboxes and propped against a tall chain-link fence, situated about two-and-a-half feet away from the wall. The effect is palisade-like and intimidating in scale, but each is constructed of common materials (paper, vinyl, cardboard, spray paint, hair, photographs, etc.) that form rudimentary implications of torso, limbs and face.
Although his work has been compared to the collages of Hannah Hoch (because of his similarly patchwork-like figures), Varelas draws from many sources, and “Ghost 1” is particularly Matisse-like. Much like the cutouts Matisse was fond of creating near the end of his life, Varelas’ cut-out figures imply the body with little detail. Even the squiggle and dot pattern Varelas repeats along either side of the figure in “Ghost 1” is reminiscent of Matisse’s botanic patterns. To add Varelas’ characteristic absurdity, he includes cut-outs of croissants floating around the figure.
Varelas’ surrealist journey continues with three more oversized collages, “Face 1-3,” busts of exaggerated features: big, black saucer-eyed creatures with vaginal noses, created from curious media. The artist paints with what resembles gritty blood-colored mud, and in places another thick substance appears to slide right off the paper.
In a prime example of Varelas’ interest in class structure, he draws upon French playwright Jean Genet’s The Maids for his final two videos within the farthest smaller gallery to the rear of the exhibition hall. “Solange’s Dream” and “Jane’s Poem” are Varelas’ take on the absurdist story of two sadomasochistic sisters who fantasize about murdering their employer and each other. Here, again, Varelas’ figure is crudely crafted but unmistakably human — living a nightmarish existence.
The title of the exhibition is likely a quote from social critic Walter Benjamin’s text, “On Hashish” in which the hallucinating author states, “is the frame a writing-song is it an image. Sleep my little sheep sleep.” In this case, Varelas’ takeaway here is clear: He reminds viewers of the baseness of human existence, imploring us to wake up.
JANNIS VARELAS: SLEEP MY LITTLE SHEEP SLEEP runs through Sept. 3 at the Contemporary Arts Center.