This past July and August, Alejandro Almanza Pereda’s solo exhibition “Everything but the Kitchen Sank” at SFAI’s Walter and McBean Galleries presented a studio in which visitors could witness the creation of photographs and a video of subaqueous still lifes shot inside a eight-foot-tall Kevlar pool. The resulting pictures feature a plethora of found objects and offer ephemeral and preposterous arrangements that experiment with the behavior of materials underwater. Take, for example, the theatrical video Like Steaks and Salads, 2015, which is divided into a series of acts where different items—such as matches, candles, plates, and flowers—are manipulated underwater. Almanza orchestrates unexpected movements: Some objects float and others sink, moving faster or slower depending on their buoyancy. Among the Mexican artist’s captivating photographic works is Taking the Lid Off, 2015, is an elegant but absurd image that shows a pair of fruit bowls and a vase holding a blooming artichoke; some elements are inverted, defying the natural order of things. In all, Almanza’s constructions result in dreamy, counterbalancing compositions that trickily transform the quotidian into the surreal.
Concurrently, at the institution’s Diego Rivera Gallery, visitors can see two scaffolds: one depicted in Rivera’s descriptively titled mural The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City, 1931, which shows Rivera, engineers, and more laborers working on the reconstruction of San Francisco. Placed directly in front this, Almanza’s large scaffolding of fluorescent tubes, Change the World or Go Home, 2009–15, challenges the iconic mural and illuminates the ambivalent nature of progress and expansion, perhaps as a reference to contemporary art itself.
Julian Hoeber’s exhibition “The Inward Turn” pivots around the idea of an imaginary airport terminal from which people take off only to return to the same point, as if traveling the length of a Mobius strip or circumnavigating a Klein bottle. In the paintings, sculptures, and drawings on view here, Hoeber’s metaphor of futile movement manifests in repeated forms, echoing back and forth across media.
The artist approached the making of these works with an eye informed by a childhood surrounded by architects and engineers. Clustered on the back wall of the gallery is a group of drawings, including Angular to Curved Experiments 1&2 (all works cited, 2015), and different versions of the artist’s “Going Nowhere Plan” that operate as blueprints for the sculptures and paintings that dominate the space. A set of bookshelves adjacent to the drawings, Form Index, display miniature iterations of the larger sculptures in the center of the gallery, similarly showcasing the feedback loop of forms at play. These sculptures, presented like specimens on glass atop wood trestles, resemble models more than discrete artworks. Their rigidity—constructed from materials such as foamcore, plywood, and Ultracal cement—gives way to softer, biomorphic forms in the paintings. Rendered in bodily pinks and beiges, Hoeber’s delicate images depict mysterious interlocking skeletal structures, as in Ruminating Elevation, and labyrinthine enteric diagrams, as in Intestinal Floorplan/Security Apparatus. This slippage from hard to soft, geometric to biomorphic, three dimensional to two dimensional, underscores the paradox of inertia in Hoeber’s metaphor.
We are all Northern Californian now. Conscious, sustainable, holistic, but with no sacrifice of artisanal luxury from our eco slow-lives. This style of contemporary living—with its ethics and repercussions—is the fulcrum of Carissa Rodriguez’s exhibition “I’m normal. I have a garden. I’m a person.,” for which she foraged from what was once the fringe and is now the heart of American culture that serves as digital technology’s geographical and spiritual headquarters.
Succulents (all works 2015) is a floor installation of over 200 grass-fed cattle bones in a post-broth state, sourced from a holacratic Berkeley kitchen. Has scatter art gone ethically grown and nutrient dense? Nearby, Untitled (“still renting”) is a cashmere-blend tank top smeared with beef tallow dangling from a brass hook—conceptual rigor finds its match in understated chic. Finally, Untitled (“the use and abuse of vegetational concepts”) is a slab of bone-colored, cold-pressed soap hung with inlaid tallow and bone segments, which wouldn’t feel out of place in a shop in the neighboring Mission District.
A trenchant reference to the volatility of our corporatized, tech-fueled lives takes the form of a trio of shiny dye sublimation prints on aluminum from photos taken in 2015 at the Napa home of Tracy Ann Valenzuela, who was among those accused of a 2010 cyber attack against PayPal after it suspended Wikileaks’ account. Like the exhibition itself, all three works in this series are titled after her incantatory words from a pretrial interview. In two, the Guy Fawkes mask—used by the group Anonymous, credited with the cyber attack—protrudes into domestic kitchen scenes, while autographs of other defendants in the case consecrate the mask. Together, these works demonstrate how radical defiance and vigilance can bubble out of signifiers of normativity.
The rabbit hole of pop apotheosis, where Jerry Garcia, Tim Burton, Danny Elfman, Elvis, and the Mad Hatter reside, threatens us with a question: Where do we go from here? Quintessa Matranga and Rafael Delacruz, in their dual exhibition, “100% Stupid,” take on the impossible task of drawing out how one can wrest subjectivity and creativity in the force of unattainable perfection.
Delacruz’s oil pastel drawings simulate the visual tide of the online art-sharing platform DeviantArt. As Jacob Ciocci, a founding member of Paper Rad, attests in the show’s press release, the website serves as a digital town square where amateurs might buoy an artist’s sense of “unique genius,” or pathetic lack thereof. Scooge 3 (all works 2015) suggests the latter, where we see a boyish character sliced in half to reveal oozing green guts. Are we all just slimy garbage behind the flimsy veneer of our artistic moves and aspirations? However, in another drawing, Garbage men are all magicians, seems to offer that the mind’s capacity to transcend reality, inspired or insipid, might undo the stronghold of self-doubt.
Matranga’s “unfinished” paintings exacerbate the relationship to success that many artists struggle with—a desire to go above, beyond, and be stupendous, but without the means (i.e., luck, courage, financial or intellectual resources) to go about it. Thinking About Egypt, in which a pathetic-looking yogic figure dumbly contemplates a pair of pyramids, is hung right next to Evolution, a picture where the evolutionary scale of man is turned up vertically, trapped and stagnating between the upper and lower edges of the canvas. Finally, My boyfriend wants to watch a scary movie shows an adolescent’s diary entry partially obscured by gray hearts and an unfinished drawing of a woman’s face—the artist herself?—bearing a scar above her eye and a wan smirk. Abutting it is Paris, France, a de-skilled sketch of the Eiffel Tower against a fecklessly rendered backdrop of night. Maybe it’s here, in this space of ambivalence, uncertainty, and abjection that—with an openness toward failure coupled with a great deal of love—true creativity and uninhibited subjectivity can thrive.
