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AN EPHEMERAL EXHIBITION: Sarah Royal embraces transience, naturalism and decay in her one-off show, ‘Wilt’

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Once July’s Fourth Friday Gallery Walk is over on July 27, Royal will take down “Wilt” and dispose of it in a natural setting—where it will degrade and return to the environment, and allow itself to fully embrace its namesake.

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An enormous yellow object floats eerily in the Wilson Center’s black-box theater, cut off from the quiet bustle of the Wilma W. Daniels Gallery across the street. There’s nothing but light, the viewer, and stifling silence.

IMMERSIVE ART EXHIBIT: Suspended mirrors reveal unseen surfaces across Sarah Royal’s installation Wilt. Photo courtesy of Sarah Royal

IMMERSIVE ART EXHIBIT: Suspended mirrors reveal unseen surfaces across Sarah Royal’s installation ‘Wilt.’ Photo courtesy of Sarah Royal

At first glance it looks like a sprawling mass of unidentifiable yellow material, with sickly pale vines dangling below and shards of mirror floating above it. Its warped surface evokes conflicting thoughts. Is it soft or stiff? Are they pieces of a giant honeycomb, or remnants of something long dead and pestilent? What will happen if someone touches it? Sarah Royal encourages such questions, but the only answers she can provide are how she made it and why.

Royal is a recent graduate of Cape Fear Community College’s fine arts program. Her initial interests were in horticulture and environmentalism, but she soon found herself at a crossroads, wondering if she should follow her creative passions or force herself through what seemed to be a less-welcoming discipline.

“I was torn between art and science for a while,” she recalls. “Eventually, I decided art best suits who I am and what I value most. Now I can just enjoy nature and science from afar, without having to be academically involved in it.”

All it took were a few classes in darkroom photography to rekindle Royal’s childhood love for taking pictures. From there she dedicated herself to the arts program and ended up exploring creative territories new to both herself and the curriculum. Shortly thereafter she broke away from the program’s focus on stone sculpture to work in larger-scale installations. Royal’s first installation, “Spare,” came about after searching for a larger workspace than the school could offer. She occupied an empty closet, lining one wall with old cassette tapes while attaching their disemboweled black tape entrails across to the other end of the room. She turned the unused space into a work of art in and of itself. Royal’s desire to breach boundaries culminated in an independent-study program—a rarity for Cape Fear’s art program.

“There wasn’t an independent study at Cape Fear,” she explains. “So I feel like I’m misleading people who might be going into Cape Fear, thinking, Ooh, there’s this independent study you can do for your last semester. No, you can’t do that. I was just doing super weird shit and I was very demanding. I was like, ‘Why don’t we have something like this?’ I don’t really want to go work on stone sculpture. I’m not interested. If I know what I’m not interested in, why would I do it?”

Although Royal jokingly muses about the faculty being glad to see her go, she doesn’t act demanding out of malice. She just wants to work outside of usual expectations, as well as provide a different take on the tried-and-true gallery experience. Royal became enamored with the gallery scene through the school’s close relationship with downtown art galleries; although, she has her own unique ideas of how to participate.

“Since then I’ve been annoyed with gallery culture,” she tells. “That’s why I’m doing a piece where one person gets to go in at a time to view it. It’s really rare to get the chance to see a piece in silence without all this commentary going on.”

As a result, Royal chose the sequestered black-box theater in the Wilson Center. She didn’t want the wine, chatter, and music that normally comes with gallery exhibits, but the bare, black room providing an intimate experience that forces the viewer to acknowledge the piece. Between the almost enveloping size of the sculpture and the tight space of the room, only a few people can enter at a time without overcrowding. Even so, being alone with “Wilt” can get uncomfortable.

“It looks kind of intimidating,” Royal admits. “I had a small group of people go in last month to take a look. Whenever people approach this thing, it’s like they’re getting too close to a stage where somebody’s performing. There’s a weird section where nobody’s going to stand because they don’t want to get too close, but I was saying, ‘Go ahead, you can get up in it. Don’t be afraid to touch it.’ I want people to be able to see how the materials feel. It’s so bizarre because it’s the weird materials that wouldn’t normally be together.”

Beeswax and cheesecloth merge to form bubbling layers of ochre, glazed with a slick, glassy finish that equally evokes sunlit clouds and plasticized organs. Its girth allows viewers to gaze at it from a distance or to get beneath it, to create a sensation of being engulfed by yellow light. Royal maintains she wasn’t trying to create such a dichotomy, but that it manifested in her own feelings toward  it during its lengthy creation process. More than anything, she’s interested in the ingredients.

“It’s a material study,” Royal clarifies. “That’s what my intentions were from the beginning, making something from natural materials, especially these specific ones because they’re so interesting to mix and manipulate. They’re two unlikely materials since both would be found in a home, but they look uninviting, as though you would not feel comforted around them like you would in a home. I feel it could go both ways. Sometimes I felt super connected and comforted by it, and it was really nice to go work on it for a few hours and be with myself, but there were times I felt super alienated by it, and I was like, ‘This is fucking weird! What is this thing? Why is it coming out of me?’”

“Wilt” has an intensely personal (albeit incidental) narrative, which makes it unique on Wilmington’s art scene. As a result, it is not for sale, nor will it ever become a gallery mainstay. Once July’s Fourth Friday Gallery Walk is over on July 27, Royal will take down “Wilt” and dispose of it in a natural setting—where it will degrade and return to the environment, and allow itself to fully embrace its namesake.

An installation by Sarah Royal
Black Box Theater, Wilson Center
703 N. Third St.
One night only: July 27, 6-9 p.m.

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