View of “Deborah Stratman,” 2014.

View of “Deborah Stratman,” 2014.

Deborah Stratman

Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center

View of “Deborah Stratman,” 2014.

United primarily by an inquisitive approach that fuses the heart of a poet with the mind of a scientist, artist and filmmaker Deborah Stratman’s works engage a staggering range of concerns, geographies, and forms. The dominant impulse underlying her practice is a desire to reach an understanding of a subject, whether it is an astronomical phenomenon—the comets of . . . These Blazeing Starrs!, 2011, for example—or an ontological condition, such as freedom (O’er the Land, 2009). Some questions are, of course, unanswerable, and Stratman’s research rarely results in resolution. For the artist, understanding is always provisional, a benchmark at which new mysteries emerge and opportunities for poetics arise.

Sinkholes and other subsurface voids were the object of inquiry in “Swallows,” Stratman’s artist-in-residence exhibition at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center. The installation, which juxtaposed appropriated materials (such as pylons, sandbags, caution tape, traffic barriers, YouTube videos, and a digital slide show of sinkhole photos) with the artist’s own creations (monotype prints, sculptures, paintings, drawings on vellum, and large dioramas), recalled such eccentric institutions as the Museum of Jurassic Technology or Marcel Broodthaers’s Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles. Stratman offered a spectrum of perspectives—poetic, philosophical, political, and playful—through which to consider holes and voids, thereby creating a polyvalent montage similar to those found in her videos In Order Not to Be Here, 2002, or The Name Is Not the Thing Named, 2012.

The exhibition opened with a wall text comprising aphoristic meditations inspired by Roberto Casati and Achille C. Varzi’s 1994 book Holes and Other Superficialities. The language was formal at first (“Since every hole is ontologically dependent on its host, being a hole is defined as being a hole in [or through] something”) and ended casually (“Holes cannot be the only things around”). This shift in tone mirrored the modes through which Stratman moved in the show. Alongside a wall text giving a factually detailed account of the cause and effects of a particularly spectacular sinkhole in Louisiana in 1980, Stratman presented a short video loop of a playfully menacing and endlessly advancing tunnel (drawn from the classic Looney Tunes opening sequence). Amid these reveries, Stratman asked: How might something defined by absence be represented? One answer to this question is a set of sculptures she cast from small depressions in the earth, each contoured by the artist to reflect the shape of an actual sinkhole.

A few works employing more unsettling perceptual or emotional tactics created a sense of mounting wariness. “Untitled (From the Swallows),” 2014–, for example, is a series of thrift-shop landscape paintings that the artist inverted and then painted over with cross-sections of cavernous black sinkholes. The cracks between the rendered voids allow for a glimpse of the overturned original landscapes—a claustrophobic view of the surface through a subterranean lens. Stratman’s mini-museum culminated in a wall text offering an account of a 2006 sinkhole that opened up in a living room in Alta, California, leaving the rest of the house undisturbed. One resident fell to his death, while his pregnant wife slept undisturbed in an adjoining room. With a dream logic reminiscent of David Lynch’s films, “Swallows” unsettled our assumption that the foundations on which we rely—our earth, houses, and roads, and perhaps, by extension, our governments—are truly solid.

Chris Stults