From May 2 to May 13, the Alvin Gittins Gallery on the campus of the University of Utah organizes “sulky feelings», an exhibition by artist Christina Riccio for her master’s thesis in fine arts. Throughout the exhibition, Riccio uses ceramic pottery to examine his experiences with mental health issues and lay bare their impact on his life. It is an extremely personal collection, both courageous and intense but tempered by a dark and sardonic sense of humor.
Kitschy figurines used to examine mental illness
The floor of the Alvin Gittins gallery is dotted with pedestals on which rest tchotchke figurines, similar to those mass-produced by Punch or found on the shelves of a gray-haired grandmother.
The glazed terracotta figurines all feature the same subject – a young woman with glowing anime eyes, cherubic cheeks, and ash blonde hair topped with a backwards green baseball cap. The base of each figurine is decorated with hearts and flowers.
While the subject matter remains the same, the setting changes, depicting the myriad ways Riccio’s mental health issues developed and how they manifest in his emotions.
The character dives headfirst into a beautifully rendered bag of Cheetos, drinks heavily, sleeps on a pile of drugs, and impulsively dyes his hair.
A truly shocking moment comes when viewers stand in front of a particular action figure labeled “self-harm.” The figure looks upwards with a shy, embarrassed half-smile – the kind of smile meant to disarm an authority figure when you’ve done something wrong. It is only after walking behind the figurine that we realize that the arms folded behind the back hide wounds and a razor. This is the best part of the show.
Plates are mounted on the east-facing wall of the exhibit, on which the same figurine subject depicts what Riccio calls “The Seven Stages of Depression” – getting into bed, doomscrollingfalling asleep randomly, ordering subpar takeout, being listless after dark, a trash nest, and binging TV and insomnia. Riccio summarizes each step on an almost iconographic level, ultimately creating a snapshot in time with startling clarity and purpose.
Presentation hides message and emotion
Riccio’s artistic style is deliberately kitsch, inspired by Hallmark tchotchkes and other commercial artwork. I understand that the intention of the exhibition is to juxtapose the misleading representation and the seriousness of the subject by illustrating the dual nature of living with mental illness.
There is a barely hidden humor that runs through the pieces, from the exaggerated facial expressions to the brightly colored figurines, which prevents the work from becoming didactic and heavy. This means that mental illness and its symptoms are more accessible to the general public – a good thing. Yet kitsch is an art of superficial sentimentality and Riccio is unable to escape it.
The presentation creates a barrier between itself and the emotion of the piece, preventing emotional engagement with it. The frilly pink hearts and glowing eyes detract from Riccio’s message.
Riccio is able to take a lifetime of the ways in which mental illness manifests and strip it down to a representative image in a clear, vivid and effective way.
The gallery‘s fluorescent lights are perhaps the most appropriate way to view the pieces because there is no shadow in Riccio’s work, and what you see is really what you get. In theory, that’s the right approach to a topic like mental illness – hampered by the means of getting the message across. The emphasis on iconography makes the audience unable to connect or understand the emotions of the exhibit and leaves “Sulky Sentiment” in the shallow end.