Art / Filthy Dreams Bite-Sized

Is That You Mo-Dean?: Esther Pearl Watson’s “Guardian of Eden”

Esther Pearl Watson, Born Brave, 2022, Acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 60 x 60 inches (Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York)

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, dearest Filthy Dreams readers, but I have a tendency to be a little, um, WORDY. Because we all need a break sometimes from my unending (draining) gush of thoughts and because there are shows closing soon still worthy of our attention, I thought we’d try something different: brevity! So welcome to our series Filthy Dreams Bite-Sized Reviews where I’ll try to keep my thoughts under 500 words. If I can…

The press release for Esther Pearl Watson’s pastoral alien invasions, on view in her current exhibition Guardian of Eden at Andrew Edlin Gallery, begins with a quote from C.G. Jung’s unlikely study Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things in the Skies. But not the right one. My favorite part of Jung’s investigation is his skepticism about taking UFOs seriously at all because most of the sightings come from the land of make-believe: The United States. “People who report such stuff — chiefly airline pilots and ground staff — cannot be quite right in the head! What is worse, most of these stories come from America, the land of superlatives and of science fiction,” Jung writes.

He’s not wrong. America is a country of fantasies, ecstatic visions, and all sorts of cultlike fervor. Esther Pearl Watson’s paintings depict precisely this America with glittering and mirrored extraterrestrial vehicles flying low over rural paradises. Their intergalactic ships zip past airplanes to hover above wide-eyed cows, goats, black and white kitties, and a particularly illuminated white donkey.

Esther Pearl Watson, The Space-Time Field Theory, 2022, Acrylic and mixed media on canvas (Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Edlin Gallery)

These bizarro paintings derive from Watson’s childhood memories, mainly of her father, an Italian immigrant adopted into an American family as a child, who as an adult obsessively attempted to build flying saucers in their rural Texas yards in order to sell the aluminum foil technology to NASA. Unsurprisingly, his celestial fixations also intersected with berserk religiosity. The press release mentions emails from Watson’s father that insist he’s receiving “spacecraft instructions from angels.” These angels flutter their way into Watson’s paintings too, portrayed as metal-plated messengers from above.

A get-rich-quick scheme. Homemade space travel. Bizarro ambition. Heavenly visions. A society ignoring someone blatantly struggling with mental illness. A family stuck between intergalactic goals and poverty. Watson’s paintings showcase the American Dream at work. In fact, the memories at the heart of Watson’s art remind me of the 2019 documentary Rocketman, in which daredevil limo driver “Mad Mike” Hughes attempts to blast himself into the stratosphere to prove the Earth is flat, using a self-made ship constructed from mostly scrap metal.

Sadly, things didn’t end well for Mad Mike. After a few successful launches, he came crashing down to Earth in 2020 somewhere outside of Barstow, notably where Hunter S. Thompson zoomed past in his own search for the American Dream in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Kismet, the American way.

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