Testsite’s exterior bears no flashy signage, no glass storefront—even the windows are covered. From the passerby’s perspective, the only thing hinting this house is a gallery is the television screen mounted squarely facing the front door, beaming Joey Fauerso’s Birdhouse (2018) out onto West 33rd. Peek over the fence and into the entryway and you’ll see footage of birds singing and flitting from branch to branch, their “garden” a room painted in floor-to-ceiling murals. Once in a while the camera pauses on a backdrop (mountainous, leafy, sparsely peopled) or a paint-spattered doorknob. Is this faux-natural interior space a refuge (into which the birds have escaped) or a cage (from which they’ve yet to escape)?
Like most of the gallery’s projects, Dig Three Tunnels is a collaboration between a visual artist and a writer, in this case multi-disciplinary artist Joey Fauerso and her brother Neil Fauerso, a writer and cultural critic.
In teasing out the nuances of escape—spiritual, ideological, physical, legal, historical; imagined or real—Joey divides testsite’s domestic space into two central domains: the living room and the dining room. Each space is occupied by a kind of cabinet of curiosities. In the living room towers Release Forms, a monumental shelf of wood and canvas with 18 cut-up portraits and historical “artifacts” (the highest, a cut-out bust of Mary, Queen of Scots, reaches all the way to the ceiling).
Beyond that is The Utopians, a dining room table crowded with empty ceramic cups and a series of painted plates, each bearing a different utopian archetype, leader, or locale. One plate pictures the Swiss Alps, another a Shaker prayer drawing, another the TM Unified Field chart, which is a Maharishi aid to expanding or elevating consciousness (the Fauerso siblings, Neil’s indispensible guidebook informs us, were raised in Iowa in the Transcendental Meditation movement).
Wandering through these spaces, there’s a sense of entering a kind of reconstructed archaeological space, each object a representation or reproduction of a “real” artifact we never see. These works all have an immediately compelling quality, studied and handmade, as carefully researched as they are crafted.
Here, utopian fantasies, or imaginings of an ideal future, are grounded in relics from the past. Release Forms’ cutouts represent things or people that were repatriated, stolen, and/or destroyed, spanning a wide historical range (a Peruvian skull from AD 640–890; a reference to Catherine the Great’s furniture).
Part of the intrigue and the fun is contemplating how each object relates to its own form of escape, and this particular assemblage feels deeply personal, almost diaristic, evading both chronology and geography.
The escape of the soul and the escape of the body are non-negotiable and interdependent, and any escape to a utopia is also an escape from a less-than-perfect world. The decision to collide so many deeply but differently flawed worlds reifies the kind of universal will-to-liberation that Neil’s essays explore.
That said, they also create some jarring implicit affinities; most notably, a portrait of William Craft, a black man who escaped slavery in the U.S. South in 1848, is mounted just inches from a portrait of Clarence Anglin, a white man convicted of bank robbery who died trying to escape Alcatraz more than a century later, activating the tensions between “liberty” (escape through/to utopia) and “justice” (where everyone’s liberty is equally valued).
Neil’s accompanying texts—an introductory essay, three “toasts,” and a poem—are a gorgeous and essential complement to Joey’s constructions. Equally personal and wide-ranging in their reference points, they serve to lay the historical and philosophical foundation for the allure (and, in the absence of the essays, the mystery) of Joey’s work.
Dig Three Tunnels is on view at testsite through Sunday, February 25.
Annelyse Gelman’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Indiana Review, The Awl, Verse Daily, the PEN Poetry Series, and elsewhere, and she is the author of the poetry collection Everyone I Love is a Stranger to Someone (2014).