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Private Icons 

Luke Forsyth and Molly Schaeffer at the Sanctuary

A visual journal and a scattering of open letters kick off the Sanctuary's 2017 exhibition season. Concurrent exhibitions by Luke Forsyth and Molly Schaeffer provide a chance to contemplate the evolution of second-wave feminist catchphrase "the personal is political." Both artists are prepared to blur the boundary between public and private in some arenas, while preserving it in others.

Arcata native Luke Forsyth, who lives in Los Angeles, grew up "within a stone's throw" of Humboldt State University so his exhibition at the Sanctuary represents a homecoming. In Nothingness is Like an Empty Egg Without a Shell, Forsyth is showing hard-edged paintings with a verve and clarity that speak to the time he's spent in Los Angeles. Brightly colored, hard-edged shapes come together in tight compositions on square panels, evoking reductions of familiar forms like mountains, palm trees and human figures. These bright, depthless little icons come preformatted for screens and windows. They seem to expand to the limits of their square panels. The artist says they're inspired by recollected images seen through car, train, plane or bus windows in the course of his travels.

Within the limits of their abstraction, some of the vignettes have the oddball specificity of incidents in dreams. A man in red wearing what appears to be a black stovepipe hat stands in front of a blue horizon. A green rhombus takes on the appearance of a pixelated conifer. Lavender triangles become a mountain range. A stick-figure everyman with a peach-colored blob for a head stands expressionless beside an icon that might be a shopping cart, a bench or rolling luggage. Brightly colored panels indicate gables, eaves, traffic signs. When a galloping mustang appears in silhouette, its outlines are so crisp that it's clear this particular horse's existence as a mascot, icon or sign predates Forsyth's recollection.

Simpler forms recall emoji and app icons. This association is reinforced by the fact that each icon appears twice: once on a wood panel and once as part of a mural painted on unstretched canvas, hung high above the fireplace in the Sanctuary's main performance space. The mural depicts a commuter train, with one of Forsyth's icons filling each of the 12 window apertures. Above, a pale blue sun shines wanly in a red sky.

Forsyth reveals in a statement that the 12 paintings derive from events experienced over the course of a single year. That makes his painted train into a diary — a composite portrait made across an extended span of time, like an abstracted Instagram feed. How handy it would be if our memories could, in fact, be tagged with bespoke icons!

"Enjoying the shifting perspectives that travel gives, I seek the flattened sense of reality that a train, plane or bus voyage can give to an artist," Forsyth writes. "There is a lapse of rationality when putting oneself into this void." Lately the overlap of reality and reality-entertainment effects at the national news level have left lots of us experiencing a similarly uncanny sense of flattening, whether we travel or stay home. In 2017, Forsyth's insight might be poised to go mainstream.

This month the Sanctuary also hosts New Works on Paper by writer and artist Molly Schaeffer, a founding editor of Portland-based literary magazine Big Big Wednesday. Schaeffer's mixed-media pieces incorporate handwritten text with pen and ink images in an open-letter format. If Forsyth's paintings could double as emoji, these images offer a reprieve from the digital. Think of them as works of slow art, a parallel endeavor to the slow-food movement.

Content sometimes touches on the pleasures of making by hand. "All day I walked around with a letter I couldn't wait to read," one begins, the words unspooling in fine spidery script at the top of the page. The artist addresses us confidingly, sharing anxieties, stories and recollections that spin off illustrations in the margins.

Schaeffer circulated these pieces as works of mail art for years, exchanging them by post with a circle of pen pals. She only recently decided to approach a wider audience by presenting them as open letters. When displayed in this way they blur public and private in a way that feels acutely contemporary, Schaeffer's no-tech approach notwithstanding. While placing these gossamer documents on gallery walls entails a certain risk, viewers who give these works the time they deserve will be rewarded with a beguilingly intimate experience.

Nothingness is Like an Empty Egg Without a Shell and New Works on Paper will be on display at the Sanctuary throughout February. An opening reception will take place from 6 to 9 p.m. on Feb. 10 during Arts Arcata. For more information, see and

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About The Author

Gabrielle Gopinath

Gabrielle Gopinath

Gabrielle Gopinath is a critic who writes about art, place and culture in Northern California. She lives in Arcata. Follow her on Instagram @gabriellegopinath.

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