Jennifer Tee, Practical Magic, 2013, mixed media, dimensions variable. Installation view.

Jennifer Tee, Practical Magic, 2013, mixed media, dimensions variable. Installation view.

Jennifer Tee

Jennifer Tee, Practical Magic, 2013, mixed media, dimensions variable. Installation view.

Jennifer Tee’s installations are marked by a deep psychological ambiguity. If often seemingly designed to stimulate psychic serenity or spiritual uplift, they nonetheless advocate no clearly defined paths to inner peace and higher consciousness. Indeed, Tee’s works often leave the viewer with persistent doubts about the possibility of reaching such enlightened states. But this equivocation may be precisely the point. As with other contemporary artists concerned with assorted forms of mystical yearning—Eva Rothschild and Francis Upritchard come to mind—it is in the tensions between aspiration and failure, seriousness and absurdity that the work finds its idiosyncratic energy.

For her recent show “Practical Magic,” the Amsterdam-based artist welcomed visitors with a meditative but uncertain scenario: a decorous, formally relaxed arrangement of handmade floor mats and delicately airbrushed ceramic urns, all in a coordinated color scheme of mood-easing pastels. The measured distribution of objects and the accentuated mellowness of the gallery’s atmosphere called to mind the spacious, contemplative calm of a yoga studio. But this ostensibly soothing setup could have also evoked more spiritually charged environments—Eastern shrines or temples, perhaps—that serve as dedicated sites of solemn reflection and intricately coded ceremony.

Tee has purposely chosen to mix messages here, creating unfixed, indeterminate situations in which no established ritual structure provides a clarifying framework of meaning. Relatively straightforward statements and recognizable accoutrements of spiritual striving were accompanied by less categorizable, more esoteric elements. Several peculiar ceramic towers and tiny urns, for instance, have titles boldly emblazoned around their bases, each alluding to differently tempered conditions of consciousness, or to alternative systems of knowledge. SENSOUS INTERIORITY reads the legend on one, the misspelling indicated on the checklist by a strike-through of the first u of “sensuous”: sensuous interiority (all works cited, 2013). Other such slogans include SELFHOOD MELTDOWN and OCCULT~GEOMETRY. These ceramic assertions hint at a strategic application for these curious pots within a broader scheme of thought invented by the artist—what she seems to mean by “practical magic.” But what, then, are we to make of the wild impracticality of the main feature of these miniature sculptures: the pointed heaps of spaghettilike ceramic coils that, with comic ridiculousness, crown each piece? What manner of magic might be made possible by these ludic forms? Similarly, the presentation of four distinctly stitched and dyed octagonal mats (Violamine Crystalline Floor Pieces) has a familiar New Agey feel, but the specific import of the careful patterning and placement of these fabrics remains mysterious. In previous exhibitions, Tee has used these unique mats (each of which is large enough to support a reclining body) as spaces for intentionally constrained dance performances. No such performances were planned this time, and the floor pieces were instead laid out as simultaneously open and enigmatic zones, awaiting a form of activation yet to be determined.

Close to the center of the gallery, one other sculpture, spirit~matter, stood out as an analogue for Tee’s hesitant mystical commitments. A waist-high chalk pedestal is used to support a long bamboo cane—held evenly in the air like a tightrope walker’s pole—which was weighted at each end by a signature ceramic “twirl” and a circle of buzzing neon light. Against the more grounded mysteries of some other works, this was a figure of risky elevation and delicate balance—a sculpture promising both rare illumination and enduring precariousness. It is, perhaps, around such an uncertain artistic position that Tee’s work most successfully pivots.

Declan Long