An obstacle course provided by three floor-based works by K. r. m. Mooney makes traversing this show a tense endeavor. The delicacy and metallic hues of these mixed-media pieces—which often feature steel cables, wires, trays, and bars—ensure difficulty in trying to distinguish them from the concrete floor. This anxiety sets the tone for the austere exhibition “Of Echo Systems,” which augments a concern for viewing predicated on a heightened sensitivity of one’s bodily parameters. For instance, Will Rogan’s Adam 2, 2016, is a mahogany clock with a playful anthropomorphic, smiling face. It clearly looks back to similar Dadaist contraptions, but perhaps also to our current awareness of the body’s internal chronometer.
Yet for any holistic allusion, there is a lack of formal uniformity in the show. Take Shannon Ebner’s A SELF, 2015, a seven-foot-tall silk-screened list. Its height is ultimately referential to the body—the way a Donald Judd stack sculpture would be—yet Ebner’s list is uneven, irregular, and linguistic instead of pure color and volume. Meanwhile, Ebner’s video Unrested Image, 2013, offers a close-up of a post-op FTM torso. The image flickers as we are faced with the shifting nature of what had been historically an assumed given. In the throes of a desperate pluralistic search for appropriate forms of concretizing the body in art, this exhibition is a subtle but incisive stab at all the possibilities of subjectivity in our age.
Circa 1968, amid the Cold War’s existential crises and worldwide student protests against institutionalized repression and violence, artists challenged the hegemony of autonomous objects with conceptual works that exposed the role of embodied perception in establishing art’s meaning. Fast-forward several decades, and the role of perception and “experience” is golden, evident in social-practice debates and the ubiquity of performance. “Strange Pilgrims” wades into this territory and succeeds by giving its thirty installations, made by an eclectic array of thirteen artists and one collective, space to be fully perceived.
Sensorial revelations abound. At the Jones Center, Bruce Nauman’s Green Light Corridor, 1970, occupies the second floor, estranging everything with its narrow confines and acid hue. Downstairs, more recent works include Andy Coolquitt’s sensual object arrangements and Angelbert Metoyer’s “shrine” of indigo-dipped African sculptures and gold-dust paintings that conjure myth and pain. At the Visual Art Center, some installations wow—Trisha Baga’s projected and ceramic sights to be navigated with 3-D glasses, Phil Collins’s hutches for hunkering down and watching faux shopping television—while others are more nourishing. Charles Atlas’s Cowboy Body, 2015, feeds the whole body: Improvisational dance footage shot over decades plays on more than a dozen monitors and projectors scattered about a room in which everything, including chairs and a bed for lounging, hums in the color of ripe oranges. Paul Sharits’s Dream Displacement, 1976, stuns multiple senses: Four 16-mm projectors cast a panorama of flickering light, color, and vibrations that is occasionally “shattered” by the sounds of crashing glass.
At the museum’s lakeside venue, a bubble machine by Roger Hiorns titled A retrospective view of the pathway, 2008–15, and an LED-lit dream-sharing device by Yoko Ono, titled Summer Dream (Let your dream come true on a distant wall, 2002), delight, while photography collective Lakes Were Rivers quietly steals the show. Its project, Swan Cycle, 2015, involves a low plinth installed with framed photographs of archival material—newspaper clippings, ice sculpture, a painting—that summon the history of the estate, the museum, and photography. To see all the images, you must mount the villa’s balcony, yet to study any one picture requires remaining below. The work, like “Strange Pilgrims,” arouses the rich and contingent way meaning develops through experience.
While “sex sells” may be a marketing truism, presenting products with gradient backgrounds, retouched hands, and well-made beds often seems clinically tidy—an outright denial of psychology more than repression. “Open House,” a group exhibition organized by Jedediah Caesar at California State University, Bakersfield, offers conflicting attitudes toward a loaded commercial landscape. Take, for instance, Madelon Vriesendorp, Teri When-Damisch, and Jean-Pierre Jacquet’s 1980 animation Caught in the Act, where the Statue of Liberty mutates with jealousy at the sight of the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings’ hotel-room tryst—a hilarious recrudescence of feeling toward ostensibly rational urbanism. Or there’s Paul Elliman’s Untitled (September Magazine), 2013, a glossy all-image tome that mixes sexualized and anodyne cropped limbs in kind of a litmus test for desire.
The exhibition derives its name from a 2007 anthology of Hannah Weiner’s works, and photocopies of her “Signal Flag Poems,” begun in the late 1960s, hang throughout the galleries. Using the international maritime Code of Signals, Weiner’s texts—which can be read or performed—trouble language’s distinction between the interiority of poetic expression and the practical promise of communication. Martine Syms’s The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto, 2007–15, shown as a painted wall text, takes this a step further. With aphoristic lines that embody no-nonsense rationality (“The connection between Middle Passage and space travel is tenuous, at best”), her refusal of Afrofuturism’s foundational fantasy, as well as the emotional aplomb one associates with a manifesto, is particularly apt given that logical arguments from nonwhite, nonmale speakers are so often denied access to the status of “objective.”
Jason Rhoades, PeaRoeFoam Bulk Pallet, 2002, wood pallet with fifty-five-gallon container of dried peas, fifty-five-gallon container of Styrofoam beads, twelve gallons of glue, two gallons of salmon roe, rubber boots, shovel, wrench, aluminum pipes, cardboard, bolts, felt, plastic, paper towel, box cutter, shrink wrap, tape, web strapping, 5 x 3'.
Jason Rhoades spent the entirety of his career—cut short by his death in 2006—blending sculpture, installation, and performance into a densely packed continuum of artistic production. Rhoades’s sculptures are massive orgies of stuff, yet his love of objects followed distinct patterns. Occasionally, discrete, often smaller pieces were taken from his larger bodies of work as officially sanctioned multiples.
Re-creating many of his sprawling, sculptural installations is a daunting and resource-consuming undertaking for any museum. Led by curator Christopher Bedford, though, the Rose Museum has taken a different approach and is instead offering Rhoades in bite-size pieces, showing a nearly complete collection of those editioned multiples. The most noticeable piece on view, however, is not small. Spaceball, 1997, is a human-size gyroscope, a cage of sorts that when spun gives a single seated rider a few moments of weightlessness. One of these devices was featured, as part of a larger installation, in the artist’s second solo show at David Zwirner in New York in 1997.
