Abstract figures pulsating with symbolism and emotion; imagery as macabre as it is mesmerizing; dynamic conflagrations of texture and detail: these are the elements of “Ladders to Fire,” a transfixing exhibition of the work of Kayla A. Escobedo ’12. On display until April 3 in Gallery 263, Escobedo’s art is a masterful amalgamation of unified themes and influences, combined with visceral emotion that is unique to each piece.
“Ladders to Fire” is Escobedo’s second solo exhibition and her first off-campus showing since coming to Harvard. Gallery intern and curator Emily X. L. Xie ’12 arranged the exhibition, selecting a wide variety of Escobedo’s pieces. Her selections include large oil paintings and acrylics, some of which were previously displayed at the artist’s show last semester in the SOCH Penthouse. Additionally, Xie featured Escobedo’s intricately detailed comics, which are being exhibited for the first time.
Escobedo attributes the inspiration for the show’s newer pieces to a summer spent as a studio assistant to Houston-based international artist Trenton Doyle Hancock.
“I already had an interest in comics, but [Hancock] would give me stacks of books every week to look through, so I got introduced to tons of old comics artists and watched a lot of films and had this period of hibernation,” Escobedo says. “I wasn’t making any art, but I just had so much new influence and information stockpiled in my head, so when I got back on campus, I had an explosion of art making.”
This inspiration is tangible in the powerful, emotive imagery that characterizes Escobedo’s artwork. She fuses these components with aesthetic elements gleaned from her influences.
“I’m taking old-timey comic books and the bad stuff that’s in the back of my head and blending the two of them,” Escobedo says. “So you have the comforting old-timey classic feel of the 1920s—you know, the comic book characters with the big eyes and floppy arms—but then there’s this intense sexual charge to it. It’s raw, sort of nasty in a way.”
The fusion is embodied by “The Mourners,” a large acrylic painting that depicts the artist’s corpse falling as significant figures from her life latch onto her. Interspersed throughout the painting are bulbous bodies, cartoon eyes and mouths, and detailed hands and feet. These images evidence Escobedo’s internalization of a comic book aesthetic as she symbolically evokes the figure’s reactions to her death.
In contrast, the artist’s newer work moves away from the symbolism that saturates “The Mourners.”
“In a lot of my stuff now I’m just reaching into the unaccessed places in my mind and pulling things out and then just putting them on canvas,” Escobedo says. “I used to be very uncomfortable with not knowing what something meant... but now I have more of a confidence with just making things and not questioning them.”
The juxtaposition of deliberately symbolic and more instinctive, visceral works lends dynamic heterogeneity to the exhibition. In addition, Escobedo uses a diverse range of media, from pen and ink drawings to acrylic and oil paintings on expansive canvases.
“As a solo show Kayla has a very interesting body of work in that there is a unifying style, but there’s also a huge variation,” Xie says. “So my goal in curating was trying to figure out how to arrange things in a way so that they could give the most meaning to the viewer.”
Xie’s curatorial arrangement optimally displays a series of surreal, sexually charged images. “Garden of Earthly Delights” features nude female figures interacting within a surrealist landscape, while “Erotica” depicts similar figures draped across an imposing, devil-like creature, whose intricate folds of flesh and meticulously detailed features elicit a potent emotional response. Perhaps the most striking of these sexual, unearthly images is “Los Dos Kaylas,” which depicts two faceless, nude figures, their bodies textured with a mélange of colors, perched upon spindly chairs and connected by intertwining heart strings.
Oscillating between abstract and figurative, drenched in symbolism, and at times verging upon the grotesque, Escobedo’s “Ladders to Fire” ignites the intimate gallery space of 263. Her work encompasses both a personal significance and a universal emotional resonance. The exhibition comes at an opportune moment for the artist; according to Escobedo, “I’m taking next year off to write a graphic novel, so [this exhibition] is an amazing way to say goodbye for a while.”
—Staff writer Jenya O. Godina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.