words by : Ciara LaVelle
The spirit of Churchill’s Pub’s past is alive at PRIMARY.
A taxidermied billfish, hung high on the first wall crowds will encounter when “Agalma” opens this Saturday, recalls artist Autumn Casey’s six years behind the bar at the legendary Miami dive.
As the bar prepared to change ownership, Casey recalls, “everybody started stealing stuff off the walls. They didn’t know what the new owners were going to do with all the stuff. Everybody wanted a piece of the place we cherished and loved.”
What they wanted to do with their loot, on the other hand, was anybody’s guess. Casey remembers two men stealing a swordfish trophy from the bar; she discovered them outside the venue tearing its head from its body. “It was so sad.”
Instead, a different fish stands in for Casey’s multitude of memories from the old joint, adorned with a single round crystal hanging from its bill. Titled Total Oblivion, Casey says, “It’s an icon of Churchill’s.”
“Agalma,” Casey’s debut solo at Primary Projects, is made up the artist’s past experiences, with relics from her childhood forming the foundation of many of its pieces. Ghost Ride My Mind piles a pink plastic Barbie corvette atop a vintage Life magazine. A video work juxtaposes film of Casey playing her childhood piano with shots of her father smashing the instrument to bits — a work inspired, the artist says, by the pressure to play that ultimately spoiled the hobby for her. In one corner, a pile of golden silverware sits unassumingly on the ground.
“Nobody knows the story of that silverware,” Casey explains about the family heirlooms which once belonged to her grandmother. “Nana never used it.” Instead, the pieces sat for years in a drawer enfolded in black velvet, inspiring a wonder in Casey as a child.
Years later, Casey’s mother asked if she wanted the items. Fancy and forbidden, the forks and knives still held a mythical place in her imagination. “I said, ‘Are you kidding me?'” she laughs. Dumping the pieces in one corner of the gallery, she explains, is her way of inverting the pull of them in her memory.
Many artists who mine their childhood for inspiration do so in part to work through their own painful experiences as kids. But though some of Casey’s work touches on difficult memories — a photo of her divorced parents cut and reassembled so they’re facing away from each other, for example — the artist proclaims, “I had a happy childhood.”
In fact, the most melancholy piece of the show is also, somehow, the most uplifting: a video of Casey’s Nana herself, a former dancer who today suffers from Alzheimer’s. Casey has filmed her seated in a field, wrapped in burlap; as Frank Sinatra tunes play, Nana is transported into her own past, singing and moving her arms to the music. The video focuses on the details of her skin, her varied expressions, the delicate gold chain worn around her neck. It’s a beautiful, even optimistic portrait, a tempered celebration. Casey calls it “a shrine to Nana.”
Rather than a public therapy session, “Agalma” feels more like a deeply personal museum of oddities, like a peek inside the mind of the tall, tattooed, and upbeat young artist.
In fact, Casey has included an excerpt of writing by a favorite author, Richard Brautigan, to underscore exactly that quality. In it, a father remembers to his daughter a memory of playing inside a cave on a family vacation. Nothing much happens — the father, as a boy, plays inside a cave — but as Brautigan puts it, “She uses this story as a kind of Christopher Columbus door to the discovery of her father when he was a child and her contemporary.”
“Agalma” is your door to the discovery of the artist, of nostalgia, of the power of small objects to conjure broad and overwhelming experiences — many of which, from childhood wonder about grown-up trinkets, to familial love and loss, to fond memories of a Little Haiti bar, we share.
So is that fish really stolen from the walls of Churchill’s? You’ll have to ask Casey herself.