Rhoades’s editions may have served as a means of disseminating core concepts in lieu of original works, but the very best of them also gave the artist a way to disseminate experience—in lieu of his own presence. Consider PeaRoeFoam Bulk Pallet, 2002. This is a major piece from Rhoades’s “PeaRoeFoam” series, where the artist would whip up his dubiously functional, do-it-all construction material out of a concoction of Styrofoam, salmon roe, and green peas. The pallet is basically a DIY PeaRoeFoam starter kit, and as such it fulfills the ultimate directive of the project: that one be able to try the stuff for himself.
Although this is Zoe Nelson’s first exhibition in which every work is painted front and back, its title, “Recto/Verso” is actually a bit of a misnomer, because she’s transformed two-dimensional canvases into three-dimensional sculptural objects. In a smart evolution from previous cut-canvas pieces that focused on what was behind the painted surface, this body of work takes into consideration both the painting and its surroundings.
Except for one portrait-sized piece attached high up on the gallery wall by one edge, and protruding into the room like a stiff flag,, all paintings on view are human scale and suspended by chains from the ceiling. The works are positioned at strategic angles and distances from one another, their cutouts and flaps framing parts of other paintings as well as the viewer’s body parts as the pieces faintly sway back and forth. These structural interventions, or “bonus holes” as catalogue essayist Matt Morris dubs them, challenge or “queer” traditional spatial and temporal reads of the work. These are paintings you look at but also see through.
Nelson’s work is abstract but haunted by the figure, and throughout “Recto/Verso,” her strength lies in withholding. The works’ bright, sometimes metallic palette, their patches of grafted-together color, noodle-shaped ghost forms silhouetted in spray paint, and tiny hairlike dashes echoing thin incisions in the canvases surface all belie the pieces’ emotional complexity. Evoking anxiety, longing, self-doubt, and pleasure, these are—rather then recto and verso—beginnings and ends.
“What art does black life produce?” This is the question posited by curators Naomi Beckwith and Dieter Roelstraete for the exhibition “The Freedom Principle.” Key figures from the black avant-garde of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and AfriCOBRA are shown alongside contemporary artists, such as Stan Douglas, Catherine Sullivan, and Rashid Johnson, in a welcome dose of inspired poetry, music, politics, and psychedelia. This adroitly organized show examines the social fabric woven in the aftermath of the civil rights movement that generated a synthesis of life and art.
DIY aesthetics resound in Rio Negro II, 2007–15, a mystical, kinetic installation of rain sticks, bamboo, and earth by AACM musicians Douglas R. Ewart, George Lewis, and Douglas Repetto. Nari Ward’s gothic script of dangling shoelaces in We the People, 2011, pokes through drywall like braided locks of hair or regal tassels worn by an army about to burst forth. Across the hall, Jamal Cyrus’s untitled, 2010 ode to the Black Panthers, is a black leather-bound bass drum surrounded by microphones gathered close, ready to receive its thunder.
Furthering the legacy of influence, Lili Reynaud-Dewar’s La Grande Oreille (From Eye to Ear to Ass to Memory and Back), 2015, is an installation inspired by her father’s jazz-record shop in France that carried AACM artists’ music. Its booth of mirrored walls embedded with large speakers plays a soundtrack by a Chicago local band, Tiger Hatchery. The incredible dimensionality and ingenuity of the Black Arts Movement makes this an exhibition that will reverberate in the mind, just as the ink bubbles and vibrates inside the Tam Tam stools installed here.
Deana Lawson's candid portraits are, like one's identity, at times crafted or found, but regardless are a composite of history and politics (of, in no particular order, geography, gender, and race). Her current show at the Art Institute of Chicago gathers together fourteen of her recent and semi-recent photographs showing meticulously posed moments, documentary-style shots, and reprints of found visual relics. The pictures point to the gendered experience and aesthetics of blackness in certain geographies, among them Brooklyn, Haiti, Jamaica, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Detroit. Some of the pictures are direct: Nikki's Kitchen, Detroit, Michigan, 2015, depicts its heroine posed, cat-like, over the back of a kitchen chair wearing a leopard-print jumpsuit; a latticework of security bars crossing the window behind her. Others are by turns spontaneous or memorial, such as Emily and Daughter, Jamaica, Found Image, n.d. a reprint of a family photograph, its subjects' faces ghoulishly blotched by discoloration in the surface of the original photograph.
Lawson's subjects tend to be strangers whom she has recently gotten to know, and her hyper-specific and intimate depictions of their bodies, spaces, and belongings - while often compared to the documentarian style of Jacob Holdt and the trenchant one-shot narratives of Nan Goldin—perhaps more closely evoke the immaterial, suggestive layering of content often achieved in painting. In the show's didactics, Lawson wrote, “As a black American, I was curious about the livelihood and existence of brothers and sisters in the West Indies and Africa, and wanted to connect my subjectivity and psyche to those of people in other lands.” And while she clearly seeks firstly to illuminate the distinct identity of each of her subjects, she also seems to carefully choose her photographs' sites (from Brooklyn to Detroit to Ethiopia) so location in itself becomes both a subject and lens through which those subjects’ lives are observed.
Jessica Stockholder has unveiled new work at several Chicago locations this fall, including a site-specific installation at the Smart Museum of Art as well as in her solo exhibition “Door Hinges” and the group show “Assisted,” which she curated, both in Kavi Gupta’s Elizabeth Street location. “Door Hinges” continues Stockholder’s characteristic experimentation with color and abstraction as tools to disrupt and transform architectural space: A catwalk snakes through the main room beside Wall Hardware, 2015, a temporary wall-cum-canvas fixed with enlarged calligraphic pen marks near the stool and mirror installation In Many Places, 2014. Here, Stockholder also debuts Assist 1–3, 2015, three fabricated metal sculptures strapped to large auxiliary objects with vinyl belts. These top-heavy forms behave in turns as primary sculptures—relying on a piano, a vintage desk, and a Smart electric car for support—and as pedestals supporting other artworks (including a Tony Tasset sculpture).
On the second floor, “Assisted” further examines support networks via sixteen artists who influence Stockholder’s practice. A few of Stockholder’s works appear here as well, as does a street lamp (its base appears on the first floor, and it rises to the second floor to hang over a ceramic bathtub). What emerges from these combined rooms is a profound conversation between objects and aesthetic experiments, highlighting the dynamic, polyvocal network in which individual efforts congeal.
