Last week, a 9-year-old girl came upon an art installation by Julie Gautier-Downes, “Dislocated Memories,” now showing at the Chase Gallery in downtown Spokane.
“Is it a beach?” asked the little girl.
“There is sand, but it’s not a beach,” said the girl’s older sister. “It looks like somebody’s stuff burned up in a fire. See how the blanket and bed are burned?”
The little girl looked closer, spotting curled remnants of family photographs in the 10-by-12 foot dust heap on the floor of the Chase Gallery. The installation, part of Gautier-Downes’ Tableaux Series, includes a broken bike with training wheels parked next to a burned-out mattress surrounded by empty beer bottles and tattered repair manuals.
The 9-year-old took in the sight of this small island of trauma, nostalgia and loss currently on display just a few feet from City Council Chambers.
“Oh. That’s sad,” she said quietly.
That reaction is perfectly valid, according to Gautier-Downes.
“I had a house burn down when I was 18, so it made me interested in the potential of objects and souvenirs to kind of hold our memories,” Gautier-Downes said. “I started looking at abandoned spaces and thinking about these kind of places where people have experienced loss and the things that are left behind.”
In addition to two installations now at the Chase from her Tableaux Series, Gautier-Downes has created a larger installation that marks a departure for her. It’s called Dislocated Memories, and is a recreation of the bedroom the artist shared with her twin sister from when she was 5 until she turned 10 years old. The room holds a lot of unhappy memories. Gautier-Downes moved into it shortly after her parents’ divorce.
Recreating her childhood bedroom is the artist’s most personal installation to date. “My mom hired an interior decorator after the breakup and redesigned our room to make it very dreamy and surreal,” Gautier-Downes said. “It was an interesting time because I had night terrors those years, getting used to the differences in our living situation.”
It is night-time in the 8-by-12 foot darkened room the artist has constructed at the Chase, with floating clouds painted on the walls. Stacks of vintage children’s books and dusty stuffed animals are arranged next to matching twin bed frames. Light filters in through the windows and vegetation from the outside.
It is not all sad. There is also a sense of sweet nostalgia, home, and even humor. Such as the choice to have an animated movie playing on the retro television in the bedroom: 1993’s “Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey.” “It’s about animals who spend the whole movie trying to return home,” Gautier Downes said. “It seemed appropriate.”
Chase Gallery curator Ellen Picken said she first noticed Gautier-Downes’ photography at Hatch Gallery in Spokane Valley more than a year ago. The artist had collaborated with her twin sister, the painter Kristen Gautier-Downes, to transform a found space into an installation, then into a photograph. “The artwork is similar to the way memory becomes distorted the more it is recalled, yet seems so fixed,” Picken said.
“For the most part, installation was an art form you had to go to a larger city to experience,” Picken said. “It was refreshing to see someone taking the risk.”
Gautier-Downes spent her early childhood in California with her mom, who taught physics at UC Santa Barbara. When the artist was 11, she moved across the country to live with her other mother, a special education teacher in Manhattan, one week before Sept. 11, 2001.
Middle school was a difficult experience, and Gautier-Downes was challenged to a lot of fights. People assumed she was gay because her parents were gay. The experience made her tough. She was grateful when she transferred to an arts high school where she could “be weird and not worry about it,” she said.
Gautier-Downes decided to return to the West Coast in 2009 when she turned 18, but a sudden, early-season brushfire destroyed her childhood home. Ever since, she has grappled with topics of impermanence, destruction, fire and home in her art.
After graduating with an MFA in Photography at the Rhode Island School of Design in 2014, Gautier-Downes became an artist in residence at the Vermont Studio Center and won Best In Show for her Guess You Had to Be There installation at the Peoria Gateway Building. She has exhibited her work in solo and group shows across the United States, the United Kingdom, and Hungary.
She arrived in Spokane just two years ago to accept a position at a housing nonprofit through AmeriCorps. While working part-time, the 26-year-old artist has already made a name for herself locally.
Her first exhibit in Spokane was at the Brick Wall Photo Gallery in October 2015, where she mounted a show of the abandoned homes and spaces she discovered in the Mojave desert, capturing objects left behind in barren landscapes. She continued that theme with photography exhibits at Spokane Falls Community College and the Iron Goat Brewing Co. Several of her photographs have been published in international digital and print publications, including Aint Bad Magazine, Anti-Heroin Chic, Dazed Digital, and The Hand. She won Best Still Life in the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts’ 2016 International Photography Competition, and was awarded a Grants for Artists Projects from the Artist Trust in 2016.
Her more recent artworks have been installations rather than photography, further delving into the themes of loss and displacement. She has shown pieces at the WAM (Women + Art + Media) Expo, Dean Davis Photography, Terrain, and Saranac Art Projects, where she is a member and handles the cooperative’s PR and social media.
“Some day I’d like to teach, so I’m trying to get my foot in the door as much as I can and network, and having shows helps,” Gautier-Downes said. “Exhibiting these installations in the Chase Gallery feels like the culmination of two years of hard work.”
The hard work has paid off, and Gautier-Downes is currently showing at no fewer than three local venues: including as part of the Kolva-Sullivan Gallery’s “Reclaiming,” and in the group show “Hypothesis” at the Richmond Gallery. She recently became an artist in residence at the Richmond Art Collective.
Chase curator Picken applauds Gautier-Downes for her brave perspective. “I hope this installation inspires artists to think of a gallery not as a few walls to hang a few paintings, but as a space where the viewer is transported,” Picken said.
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