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A large felt dragon dominates "Time for You and Joy to Get Acquainted," a work by Houston-based artist JooYoung Choi.

Image: Scott Vogel

What are we to think about the people we used to be? That question hangs heavily in the air at the Contemporary Arts Museum these days, especially on the first floor, which is playing host to three artists’ searching inquiries into the relationship between present and past. Mindful that said relationship is typically fraught with anger, denial, depression and the lot, the museum has opted to plant its flag at the end of the Kubler-Ross timeline—acceptance. Don’t be fooled by all the whimsy, however, by the large red felt dragon covered in flowers, or the beanbag depictions of family life. A Better Yesterday, which runs through Sept. 3, rumbles with controversies past even as it seeks to tame them, even as it hints at how long the road to acceptance can be.

The first of the exhibition’s three rooms—one for each artist—is devoted to works of JooYoung Choi, and is dominated by that red dragon. Surrounded by cattails, sunflowers and other happy felt flora, the animal smiles benignly at two alien creatures sitting on its back, and is the main feature of a work entitled “Time For You and Joy to Get Acquainted,” just in case Choi’s intentions are still in doubt. On the one hand, it’s a sweet look back at the imaginary friends of childhood, one that issues a serious call for their uncoupling. (“Why should the joy of imaginary playmates be denied to us as adults?” asks the program.) On the other, the piece references a darker side of the Houston-based artist’s youth. Adopted as a baby from South Korea, Choi felt isolated and alone within the largely white community of Concord, New Hampshire, in which she was raised. It was then that imaginary friends first came to her rescue, although, as her works suggest, troubled persons of any age might do well to conjure them.

As for Choi, her own relationship with such friends has only deepened with time. Indeed, she has built an entire universe around them, one with its own newspaper, “The Daily Veritas,” which appears here as a lively tabloid in acrylic. The exhibition includes this and a few more colorful pieces in multiple media which, taken together, constitute something of a thesis statement on the past. It should not be seen as an adversary of the present—something we either make peace with or try to change—but rather a trusted friend.

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A detail of Jack Early's "Magical Surprises," oil on silkscreened canvas

As a child, Jack Early felt no small sense of isolation himself, at least on the evidence of work on exhibit in a second room at CAM. Employing various media, the artist draws a line of sorts between the closeted North Carolina youth he once was and the gay New York artist-phenom he became. One painting, “Magical Surprises,” features large depictions of the yellow moon, pink heart, orange star and green clovers of a Lucky Charms cereal box set against a backdrop of the toy soldier-themed wallpaper of Early’s childhood room, here subtly tweaked to make the soldiers appear as hand-holding couples. Another piece, which imagines the artist and his family as a set of beanbag-like shapes (or maybe punching bags?) lined up in a row, suggests both a separation of the artist from his menacing past and a softening toward it. And as with Choi, Early’s CAM work is dominated by a central element, in this case a large lemon yellow Victrola sitting atop a patriotic, stars-and-stripes dais. From the record player may be heard “Jack Early’s Life Story in Just Under 20 Minutes,” which is just what it sounds like—a partly humorous, partly disturbing, always brutal summary of Early’s early years and more.

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"Useless Movement," by Lily van der Stokker, acrylic paint on wall and mixed media

 A final A Better Yesterday room is devoted to works by Lily van der Stokker, a Dutch artist who faces her own past with fascination, skepticism and horror. A series of framed pencil drawings that resemble the idle doodles of a daydreaming student turn out to be the artist’s way of coping with a lover’s death. Not far away, van der Stokker’s largest work in the exhibition may be seen, a wall painting entitled “Useless Movement.” In it, those two words grace a roundish yellow blob that appears to be descending or melting into the floor. Resembling nothing so much as the sunset of a nervous sun, the piece offers a sober reminder that every past was once a present, and every present will soon be a past. Indeed, the transition from all that is today—living, dynamic, all-important—to its opposite, a dead past, happens so quickly, one wonders how different they really could be.

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