Jefferson Pinder’s first Chicago exhibition, “Onyx Odyssey,” is ambitious and nuanced, shying away from depicting a singular black experience in favor of a fluctuating and ambiguous study of American society. Above the gallery’s entrance is Gauntlet, 2015, a cluster of charred police batons strung by invisible wires. On the other side of the room hangs POTUS, 2015, a white neon drawing of President Obama’s eyes. The gaze is as cool as a billboard, conjuring a dream where anyone can succeed. Between these works stands Monolith (Dream Catcher), 2015, a collection of African masks piled inside a one-way glass vitrine with blue light. The masks remain hard to see but are seductive, slipping between a nonspecific archetypal group and a tomb of individuated faces. Monolith (Dream Catcher) reflects Assimilated, 2009, another white neon outline of the human body rising from a pile of coal on the ground. Even in its ambivalent transcendence, a hierarchical juxtaposition of black and white remains.
Celebratory moments occur as well, as with Pinder’s two-channel cinematic interpretation of Du Bois’s 1911 historical pageant, The Star of Ethiopia. Here, a veiled woman in a white dress soars through Chicago’s South Side with euphoric ease. Or high above POTUS, projected through windows onto the street, a multi-channel video titled Countermeasure, 2015, loops with a break-dancing crew’s translation of gestures from Black Lives Matter protests. Unlike the vitrine, the collected gestures are accessible and unfixed, marking a collective refusal of injustice.
Rodrigo Lara Zendejas’s modest solo show, “Deportable Aliens,” mourning the forced removal of people of Mexican descent from the US in the aftermath of the Great Depression, shouldn’t be taken only as a history lesson. The artist’s timely critique of this reprehensible operation gains urgency in the context of Donald Trump’s presidential bid. Even if Lara creates fragmentary memorials to the victims of the euphemistically named Mexican Repatriation, we can’t help but think about the targets of such policies today.
The show features thirty-four white porcelain sculptures arranged on a bare wooden shelf, collectively titled Deportable Aliens, 2014–15. Each of them is shaped like a thumb, with part of a face added on. Furrowed brows and forlorn eyes emit suspicion, anger, and exhaustion. One playfully sticks his tongue out; another bares his teeth. Lara’s superimposition of eyes, ears, noses, and mouths on larger-than-life digits links markers of citizenship—a thumbprint, for example—with the idea of personhood. With their mustaches and beards, many of the sculptures represent men. Others could be construed as female, but no obvious attempt is made to signify gender.
Rather than glorify individual pieces, Lara leaves the sculptures on shelves as if they still lie in wait. Like Doris Salcedo, Lara employs synecdoche, although he has much to gain from channeling the Colombian sculptor’s attention to material. Immigrant Identification Card, 2015—just that, a large replica of the document mounted on the wall—with bits of Lara’s hair and saliva, is illustrative.
Think about the backdrop against which the tapioca stickiness of childhood plays itself out: a middle-school classroom of plasticized wood; a gymnastics mat made of hypoallergenic vinyl; stain-resistant carpeting in tidy little squares of gray and pink. These institutional surfaces clash with the changes of bodies coming into their ownhair and sweat and semen and blood can easily be wiped away with a little Windex or a damp cloth, oddly sterilizing the messiness of puberty and the visceral weirdness of growing up. Ian Cooper’s sculptures, filtered through the aesthetics of his 1980s childhood, pervert the forms and features of K–12. The five works on display are scrupulously and neurotically made—but their polished lines and shipshape surfaces barely conceal the terrors and tics lurking just beneath.
Timeline (Centrefold), (all works 2015) feels like a cartoon Shroud of Turin. It’s made from three separate sheets of painted birch plywood hinged together, hanging from fleshy pink pegs. A couple of wooden planks cut to resemble bits of yellowed tape are affixed to its bottom two corners at mirrored diagonals. Actual images of Jesus aren’t hiding anywhere, but the subtly rubbed and sanded areas that float upon this piece bloom like sacrificial wounds, gently pulsating from a delicately crucified body. Screening (Matador) depicts a wide-open orifice of indeterminate sex, cut from the middle of a film projection screen of tie-dyed cotton jersey and silk-screened Benday dots. It is bold but ambivalent, sensuous yet sterile—frantic and batty in the way adolescence always is before its final and most interminable decline into adulthood.
“Every Witch Way but Loose” is a complex show in which Margaret Meehan takes on a variety of sources and images—from cinema, music, feminist activism and suffrage to Nancy Sinatra’s iconic 1966 song “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’”—to explore and illuminate present-day hostilities toward women and reproductive rights in the United States. The entrance of the exhibition is replete with three drawings: A Study in Human Dignity, Sun on the Horizon, and White Cake (all works cited, 2015), which take specific scenes from the movies Rosemary’s Baby and Harold and Maude—featuring actress Ruth Gordon’s character in each film—as examples of women imagined by culture as monsters.
The exhibition is an obvious treatise on women’s liberation and blends historical periods to illustrate an ongoing struggle. Collaged cabinet cards—photographs common in the late nineteenth-century as portraiture—of women line a wall in the adjacent gallery, with corresponding titles such as I’m for Sexual Freedom and I Can Bring Home the Bacon. A video titled Box of Matches, combining the theme song from Rosemary’s Baby and the music video for Sinatra’s 1966 hit, also plays in a corner.
Meehan’s exhibition is a collision of references, histories, and time. For instance, the piece Dear Ruth reimagines Nancy Spero’s infamous 1971 letter to Lucy Lippard, which stated: “The enemies of women’s liberation in the arts will be crushed.” Meehan once again bends historical acuity by copying the letter exactly but readdressing it to Gordon from Sinatra. “Every Witch Way but Loose” tackles women’s current fight to be treated as equals by illustrating the cyclical nature of the endeavor.
Amplification, absorption, reverberation, tone, displacement, diffusion—any encounter with the work of Jennie C. Jones demands that a viewer repeatedly wrestle with transmutation, the vocabulary from the science of sound doing double duty in the service of ekphrasis. And the rabbit hole goes deeper, as those keywords also describe the dynamics of social change and race. Indeed, Jones encourages such readings with her punning titles, Solo, Vertical, into Crescendo (Light), 2013, or Score for Sustained Blackness Set 2, 2014. Such is the sparkling noise of the artist’s first mid-career survey, as curated by Valerie Cassel Oliver.
For all the sound, and talk about sound, though, it’s a quiet show—a concerted, almost hermetic succession of series and suites. Jones’s ongoing 2011 series “Acoustic Paintings,” constructed with acoustic paneling, are well represented. Much is gained in viewing the artist’s conceptually ambitious works in the context of a broad retrospective, as their sum total deftly knits together an array of sometimes convergent, but more often divergent, social histories of avant-garde musical and visual traditions. Like the fabric used for pop filters and speaker grills, Jones’s works sieve out particularly resonant sounds and materials. The effect is often a shimmy shake between critique and adoration. For example, the staccato scatting of Ella Fitzgerald is stretched to a high tone and capped with an almost campy canned sound of breaking glass in the audio collage Ella, Scat, Shatter (Short Version), 2008. It references an almost certainly campy 1972 commercial for Memorex audio cassette tapes, wherein Fitzgerald hits a glass-shattering note at the end. Add fidelity to that list of words. Also: rarefaction (or what an artist does for a payday).
