Critics’ Picks

View of “Several Silences,” 2009.

View of “Several Silences,” 2009.

Chicago

“Several Silences”

The Renaissance Society
5811 South Ellis Avenue Cobb Hall, 4th floor
April 26–June 7, 2009

The famously unsilent silence of John Cage’s 4'33", 1952, is the clear starting point for several works in this show. In a play between turning in and opening out, some pieces embrace their surroundings to incorporate input from the immediate environment, while others posit a more self-contained silence. Bearing direct relation to Robert Rauschenberg’s 1951 “White Paintings” (themselves inspiration for Cage’s piece), Harold Mendez’s tandem works, Nothing Prevents Anything and Better off then than when life was babble? (both 2007), are white bulletin boards excised from a university’s hallways. Once blank canvases of a more quotidian sort, they reveal traces of written utterances now silent in bits of colored paper caught under leftover staples. Troy Brauntuch’s ghostly set of gray Conté drawings on black cotton, Untitled (Shirt #1) and Untitled (Shirt #3) (both 2005)—which are based on a photograph of dusty clothing-store shelves in the immediate aftermath of Ground Zero’s destruction—evokes the decisive silence after mass calamity and a memorializing stillness. Harry Shearer’s The Silent Echo Chamber, 2009, moves between the two, with nearly silent video feeds whose comic elements balance Brauntuch’s solemnity with a dose of levity. Watching politicians and talking heads rendered silent in awkward moments of on-camera waiting proves surprisingly enjoyable. In outtakes from the last election cycle, both candidates and commentators occupy individual screens; Hillary Clinton maintains a steady but impenetrable smile, while a comically bespectacled James Carville shifts his position and expression, causing one to wonder about his interior monologue. This rich grouping of works across media transforms the gallery into a space of heightened perception, where multiple senses engage the question of what silence reveals about the contemporary condition.