A Ship in the Woods: Cognitive Camouflage

To show, to teach, to inspire, maybe even to bore — this is, generally, what we think art museums do. Less frequently, perhaps, we think “to shock” or “to scare” are also legitimate functions of art. In “Cognitive Camouflage,” an exhibit on view at A Ship in the Woods in Solana Beach until Feb. 21, the art does just that. The exhibit questions social anxiety in today’s culture, the things that make us uncomfortable, sometimes in a chilling, effective, send-shivers-up-your-spine way. 

In a way, the gallery — no, art “retreat,” really — is its own “odd man out” compared to traditional museums or galleries. There are no sterile white walls, no perfect hanging arrangements. A Ship in the Woods is not a museum, but it seems that’s the term that comes closest to describing it. Even its alternate spelling — WSOHOIDPS — with the word “SHIP” hidden between “WOODS” — is clever and coy, much like the art it houses. Ship is simply a place for art, and the art is everywhere — hanging from the ceiling, above the couch and in an artist’s bedroom. 

Lissa Corona’s piece “Swipes,” right next to the brick fireplace, is the first of many that seem to engage the viewer directly. It has a simple setup: a video piece played on a tabletop-sized Sony Trinitron TV set, plugged into a vintage Yamaha GA10 amp. The artist smiles on the screen to start, as if getting ready to pose for a picture, but a loud crack soon interrupts the pleasantry as an offscreen hand slaps the artist across the face. She continues to smile. Another slap. More smiling. Another slap: This time, her nose is bleeding and her lip is split. Yet more smiling. The hand grabs her jaw and shoves her face around. Okay, looking away now. It’s something about her being okay with it, being able to hide any pain, that works. It’s unnerving, but absolutely clear what Corona is saying with her never-breaking smile about withstanding trauma and maintaining a facade in daily life.  

The art in “Cognitive Camouflage” is not “fine,” nor does it seem “prepped” for museum display — though this isn’t to say that it isn’t good. The art seems rough and hand-crafted and, most of all, personal. Sometimes, it’s almost too much information, like the viewer is being exposed to each artist’s life — and his or her own life — in each separate piece.

With pieces in the living room titled “Bowing” and “Fetal,” Scott Shoemate transforms everyday wooden chairs into tortured, though strangely inanimate, objects. The chairs are smooth and the grain refined, but the seat is bent up, the legs contorted. Perhaps the chair is writhing in pain after being sat in all day, used without any thought or appreciation. 

At some point, the line between art and life began to blur, so I stepped out on the back deck — which did feel like being on a ship — and was surprised to see stairs to a lower level. In a guest house are two pieces by Margaret Noble. 

The first consists of a rusty iron chair in front of an equally rusty card file drawer. Titled “Index of Fear,” the piece is essentially made up of 35 mini-folders the viewer flips through, each with some sort of document or artifact cataloguing a fear. The open package of a pregnancy test, an IRS notice to seize property, a stained index card on which the word “IMPOVERISHED” is scrawled. Pieces of cardstock that have tiny speakers with glued-on buttons to press are also in the drawer. The sounds range from shrill telephone ringing to harsh barking,  and they continue to resonate even as you move on to the next file. 

The piece makes you feel a confusing slew of feelings — some viewers laugh at others’ fears, and some relate, but others do not — “Index of Fear” is a fairly comprehensive compilation of what fuels human anxiety, and seeing to what we each connect is somewhat eerie. 

The second, “Head in the Sand,” is an interactive light and sound sculpture, and to start, I had to put my head in the wooden box and wait. The LED lights were almost too bright, the grating, crescendoing music seemed like the build up to a jump scare, and I had to fight the urge to stop and check behind me. 

Perhaps the highlight of the night was Rhodopsin, a project done by WSOHOIDPS in collaboration with Salk neurobiologist John Reynolds, sound artist Greg Smaller, California Institute of Technology lab manager Daw-An Wu and the Paradox design team from the NewSchool of Architecture and Design. On permanent view at Ship, but activated only on opening nights, Rhodopsin is an experience more than an art piece. Viewers, or rather, participants, are led into a dark hallway where the door is shut and they are immersed in darkness for 10 minutes. Then, they’re led into a square room where the piece starts. Beginning with calming, ambient music, the soundtrack gives way to a bright white flash from the light in the ceiling. The image the viewer sees at that moment, for three microseconds, is imprinted in his or her brain; essentially, the viewer ends up seeing holographic images and shadows of the other people in the room in the pitch black. So for the next three flashes, people can move, jump, dance — and see whatever image they had when the light went off in their heads, almost as if their eyelids were transparent. Experiencing it is one thing, but describing it is nearly impossible, unfortunately. 

Walking out of Rhodopsin, a voiceover thanks the participants for taking part in the light installation. “Let’s try that again,” people shouted. “So cool.” 

 Maybe, just maybe, there’s something to add to that list: “to excite.”