Shatter the glass again, Ella; play me out, Jennie.
One way of thinking about photography is to see it as an art of accumulation, a medium that defies the very notion of autonomy. Any single image depends on others for its logic, and meaning necessarily accrues across series. Shannon Ebner’s syntactical artwork embodies this notion of cumulative consequence and engages the momentum inherent in the photograph’s serial capacity. “A Public Character,” Ebner’s latest museum exhibition, comprises works across a variety of media, including sculpture, installation, and video. The peculiar semantic space of the photograph reveals itself to be the formative structure, however.
Thirty-one examples from “Black Box Collision A,” 2013–, an ongoing series of large-scale black-and-white photographs featuring the letter “A,” line the walls of the first room that visitors encounter. Each piece possesses a distinct personality—some hard and steadfast, others floating and flat. With traces of advertisements and public signage, these works are easily read as kinds of “public characters” coming together in a protean play of discursivity.
A perennial pairing of photography and language marks Ebner’s poetic practice and her conceptual roots. Not only is the photograph evoked as akin to language, as a shifting signifier, but, moreover, language parallels photography here as a system of meaning. See, for instance, Auto Body Collision, 2014–, which portrays details from car-repair shops and connects notions of linguistic and visual transmission with automotive analogies—the “generator” and the “alternator.” Throughout, the show suggests collisions of denotation, encounters between literal and figurative vehicles of sense, allowing a moment within the space of art to at once speed up and brake against the imagistic conventions that crowd everyday life.
Reports emerged in early 2015 that Florida government officials had unofficially banned state employees from using phrases such as “climate change” and “global warming” or words such as “sustainability” in their communications. Bik Van der Pol, the Rotterdam-based artistic team of Liesbeth Bik and Jos Van der Pol, took this curious censure, which the government denies, as a partial point of departure for their installation Speechless, 2015, the result of a residency at PAMM.
The work consists of a custom-made aviary, the walls of which contain letters that if unscrambled spell out the aforementioned banned words. The structure includes five parrots—Cleo, David, Paco, Zach, and Jany—that will be taught to recite various verses from T. S. Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land throughout the run of the show. Eliot’s Europe, devastated by World War I, is Bik Van der Pol’s conception of a south Florida overwhelmed by an impending ecological catastrophe. By hearing the Other, language need not be a divisor between humans and animals.
The accompanying wall text indicates that the museum’s avian guests have made public appearances their entire lives and that they are being taken care of by “the nation’s leading” veterinarian and are all on loan from a local private collector to whom they will be returned. While it might be far-fetched to write that the parrots are not treated as (art) objects, the public display of this information is further evidence of the work’s central message, an interest in blurring the human/animal divide, a binary that has led us to our current quagmire.
The first dedicated to the films of Ana Mendieta in the US, this show collects twenty-one of the artist’s approximately one hundred films, along with twenty-six related photographs. Curators Lynn Lukkas and Howard Oransky have divided the gallery into six discrete spaces, with the films grouped thematically and presented on a scale that echoes the projection size Mendieta originally used—roughly, the size of her body, which increasingly became the focus of her practice.
The first, and largest, room features seven of Mendieta’s films exploring the juxtaposition of her silhouette against the earth—whether as a gunpowder outline (Untitled: Silueta Series, 1978) or as the artist’s actual body, prone and submerged under water (Creek, 1974) or under stones (Burial Pyramid, 1974). Other rooms showcase the artist’s related investigations with fire (Anima, Silueta de Cohetes [Firework Piece], 1976); blood (Blood Inside Outside, 1975, and Sweating Blood, 1973); stone (Esculturas Rupestres [Rupestrian Sculptures], 1981); and sand (Ochún, 1981).
Seen together, the works make a convincing case for Mendieta’s significance as a pioneer in the use of short films to capture the tension between transience and permanence. The show and its accompanying catalogue should help draw attention to her underrated influence as a filmmaker. These works dramatize the artist’s recurring theme of continuity between the body and land, and they blur the line between action and document. To poignant effect, the artist’s form is continually eroding—only to be reborn when each film loops.
Yui Yaegashi’s paintings are small, but despite their size, they own the gallery. Their humble presence fills the white walls with rectangles of muted colors. Their intricacy demands intimacy. Up close are minute topographies: Here, a ridge captures the edge of a delicate movement; there, lines weave into a texture reminiscent of upholstery fabric. In two untitled pieces (all works 2015), muted beige fields cover up the gridded interactions of blue brushstrokes, but slivers of color peek out at the margins, as if to illustrate the difficulty of seeing what hides underneath the blanket of the familiar. Rooted in the domestic, this exhibition, titled “To and from Home,” offers painterly poems marked by delicate restraint.
Yaegashi is devoted to precision. In each work, the sum of many formal choices accrues in a meticulous set of material mathematics. Her titles reflect some of these variables, such as Brush No. 15 of Sekaido or MPCG, the latter a Japanese acronym of her green, red, yellow, and gray palette. A quasi-phenomenological inquiry, the twenty-two paintings here reveal an economy of attention that deliberately attends to what is closest and hence perhaps most easily overlooked.
Studying the home with the twin perspectives of distant observer and intimate familiar, Yaegashi seems to say: This can be found in the space that holds me. How very odd. In a chronicle of formal particularities, her work advocates the discipline of looking closely to create small and surprisingly tender works.
For her debut solo exhibition in the US, Andrea Büttner presents works—be it video, philosophy book illustrations, growing moss, prints, or a fabric-based installation—that highlight her willingness to follow an idea to whatever medium it needs to take. Large walls mostly covered in vibrant blue cotton fabric—typically used for British service workers’ uniforms—radiate in the gallery, providing a richness that contrasts with the cold white of the rest of the space. Indeed, Büttner’s work can feel as if it is all about contrasts and opposing ends: The lofty philosophical concerns taken up in eleven large panels of images that illustrate Kant’s 1790 Critique of the Power of Judgment are counterbalanced here by two large woodcuts of a huddled panhandler in Beggar, 2015, with his hands reaching down, demonstrating the lowly vow of Franciscan servitude.
