Performance Anxiety at Allegheny College Art Galleries

In Dialogue with Paula Burleigh

Installation view, Performance Anxiety, on view at the Allegheny Art Galleries, 2021. Featuring works by Eric D. Charlton, Taha Heydari, Wednesday Kim. Image courtesy of the Allegheny Art Galleries.

The three person show Performance Anxiety at the Allegheny Art Galleries in PA features videos, paintings, and sculptures by Eric D. Charlton, Taha Heydari, and Wednesday Kim, who all respond in their work to the intense digital terrains most of us inhabit, exploring how the intrapersonal and interpersonal elements interplay— how self-image is being manifested and how does it affect communication with others in an ever-shifting social media landscape? Paula Burleigh, the curator of the show and the gallery director, elaborates on the premise of the exhibition, the artists’ artwork, and her curatorial process.

Tell me about the premise of Performance Anxiety.

Traditionally, the phrase “performance anxiety” describes fear of acting in front of a group — it’s effectively stage fright. But in a culture that encourages constant performance of the self, the term becomes more complicated. We don’t necessarily fear performance, instead we perform because of anxiety. On social media, for example, public performance of work and play merge to form curated personal lifestyle brands. Whether you’re trying to become an influencer or just sharing family photos with friends, I think many of us internalize pressure to create the most optimized versions of ourselves online. In conversation with the artists in this show, I’ve been thinking about the work of philosopher Byung-Chul Han, who suggests that this drive towards self-exhibition generates communication without community. In other words, we are always broadcasting to one another, but the messages are too narcissistic to form meaningful bonds. This absence of community sparks feelings of isolation and, in turn, the desire for more attention. The anxious drive to perform the self isn’t unique to our present moment. We can locate it in the invention of photography, later accelerated by film, television & video, and then it exploded with the advent of the internet. But, I think it’s particularly acute in a pandemic. We’re all spending more time online, literally watching ourselves interact on zoom. These digital platforms provide valuable means of connection, but they are simultaneously exhausting and unsatisfactory. Works in this exhibition by Eric Charlton, Taha Heydari, and Wednesday Kim all explore the anxious culture of broadcasting the self — what it looks like, how these images are circulated, how living in online shapes the way we think.

Installation view, Taha Heydari, RDS-222, 2016; Eric D. Charlton, Smile 2, 2019. Images courtesy of Allegheny Art Galleries.
Wednesday Kim, still from Dépaysement Dream, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.

Can you elaborate on the participating artists’ artworks in context of this premise?

I understand work by Eric Charlton and Wednesday Kim as exploring the psychological ramifications of constantly performing oneself. Taha Heydari asks questions like: where those performances take place? How do the images circulate, and for whom? Heydari works over the surface of paintings with palette knives, rollers, and airbrushing to disrupt depicted images with marks that look alternately like glitches and grids. Growing up in Tehran, Iran, he became fascinated with the televisual glitches resulting from the Iranian government’s satellite jamming. Legible but on the verge of incoherence, Heydari’s paintings question the status of the images we broadcast: are they extensions of the performers, or merely autonomous configurations of pixels and data?

Eric Charlton works in a variety of media—digital animation, sculpture, installation—to create absurd imagery that both estranges and illuminates facets of our lived experience. For Performance Anxiety he made a series of blue raspberry candy sculptures. Charlton is interested in the blue raspberry flavor as a marketing invention: Its sickeningly sweet taste and electric blue hue bear little resemblance to the actual fruit, which grows in the Western United States. An inaccurate imitation that superseded the original, Blue Raspberry functions like facts in today’s post-truth era: Invented, artificial, widely consumed. Eating pure sugar, however, yields nothing but an inevitable crash, an apt metaphor for the way in which we glean little lasting satisfaction from the endless online cycle of performance and consumption.

Wednesday Kim’s digital animations channel the anxiety experienced by a culture that equates public self-revelation with authenticity. Her works feel deeply personal in the way that they process lived trauma, but simultaneously the imagery seems to emerge from the collective consciousness of the internet itself. Frenetic, information-saturated, and multi-layered, it evokes the experience of living online. Kim’s work is full of self-representation, but always filtered through a complex lens of the digital culture that she inhabits. Some of the images are unsettling, and I think it’s productive to consider how works like Dépaysement Dream—a self-portrait derived from the artist’s nightmares—differs from the more conventional selfies that populate our social media feeds.

Eric D. Charlton, blue raspberry candy pour with Don Quixote, 2021. Image courtesy of Allegheny Art Galleries.

