Chicago

Jana Sterbak

Frustration can be a powerful goad for viewers. Jana Sterbak’s works are cunningly dislocated, askew, and even occasionally annoying enough to require particularly close inspection and consideration. She carefully summons an atmosphere of tense inadequacy, keeping her viewers alert and suspicious, uneasily questioning the stability of the communicative experience of art. This overview of twenty years of Sterbak’s work revealed above all else her febrile intelligence, her inclination to range over a wide variety of mediums, and her almost Socratic method of undercutting expectation with conundrum.

The earliest piece in the exhibition, Cones on Fingers, 1979, set Sterbak’s tone of puzzle and delay. Here the fingers of a mannequin’s hand have been attenuated by the addition of five coiled measuring tapes that extend each digit out several inches beyond nature’s dictates. The hand, already disembodied, now provides both the elegance of slenderized fingers and their complete dysfunctionality. The body, and its rather pathetic but somehow necessary struggle to seek and sustain meaning, is one of Sterbak’s central concerns. Several of her more theatrical pieces—large metal armatures meant to be worn or occupied by the body—were on display, accompanied by a projected video or film featuring them in use. In Sisyphus, 1991, a man is shown trying to roll around in his aluminum trap; he is in concerted motion while accomplishing precisely nothing. The piece has the concentrated commitment to absurdity that is close to the core of Sterbak’s work, with the intensity of the body’s struggle precisely mirrored by its abject futility. (The story of Sisyphus, with its insistence on the evocative poetry of exasperatingly repetitive activity and its function as a metaphor for the condemned course of all human life, is important for Sterbak and resurfaced in several additional works.) Crickets become surrogates for people in Combat Cricket Compartment, 1993–97; we watch them scurry about just as the gods must regard us, with varying degrees of contempt and amusement. Ostensibly constructed to invite and amplify the cricket’s song, the piece became more of a laboratory of savagery and decay, as looking at crickets unconcernedly munch upon one another grew both intriguing and horrific.

Declaration, 1993, is a particularly mesmerizing video. In it a man with a mild stutter reads aloud in French—subtitles were included—the entire text of Thomas Paine’s 1789 “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen,” with its articles presented in reverse order. This is Sterbak’s oblique caress; the gravitas of Paine’s sentiments, the concepts on which so much of modem democracy is based, is not so much defused as deflected and held at a speculatively reflective distance. The reordering of the flow of Paine’s essay and the almost rhythmic persistence of the stutter curiously reinvigorate the text, providing just enough of a disruption to invite these ideas to be entertained anew.

James Yood