Büttner’s art, in fact, occurs between two extremes—through tension, certainly, but also through meandering in the poetic space of contemplation that is left open between the edges of high and low. In the video installation Piano Destructions, 2014, watching and listening to nine women play grand pianos, projected on one wall, while mostly male avant-garde performers violently bash the instruments with axes and sledgehammers on four screens on an adjacent wall feels brutally gendered and unjust. Though the piece was commissioned by the Walter Phillips Gallery and Banff Centre in Canada, this exhibition adds another layer of profound dissonance, as every male artist—from George Maciunas to Nam June Paik—in the destruction performances has work in the Walker’s permanent collection. The stellar departure in this show is Büttner’s series “Phone Etchings,” 2015, wherein the intimate brush of a fingertip on her phone in search of something is recorded, enlarged, and etched to become expansive gestural strokes in search of expression.
In 1970, Bonnie Ora Sherk sat placidly in various locations around San Francisco. Her resultant “Sitting Still” series, 1970, small-scale performances that were at once personal and subtly political, is exemplary of this exhibition’s focus on simple acts in public spaces. Here, work by more than twenty female artists ranges from iconic posters by figures such as the Guerrilla Girls and Jenny Holzer to recent projects by local artists such as Amy Balkin and Favianna Rodriguez. Among several new commissions is an arresting graphic mural by Susan O’Malley on the exterior of the museum that declares “You are exactly where you need to be.”
Politics takes many forms within the exhibition. Stephanie Syjuco derides gentrification in Bedazzle a Tech Bus (I Mock Up Your Ideas), 2013–14, for which she crowd-sourced proposals for art to wrap around the infamous tech bus, now bedazzled with the likes of a portrait of Edward Snowden and Craigslist ads for overpriced apartments. Less mordant and more optimistic, Candy Chang’s removable stickers that read “I wish this was . . .” invite New Orleans residents to share their hopes for vacant buildings. Environmental concerns loom large throughout the show and are perhaps best represented in documentation of Agnes Denes’s Wheatfield—A Confrontation, 1982, her famed two-acre golden wheat field planted in lower Manhattan. Meditations in civic squares by artists such as Coco Fusco and Sharon Hayes are also particularly pertinent in the wake of Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring.
The curators’ decision to underemphasize an exclusively female roster is political in its own right. Avoiding the temptation to ascribe certain qualities to work by women, the exhibition deflects focus from gender to the potentiality of art outside a traditional context.
Andrzej Zieliński’s totemic paintings and sculptures mostly elide the pitfalls of a slew of recent work glorifying the kitsch vestiges of tech’s recent past, and instead imbue their subjects with a psychic (and literal) weight. In “Open Sourced,” two galleries—one with paintings depicting Mars rovers and the other filled with (earlier) canvases of technological devices just past their moment of ubiquity and soon to be scrapped, such as paper shredders, scanners, early aughts laptops—accompany a standout array of sculptures. Loosely modeled after desktops, Razr phones, and boxy keyboards, the sculptures display a subtler virtuosity than the artist’s effervescently facile paintings; the three-dimensional forms are seemingly haphazardly formed but in fact meticulously crafted from hewn rock, cast and welded bronze, sculpted marble, alabaster, and a variety of specialty woods. (While the paintings will be taken down on January 17, Zielinski’s sculptures are on view through March 20.)
As objects’ windows of utility grow ever narrower amid constant updates and overhauls, a gray zone has emerged for apparatuses that are still kind of useful—the Blackberries, dongles, and mice no longer in daily rotation, which fill our bottom drawers and closets until we toss them in a burst of KonMari purging. For the moment they linger, subsumed in what Walter Benjamin described as the utopian glow afforded to technological devices in their final hours, freed from the constraints of commodity value—at leisure and ready to have their portraits taken.
Gabriel Martinez’s elegiac exhibition “Bayside Revisited” invokes the historic potency of Fire Island, New York, as a gay fantasy space and safe haven. By integrating archival materials related to the community into new prints and an installation, Martinez augments the current historical canonization of queer culture and the AIDS crisis recently seen in Keith Haring retrospectives and the Tacoma Art Museum’s “Art AIDS America” survey. This exhibition’s anteroom displays a digital collage of vintage gay magazine ads while melodies drift through a suede curtain. When the curtain’s drawn aside, a dimly lit room emerges, revealing Untitled (Bayside Projection), 2015, a spinning mirror ball installed low to the ground that casts a dappled projection of a segment from Wakefield Poole’s celebrated art-porn film Boys in the Sand, 1971, onto a wall sparkling with sand and glitter. The film’s setting, a notoriously cruise-y stretch of Fire Island’s beach and forest, recurs throughout the exhibition in large-scale metallic prints and a slide presentation, titled Meat Rack, 2015, of tenebrous trees.
Also casting a shadow here is Boys star Casey Donovan’s death from AIDS-related complications in 1987. A solarized print series, “Radial Projections,” 2015, captures a disco ball’s reflections that resemble cell structures. Mounted on the other side of the film projection wall is Live Hard, 2015, a sort of memorial quilt gridded with lightly used black-patterned handkerchiefs on wood and laser-etched with a depiction of a part of the island recently decimated by an accidental fire. The impact on this major queer-identified space, when so few exist, reverberates heavily.
In her 2011 memoir, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?, Jeanette Winterson observed of the genre: “Part fact part fiction is what life is. And it is always a cover story.” The act of covering, then, in Winterson’s book and in Becky Suss’s first solo museum exhibition, refers not only to concealment but also to adaptation. In a body of recent paintings and ceramics mostly prompted by the demolition of her deceased grandparents’ home on Long Island, Suss integrates the material facts, fictions, and revisions that constitute her memories of the domestic spaces of her childhood. Seven large canvases depict individual rooms at three-quarter scale—a dining room, living room, bedroom—complete with (re)collections of art, literature, and furniture. Each presents a closely cropped tableau with flattened perspectives reinforced by a focus on patterns that confirms the scenes’ static midcentury period. Bedroom (Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám), 2015, for example, depicts 1950s-era palm-leaf wallpaper, bright wood grain, and a concentric-semicircled bedspread. The objects featured appear desirably without wear, and the books’ spines are blank, withholding information. This is reiterated by the glazed ceramics displayed on the floor—including Untitled (stack of books), 2015—the invitingly glossy surfaces of which deflect attention from the fact that they are stripped of identifying information, bringing these period rooms out into the visitors’ personal space.
Two small, square paintings of the artist’s garden in Philadelphia, Kensington, Winter, 2010, and Kensington, Summer, 2010–11, together interrupt the show’s hypnotic sense of frozen time. The skeletons of trees in snow followed by bursts of wiry green have greater perspectival depth and an emotional immediacy absent from the domestic canvases. Their concise portrayal of the vitality of change contrasts with the exhibition’s overwhelming melancholia.
Midway through Catherine Pancake’s video on citizen surveillance of the natural-gas fracking industry, Bloodland (all works cited, 2015), a female voice-over quotes Hito Steyerl’s 2009 essay “In Defense of the Poor Image,” on the cultural implications of highly circulated, low-resolution digital artifacts online: “The imperfect cinema is one that strives to overcome the divisions of labor within class society. It merges art with life and science, blurring the distinction between consumer and producer, audience and author.” This idea informs Pancake’s own self-critical, essayistic methodology, as manifested in the filmmaker’s first exhibition to constellate video projection, handmade objects, archival documents, and still photography. Bloodland collages YouTube-sourced clips of East Coast fracking sites and excerpts of Pennsylvania-based antifracking activist Vera Scroggins’s protests with shots of dying wildlife and Pancake’s recordings of woodland dance performances. Through screen captures of multi-tabbed web browsing and Pro Tools video editing, the footage is manipulated within the frame of what is presumably the artist’s computer screen, displayed throughout the video. This reflects the ways in which all Internet users scan, consume, and create narratives both on- and off-screen. Opposite the projection of Bloodland, an imposing floor-to-ceiling grid of ninety-five court transcript pages documents a corporation’s legal case against Scroggins. In lieu of a wall text, this is an assertive act of transparency.
At the gallery’s rear is Each one a case, composed of four white pillowcases for children’s beds, neatly folded on roughshod shelves like miniature shrouds and digitally printed with images of Pancake’s family’s West Virginia acreage, ruined after timber clear-cutting. One print includes the artist’s brother, an industry-employed geologist, creating a narrative that suggests Pancake’s own complicity in this contested environmental issue.
In his latest exhibition, Patrick Maguire stages nine new, formally complex oil paintings on the walls of a carefully altered version of this gallery. A circular gray platform in the center of the room offers four arched wooden structures, each roughly the dimensions of a standard door; Maguire has installed a similar archway in the entrance to the gallery. These—and the gallery walls—are stuccoed with drywall compound, which provides a gentle oatmeal tone. Pink spotlights above further round out this soothing environment while a ceiling-mounted speaker emits a low-fi lulling whistle. Portholes are cut out of each “door” at eye level, and when looking through one of these, the viewer notices how various combinations of the paintings are visible—but never more than three works at a time. Standing on this central plinth structure also recalls being in an eighteenth-century landscaped garden, allowing one to experience a specific view that challenges each painting’s autonomy.
Yet, the strata of pigment in the paintings obscures any kind of representation. In Beyond Those Hills, 2015, a small square painting on a bright orange ground, purple-black and yellow nested semicircles alternately mirror the curvature of the exhibition’s central installation and entryway. These semicircles are overlaid with a loose mesh of tiny cream-colored vertical brushstrokes organized into uneven horizontal segments, which appear to undulate. The imposing body-scaled Window, 2015, is sparer, comprising horizontal bands of the same tiny marks, each band transitioning from cream to lilac. The illusion of simultaneous motion and stillness in these flickering patterns evokes a paused video. Maguire’s meditative installation thrums with potential energy.
Portland-based artist Melody Owen has worked in collage for over two decades, and this exhibition displays her command of the medium at its most inventive and sensitive. This is particularly true of the newest works here, which interweave botanical and zoological imagery—such as flowers, whales, skeletons, and brains—within macrocosmic networks such as circulatory systems, cellular structures, and cross-sections of trees or of the human body. Most of Owen’s source materials are taken from old botany and anatomy books. The images have a velvety texture and a quiet range of tonality, evoking other wistful nature studies such as Leo Lionni’s book Parallel Botany (1976).
In the small-scale, twenty-work series “Under My Skin” (all works cited, 2015), each piece contains two rounded or cropped black-and-white images of plant cells and tree rings. The circular images at the top of each piece are vertically bisected by old cutouts of colored trees, each of which Owen trimmed to focus on the thick, ridged mass of the trunks. This creates a disarming perspective that makes one feel as if one is gazing into a microscope and a telescope at the same time—a dichotomy that evinces the artist’s preoccupation with both interior and exterior experience. In the collage Cutaway: Carphone, remnants of a human heart lurk at the center of a car crash as dotted lines snake through the cars, connecting a human head with a telephone receiver. The fine, hand-drawn lines ribbon across the page like telegraph wires, multiplying the works’ associative meanings.
For more than thirty years, a treasure trove of photographs and videos lay dormant in the nooks and crannies of the home of native Portlander Paige Powell, a former publisher at Interview magazine, Andy Warhol’s confidante, and girlfriend of Jean-Michel Basquiat. This two-part installation is Powell’s first museum show displaying the intimate archive she created of the 1980s New York art world. As part of Warhol’s circle, she was surrounded by spectacular personalities. Yet many of her images in the exhibition depict quotidian reflective moments—conversations over dinner, workplace diversions, and artmaking—suggesting that Powell was more interested in her subjects’ inner lives than in their public status.
The largest work in the show—The Ride, 2015—presents three newly unearthed videos that include footage of both Warhol and Keith Haring. Each video is projected onto one of three identical, and abutting wall-covering images of Basquiat sitting in the back of a limo watching television. The videos are aimed to make it appear as though they are what Basquiat is watching, though in the original photograph he’s watching the movie Goldfinger. Framing these within the limo speaks to the explosion of home videos and cable television during the 1980s and references Warhol’s ever-prescient vision of America’s narcissistic media obsession. The most compelling of the videos depicts Haring painting black designs on a large white sculpture of an elephant. It’s mesmerizing to watch Haring work, his brush gracefully arcing across the surface of the sculpture without spilling a drop of paint. His elegant gestures are a stinging reminder of all that would soon be lost.
With its 300 works, “Franz Erhard Walther: The Body Draws”—the first American survey of the pioneering German artist—offers an interesting reassessment of his work. As the title suggests, the show is intended to consider the extent to which drawing—broadly speaking—has always been at the core of the artist’s practice. Focusing on works on paper, the extensive exhibition foregrounds the importance of the line, in a body of work at the crossroads of painting, sculpture, architecture, the conceptual, and the performative.
In the main room, Walther’s cornerstone piece, 1. Werksatz (1. Work Set, 1963–69), sits in the same state it occupied while in storage, letting viewers imagine what lies within canvas bags, within folds. Along the wall, videos show the unfolded fabric pieces being “activated”—a term Walther uses to describe the moments when these works are brought to life by being solemnly held or worn. Daily, volunteers activate some of these elements as well, as when a duo formed a line with the help of one of Walther’s long strips of fabric connecting the tops of their heads, or when four people quietly unfolded a cruciform piece of fabric. These activations remind viewers the work should be experienced with their participation.
In the 1970s, the artist revisited this iconic piece, through very realistic renderings of these activations, which are presented in the same room. Be it abstract or realistic, drawing is Walther’s way to remember, revisit, plan, or re-embody a work—and to expand a practice where the conceptual is absolutely incarnate. Through the exhibition’s seven rooms, the works on paper constantly dialogue with the sculptural elements, allowing viewers to sense—and take part in—Walther’s practice at its closest, to witness what the artist calls his “inner modeling” and be reminded that, as Michel Foucault put it in 1966, “the body is the zero point of the world.”
The nine large-scale installations for this show prompt us to “wonder” at the alchemical transformation of fairly quotidian materials into art. Though the labor of producing these works leaves a few visible traces, the emphasis here is less on process than on the result: a conversion of the Renwick’s galleries into sensual environments.
It’s a fitting way to reopen this museum, which houses the Smithsonian’s craft and decorative arts collection, after a two-year renovation. In the first gallery, Gabriel Dawe’s Plexus A1 (all works 2015)—two ethereal planes of rainbow-colored thread—hang between stark-white Corinthian columns. Nearby, Leo Villareal’s Volume (Renwick), a twinkling galaxy of 23,000 computer-controlled LED lights, illuminates the freshly gilded grand staircase. These approximations of natural phenomena are consistent with the show’s preoccupation with the anthropogenic environment. Further, Chakaia Booker offers a labyrinth of recycled rubber in Anonymous Donor, while Maya Lin’s Folding the Chesapeake, an installation of thousands of green fiberglass marbles, suggests the fragility of topographic forms.
The imbrication of the natural and the technological signals that for today’s artists craft is not a retreat from technology but a means to “live differently in the modern world,” as the show’s curator, Nicholas Bell, puts it. Judging by the works here, living differently means responding to even low-tech, handmade forms with the same sense of wonder that typically greets new technologies. But perhaps living differently might also mean wondering if our insatiable appetite for amazement is as innocent as it seems. At first glance, Patrick Dougherty’s Shindig, a room full of towering, nest-like forms of molded tree saplings, invites us to play; its vertiginous curves and arabesques exhilarate the eye (and elude the camera). But the work also is imbued with the tension of the struggle between man and nature, and its shadows are a nightmarish thicket. Like wonder itself, it entices but threatens entrapment.
An engraving in the original wooden mantle of the 1909 Tudor-style mansion that is now home to the Burnaby Art Gallery reads, “The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it.” On the wall above, the Canadian artist Alex Morrison has painted a black tempera mural of a cluster of magic mushrooms, alluding to the Ceperley House’s former life, not as the country home, monastery, or cult center that it also was, but as temporary student residences that played host to many a wild party and sit-in in the 1960s (from which psychedelic graffiti reportedly still remains on its attic walls).
Morrison’s eclectic work—which includes ceramics, painting, furniture design, and sculpture—is rooted in site research, which he infiltrates at the level of both surface and narrative. Here this practice leads him into areas of craft, where numerous hand-painted ceramic plates are set alongside works in gouache that fuse witty Victorian aphorisms with the decorative motifs of the Arts and Crafts movement. A new, commissioned chandelier—aptly titled “A Fine Contamination,” 2015—elegantly references the gallery’s stained-glass windows and exposed wooden rafters in golden, powder-coated aluminum, and brightly colored Plexiglas. At the SFU Gallery nearby, this interest in pastiche extends to questions of collecting, where Morrison’s paintings and sculptures are interspersed with artworks from the university’s permanent collection. Highlighting some of the countercultural narratives that have inhabited Arthur Erickson’s concrete campus over fifty years, the once radical is reframed within Morrison’s decorative systems—calling attention to questions of authenticity and, ultimately, the fashionability of ideas.
Many of the black-and-white and color photographs that constitute Celia Perrin Sidarous’s current solo show, “Les Figures,” document her travels in Greece, Italy, and Norway. Images such as Cyprčs, Pompeii (all works cited, 2015) and Palm, Ancient Agora of Athens offer unspectacular views of the titular subjects. On the walls of the Parisian Laundry in Montreal, these photographs provide clues to how Sidarous came to create other images, also on view, that depict assemblages of found objects. Was the piece of coral placed on a mirror in Black Coral a memento from Greece, or the green-gray ovoid in Marble Egg, Seashell and Images a souvenir from Italy? These questions are tangential. What makes Sidarous’s images compelling are not the stories behind the objects’ journeys to her studio but the complex compositions of the assemblages.
Among the more striking works in the show, The Waves triangulates a conversation between a cutout photograph of a ruffle pattern, its reflection in a circular mirror, and birds feeding in the sea, also pictured with their reflection, all against a seemingly flat, white background. The boundary between the real thing and its representation is undermined to create a space that only exists within the image. While works such as Black Coral offer the stability of a still life, unlikely landscapes such as The Waves allow viewers to reconsider their understandings of medium, material, and perspective.
José Carlos Martinat’s current exhibition in Mexico City, “How to Explain the Unexplainable?,” takes its title from a federal governmental slogan that promotes national and international tourism in Mexico and is usually accompanied by images of beautiful beaches, blue waterfalls, and historical places. But these idyllic scenes are overshadowed by the inexcusable pandemonium of this country’s violent reality, as fed to international media around the world.
This absurdity is the chief departure point of Martinat’s show, featuring a large site-specific installation also titled after the slogan. Hanging from different points around the museum are thirty-five thermal printers connected to the Internet and to a program that uses keywords to address thirty-five questions regarding the precarious economical, social, and political reality of Mexico. Random answers are printed every ten minutes onto small pieces of paper—they fall again and again, covering the entire ground. One of them reads: “Leaks, betrayal and impunity in the Mexican prison system. In Mexico anyone can escape from prison as long as they have the resources for oiling the gates’ hinges.” Another declares: “Memory is our best weapon against enforced disappearances.”
Martinat’s installation confronts us, on the one hand, with the fact that relentless accumulation of data becomes a waste if it’s not processed or understood. On the other hand, it physically serves as a metaphor for the cumulative and monumental havoc reigning Mexico, a country in which even the worst tragedies are soon forgotten beneath bureaucratic piles of paper.