Eric D. Charlton, detail, blue raspberry candy pour with Don Quixote, 2021. Image courtesy of Allegheny Art Galleries.

Wednesday Kim, Staying with the TROUBLE, 2020. Image courtesy of Allegheny Art Galleries.

Taha Heydari, Real Violence, 2020. Image courtesy of Allegheny Art Galleries.

Installation view, Performance Anxiety, on view at the Allegheny Art Galleries, 2021. Featuring works by Eric D. Charlton, Taha Heydari, Wednesday Kim. Image courtesy of the Allegheny Art Galleries.

The show includes paintings, sculptures, and video. How do they relate to each other in the gallery space?

In some ways this show explores our relationship to a mediated, digital culture, but it was important to me that the exhibition unfolds not only on screens but across media in physical space. Our lives are not compartmentalized into time spent on the internet versus living in the real world, those arenas have merged.

In terms of the exhibition layout, the exhibition is meant to be a dialogue among artworks, rather than a series of three discrete solo shows. From any point in the gallery, you experience a layered soundscape that includes Kim’s digital animations and Charlton’s NPR Laughtrack. It is definitely a loud auditory experience, and one that reminds me of trying unsuccessfully to multi-task: having too many tabs open on a computer screen or listening to a TV, radio, and a podcast all at once. It’s an anxious space that echoes the broader experiences of navigating our daily onslaught of information overload, rather than the typical rarefied quiet that we associate with galleries and museums.

We have distributed a series of 15 Smiles throughout the gallery: these are sculptures by Charlton comprising dental models and cast teeth atop light stands. Like surrogates for visitors, they stand admiring Heydari’s paintings and watching Kim’s videos, or even facing one another in a hypothetical conversation. Charlton and I have a running joke that the Smiles represent visitors who can’t come to the gallery during the pandemic. But they also model appropriate social cues: silent and smiling, they stand in perpetual admiration of other artworks. But absent faces and movement, the smiles become eerie, even sinister. I see their presence as revealing similar disquiet that is latent in other works in the show: you begin to notice the blurred faces in Heydari’s paintings, the cipher-like avatars in Kim’s animations, which raises the question of how little we know of each other despite our digital culture that is so predicated upon self-revelation.

Installation view, Performance Anxiety, on view at the Allegheny Art Galleries, 2021. Paintings by Taha Heydari, sculptures by Eric D. Charlton. Image courtesy of the Allegheny Art Galleries.

Tell me a bit about your curatorial process.

This exhibition initially developed out of a series of conversations with Eric Charlton, my colleague in the Art Department at Allegheny College. We were both experiencing a lot of pandemic-induced anxiety. But we talked about how those feelings weren’t new, just acute versions of anxiety that comes from the pressures of performing online, and how that digital atmosphere can’t be divorced from our politically polarized moment where truth and fact are no longer synonymous. I met Taha Heydari several years prior in Baltimore, and this seemed like an apt opportunity to engage with his work which so seamlessly merges questions about the content and the medium of messages we broadcast, and from a culturally specific perspective that engages important issues of audience and surveillance — the ever-present “who is watching?” question. Charlton introduced me to Wednesday Kim’s work, which felt like a revelation at a time when I think a lot of us feel like we’re drowning in a sea of sensory stimuli (Kim says she sometimes surfs on that sea). At its core, this process was dialogic. It came from many fascinating conversations with all three artists.

What would you like to share about the Allegheny college art venue?

Three connected spaces—the Bowman, Penelec, and Megahan galleries—make up the Allegheny Art Galleries. We are an educational space on multiple levels: we bring in an exciting array of artists from around the U.S. and abroad, and we are likewise committed to showcasing work by Allegheny students. We are located at Allegheny College, a liberal arts college in Meadville, Pennsylvania. Once travel becomes more feasible again, I hope we will see the return of visitors to campus. Allegheny’s campus is a reasonable driving distance to Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Erie, and Buffalo, making Meadville an ideal anchor destination for a trip exploring art and culture of our region.

Installation view, Performance Anxiety, on view at the Allegheny Art Galleries, 2021. Featuring works by Eric D. Charlton, Taha Heydari, Wednesday Kim. Image courtesy of the Allegheny Art Galleries.

Allegheny College Art Galleries Open Date: March 3; Closing Date: April 10, 2021 PERFORMANCE ANXIETY Artists: Eric D. Charlton, Taha Heydari, Wednesday Kim. Curated by Paula Burleigh

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: