Relics

Gregory Bae, Relics, 2015, Acrylic on television and wall, ratchet straps

Installation view of Orients, a solo exhibition by Gregory Bae at Chicago Urban Art Society in Chicago, IL

Situated at calculated distances like memorials or shrines intended for contemplative deliberation, the installations had a solitary presence of downed aircrafts or signal beacons, many of them emitting white noise throughout the vast space of the gallery. An industrial fan with a fluttering black flag attached to it hummed in unison with the sound of a tire rolling on a treadmill nearby. They dominated the auditory space with a persistent drone while suggesting symbolic representations of interval, site, and motion. A globe, a flag, a video of dawn… The installed work was isolated just enough to create a complete world of subtle, complex emotional relationships and gaps. Present within the barren industrial walls of the building was an atmosphere of both banal commerce and awe.

Gregory Bae, Relics, 2015, Acrylic on television and wall, ratchet straps

Gregory Bae, Relics, 2015, Acrylic on television and wall, ratchet straps

We approached one of the installations that emitted a subtle sound. Camouflaged in spattered black paint with a heavy line that twisted back and forth across the center of the piece, Relics jutted out like crude three-dimensional graffiti. This was the initial view, from a distance. As we approached and moved laterally, the optical illusion that resembled street art began to expand and transform into an antiquated cathode ray tube television. The jutting dark mass faced the wall as it expanded in a state of combustion or creation while emitting a broadcast of static noise. Despite its perilous placement, from its position on the wall it appeared passive: a generator incidentally emitting sound, or a transmitter intentionally doing so. The installation spilled out into the space with simultaneously visual and auditory effulgent noise. Upon closer inspection, we noticed an Asian floral pattern painted across the back of the old tube.

Relics looked suctioned to the wall, pinned and restrained with straps. Was the TV turned onto itself, forced to take back its own transmission? It seemed forbidden and dangerous with a warning scribbled in black paint; it was violently crossed out and then tightened with straps. However, the power was still on. The apparent suppression lured us to approach and take a peek at the hidden screen; it emitted a static glow and a hiss just inside of the range of audibility.

Gregory Bae, Relics, 2015, Acrylic on television and wall, ratchet straps

Gregory Bae, Relics, 2015, Acrylic on television and wall, ratchet straps

Otherwise consistent with the chaos emanating from the center of the installation, the haphazardly spraypainted line more or less crudely mimicked the structured floral motif on the back of the TV – but in a much rougher, more gestural way. It mapped out a zone of emanation, seemingly indicating places where the transmission was more powerful and leaving an imprint. The “lost” elements of Relics continuously left an impression on us, a purely spatial awareness. The installation created a sense of place both within the exhibition and in solitude, and was not just to be seen but created a new seeing where out-of-joint could be a new orientation, and the process of seeing can be a place in itself.

Untitled (Spiral)

Installation view at Heaven Gallery in Chicago, IL

Installation view at Heaven Gallery in Chicago, IL

Distributed across the floor on rectangular white panels reminiscent of beds or coffins, the melancholic collection of objects seemed left behind, perhaps in a ritual, but certainly in accordance with an internal logic or a long forgotten directive. Among eroding urn-like forms and black & white videos with simple unchanging text, Untitled (Spiral) was vastly influenced by its setting. Due to the commanding curatorial voice, and despite obvious differences in medium and approach, all of the work looked as though one artist had created it. There was a stillness and tranquility throughout the exhibit.

Untitled (Spiral) was ambiguous in a number of ways. It featured an androgynous child that faced away from the camera while drawing an irregular spiral with white chalk. The mid-length hairstyle and non-descript gown, combined with the old-fashioned blackboard and chalk, all in black and white, made the video nonspecific enough to be timeless while evoking the passing of time. Nothing seemed to change as the video repeated the creation of the spiral performed by the child. However, with the spiral beginning and ending again and again, nothing could be recovered either. Multiple iterations were sectioned and edited into the looping video, further interfering with the completion of the drawing. These iterations reminded us of the impossibility of true repetition, of the inability to return to things that have been lost or transformed by the experience of recollection, by changes within the process.

Suara Welitoff, Untitled (Spiral), 2013, Single Channel Video

Suara Welitoff, Untitled (Spiral), 2013, Single Channel Video

Installation view at Heaven Gallery in Chicago, IL

Installation view at Heaven Gallery in Chicago, IL

Ultimately, the video was the spatial and temporal nexus in the exhibition. The flatscreen display had extra room on the panel and away from other objects, implying that the image could extend outside the limits of the screen and into the physical space. The space was of ritual evocation, casting the changeless variation of the video throughout the entire exhibit. A unifying symbol of growth and infinity, the spiral was imminent like a black hole or a galaxy or perhaps a developing seashell. However, it never grew beyond a certain point. This continuous imminence signified what was left, a final forgetting.

Master, What Good Deeds Shall I Do?

Out of the Sky, Into the Dirt installation view at Adventureland Gallery in Chicago, IL

Out of the Sky, Into the Dirt solo exhibition by Aaron Coleman at Adventureland Gallery in Chicago, IL

Hung neatly and carefully, the prints were nonetheless fragments of an infinitely complex narrative; a smoldering world tearing apart in a wash of smoke and tormented faces, infused with sometimes belligerent, always spectacular phrases that like koans returned us to rapt attention. These phrases struck us as messages both infernal and absolute, emblazoned with the cinematic appeal of comic books and our special effects-laden action and disaster films – the two media fused together to form a consumerist apocalypse. The work was dense and outright heavy, and appropriately so, because we were looking at nothing short of the end of the world.

Aaron Coleman, Master, What Good Deeds Shall I Do?, 2014, lithography and screen print, 16"x12", installed at Adventureland Gallery in Chicago, IL

Aaron Coleman, Master, What Good Deeds Shall I Do?, 2014, lithography and screen print, 16″x12″, installed at Adventureland Gallery in Chicago, IL

In Master, What Good Deeds Shall I Do? conflicts and coincidences arose from a sublime center, which featured the Virgin Mary, haloed, meticulously rendered in profile and outlined in bold lines like stained glass. Only her face remained visible in the chaotic surge of her surroundings. Overlapping figures gazed in various directions; one man yelling in terror, another turning his back, wearing a fedora, and two others contorted, leaning and struggling. These figures were heavily blended with other indistinguishable shapes, images, and speech bubbles that read, “Earth will be damned!” “Yes, master, your dreams and wishes will be fulfilled!” and “I have reshaped [earth] to my desire,” rendered in comic book lettering. We were filled with both a sense of the heroism and an awareness of the terror and violence that undergirds that heroism.

Aaron Coleman

Aaron Coleman, Master, What Good Deeds Shall I Do? (detail)

The layered histories and styles have formed a new mash-up, a monstrosity of moral disorder and turmoil in the information age. Backlit as it would be in a church; the stained glass positioned us as viewers on the interior of the church, within the dark mass of chaotic figures and speech bubbles. Both the comic strip and the classical iconic stained glass are forms traditionally used for visual narrative, but in this image the narrative was remixed and layered so heavily that the content was broken, only conveying a mess of confusion and terror. This confusion and terror was ultimately the heart of the heroic narrative, trapping us in it. We were washed away in the flood, redeemed, or taken vengeance upon – or perhaps wrapped up in a villainous scheme. Master, What Good Deeds Shall I Do? revealed to us the power and possibilities of mythmaking. It communicated to us in a language of the heavenly and the exultant – a language of power, tyranny, strife, and responsibility.

Untitled

The bare space of the gallery opened up with a few large installations constructed out of simple repeating materials. Less immediate was the series of five faint forms on the closest wall. This was an unusual encounter: at first glance we noticed a cluster of insignificant shadows or scuffmarks, perhaps more convincingly a shallow counter-relief of repeating patterns in the wall, made of wall. They turned out to be five large, astonishingly faint images of gestural streaks. Only one of them had delineated square edges that implied the same format for all five.

Manish Nai, Untitled

Manish Nai, Untitled, 2015, Distemper and Poster Paint on Wall, Site-Specific Mural at Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago, IL

Like subatomic particle collision or military data visualization, or glitch, the piece took its aesthetic qualities from both minimalist gestural brush strokes and data-driven machine art. It seemed carved into the drywall with perfect robotic precision, closely resembling an artifact of photo editing software with the same positive and negative digital transparencies slightly misaligned. The five images seemed formless without actually being so. As representations of representations, they reminded us of thumbnails with their frustrating incapability to “truly signify,” that is, inform.

Manish Nai, Untitled

Manish Nai, Untitled (detail), 2015, Distemper and Poster Paint on Wall, Site-Specific Mural at Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago, IL

Closer inspection shattered all of these impressions. This was a mural made of small, presumably stenciled gray and white squares, like pixels. The conversion would not have emerged without our awareness of digital image-making coupled with our shifting perspective, our movement in space. The tiny painted squares whose edges were not perfectly clean could have easily been created a thousand years ago. How could something so simple in form look so machined? This was an abstracted image, not in the typical sense of abstraction, of paring down to fundamental elements ­– but abstraction toward a higher complexity that increases in speed and shrinks in size. The installation spoke of the nature of our new vision, of mediation, of the way in which a thing can no longer be experienced firsthand. Everything we see is administered by the digital era with a rift between generations and a layered confusion; digital mediation has made a lot possible that we couldn’t imagine before. These abstract images ultimately collapsed upon themselves. By representing data and the complexities of information, they became images we could see and know, and perhaps even name.

Manish Nai, Untitled

Manish Nai, Untitled (detail), 2015, Distemper and Poster Paint on Wall, Site-Specific Mural at Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago, IL

A multitude of perspectives transformed the artwork through each moment we took to gaze, only to confound us at the point of understanding or grasping, which left a chasm between conveyance, representation, and knowing. Could it be possible that the chasm is shallow, and at the bottom lies a ravine composed of both the familiar and the potential?

Atrabiliarios

Atrabiliarios

Doris Salcedo, Atrabiliarios (installation detail), 1992/2004, shoes, drywall, paint, wood, animal fiber, and surgical thread, installed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, IL

This was art that transformed the museum viewing experience by plunging us into the sacred. It even transformed the language we used to think about art into language that described the sacred: looking became “viewing”; moving through became “observing”; thinking became “contemplation.” As we entered the exhibition, the intense reverence of the space overwhelmed us. Sculptures looked like coffins, half-buried, furniture incomplete or disappearing, wood, steel, cloth, animal skin – all created that space where things are dense and heavy, yet disappearing and irrecoverable. A space impossible to travel through, as in “to see the end.”

Atrabiliarios

Doris Salcedo, Atrabiliarios (installation detail), 1992/2004, shoes, drywall, paint, wood, animal fiber, and surgical thread, installed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, IL

Atrabiliarios was installed in a room that was in a section of the exhibit where much of the work interwove the gossamer and delicate with the heaviness of wood and steel. A grim guard stood in the very center, occasionally using a radio device and otherwise silently observing our behavior. As we approached the entrance, austere and still, we noticed blurred shoes; perhaps these were life-size paintings, or actual physical shoes inserted into the walls. This was ambiguous until we arrived at an intimate distance, right at the wall. A revelatory horror stunned us. We walked side to side and discovered that these were real women’s shoes – some solitary, most in pairs, inserted into small rectangular vertical alcoves in the wall, covered in a thin animal membrane that rendered them yellowed and blurry. They seemed ready for the wall to swallow them up; encasement was not enough, but too much to bear. The flat membranous alcove covers had been stitched into place with black surgical thread, and the shoes stood vertically on their tiptoes. In the corner of the room there were several stacks of slightly larger boxes also entirely constructed out of animal membrane, like packages or moving boxes. These looked empty and fragile, and were not visible from the entrance into the room.

Atrabiliarios

Doris Salcedo, Atrabiliarios (installation detail), 1992/2004, shoes, drywall, paint, wood, animal fiber, and surgical thread, installed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, IL

The room felt like a memorial to a mass-murder, with a strong ghostly presence of encasing, missing, shutting in, and blurred memory. The animal membranes, like frozen blocks of yellow ice or thin, aged shrouds, obscured the shoes as they dragged our gaze through flesh that was once alive. Layers of meaning surfaced slowly. The empty, impotent boxes provided additional hollow to the vacant shoes, whose cavities also were empty. They appeared haunted as they near levitated in their tightly fitting alcoves, surrounding the room at eye-level, to be viewed in a row, not a grid. The spacing between them seemed to have some significance as to when the people departed, or how many people went missing during particular periods of time, leaving voids, empty boxes, and sutured hollows.  Into these hollows, with their presentation of loss and the persistence of a visible emptiness, inhabited by missing things, we grasped for a way to make these objects and these spaces complete again.

Atrabiliarios

Doris Salcedo, Atrabiliarios (installation detail), 1992/2004, shoes, drywall, paint, wood, animal fiber, and surgical thread, installed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, IL

Smooz Yazz

Installation view at LVL3 gallery in Chicago, IL

Installation view at LVL3 gallery in Chicago, IL

Sometimes an art gallery can be a social, commercial, and cultural dystopia. At other times it is a lightbox, illuminating, occasionally rendering a collection of forms and ideas. It can be a place of  alienation, confusion; it is always a place of collective experience, even when the viewer is present alone.

Though the space was silent and relatively clean, it seemed that a party had occurred. There were leftovers of a celebration with playful objects distributed throughout: confetti, sprinkles, and psychedelia covered the floor and walls; pennant banners hung suspended from the ceiling.  We were there in the middle of the day. The silent, still space conveyed a feeling of a happening that did not happen, or of a space designed to watch a party without being part of it.  This dystopia was a virtual space, a space of gesture and made of gestures that enfold and obscure; it left us asking: “What happened here?” In the midst of this, we found Smooz Yazz.

Ben Sanders, Smooz Yazz, 2015, Acrylic and collage on panel, 24" X 30," 2015, installed at LVL3 in Chicago, IL

Ben Sanders, Smooz Yazz, 2015, Acrylic and collage on panel, 24″ X 30,” installed at LVL3 in Chicago, IL

From afar, the painting looked innocuous enough, especially with its unassuming placement by a window. We nonchalantly approached to take a look. Struck by the juvenile shock of outdoor jazz festival T-shirts and nifty 1980’s accessories, we couldn’t help but shriek and laugh. Smooz Yazz was a prankster fucking with us, making us uncomfortable and directing our perception with optical illusions.

Squiggly black strokes, like streamers of confetti, surrounded a line drawing of an abstracted saxophonist with a puzzling face/tongue/mouth – or maybe some cool sunglasses. More confetti made of colorful acrylic paint chips scattered across the panel’s flat surface in the form of thin, jagged crescents. Two raised corners jammed the viewing perspective, while the artist’s distasteful signature scattered downward in tiny capital letters, like silly globs of frosting.

Ben Sanders, Smooz Yazz (detail), 2015, Acrylic and collage on panel, 24" X 30," 2015

Ben Sanders, Smooz Yazz (detail), 2015, Acrylic and collage on panel, 24″ X 30″

The painting resembled 1980’s stationery or stickers in fun colors, but some of the visual references complicated this. Digital imaging clichés like page curl, drop shadow, and cut-and-paste repetition – things that were designed for computer screens in order to mimic reality – now lived in a physical painting. Yet they maintained the same illusionistic effect despite being painted. Wait, reality tricked us into looking like… reality?

The title, Smooz Yazz, sounded like a toddler’s or toothless individual’s speech. Much like elevator music, Smooth Jazz the genre is embarrassing among a cultured crowd. Our memory of the 1980’s is also one of awkwardness and embarrassment at the charade of sporty coolness. Decidedly both lowbrow and highbrow, kitsch and sophisticated at the same time, this painting’s complexity lives life to its fullest while bamboozling the middlebrow.  This bamboozlement is where we found the dystopian – in that empty party space where our sense of belonging was itself powerfully estranged.

A Bad Idea Seems Good Again

Alison Ruttan, A Bad Idea Seems Good Again (installation detail), 2015, ceramic on wood and steel platforms, dimensions variable, installed at the Chicago Cultural Center in Chicago, IL

Alison Ruttan, A Bad Idea Seems Good Again (installation detail), 2015, ceramic on wood and steel tables, dimensions variable, installed at the Chicago Cultural Center in Chicago, IL

The space seemed heterogeneous, like a strange and stark hybrid between a museum and a corporate project room. However, instead of facing prospective architectural models that will go into a future industrial park, we were confronted with miniature bombed-out buildings displayed like anthropological specimens. This was a sterile environment with plenty of space for us to approach and examine. Many of the buildings now existed as sinkholes, craters, and pancaked structures rendered useless and nearly without form. They were replicated, frozen in time, and set atop wood and steel tables that appeared to have been manufactured exclusively for this display. A few rectangular recesses in the wooden tabletops held some of the worst examples: only piles of debris flattened to the foundation, slightly beneath the surface. No longer symbols of daily life, the buildings were brought to the brink of obliteration through conflict. They have become debased, rendered in tatters. Like geological formations, mountains, hills and plateaus near valleys, they looked as if they have been created through the destructive process of time and events larger than a human scale.

Alison Ruttan, A Bad Idea Seems Good Again (installation detail), 2015

Alison Ruttan, A Bad Idea Seems Good Again (installation detail), 2015

Each building stood about a foot or so tall, cast out of what appeared to be porcelain slip, cracked and warped, glazed to an off-white matt surface that occasionally crawled, selectively stained with a murky color. The ceramic materials gave the buildings a precious handmade feel, like fragile artifacts to be handled carefully. But they were already broken. Unlike real buildings, these were soft and skin-like, with hazy color transitions throughout like burns or stains in an ethereal ghostly surface. It was hard to think of them as ceramic replicas. The imperfections generated during the ceramic process blended seamlessly with the destruction depicted.

Alison Ruttan, A Bad Idea Seems Good Again (installation detail), 2015

Alison Ruttan, A Bad Idea Seems Good Again (installation detail), 2015

We initially viewed these structures from above, then leaned in to view closer. It’s the viewpoint of airplanes, helicopters, and satellites. From that viewpoint it is impossible to see the victims, to be the victims. Novel and spectacular like toy houses or trompe l’oeil, these remnants of war invited us to play with them from afar, like a bomber plane or God. It was clear that these were not generic examples but buildings replicated from a real place, with distinct details in the architecture – modernist-era and relatively short high-rises that one would find in small cities almost anywhere …except the US. The disembodied buildings, without a city, without the people that may have dwelled in them, were instead symbols or remnants. They were not frightening as towering and monumental ruins, but frightening as model collectibles. Even in the gallery, our role was established: as warplanner, bomber pilot, warhawk, humanitarian, disinterested newswatcher, or architect looking at a speculative model. In their role as representation, they fixed us as viewers. These paradoxical models stood as promotional displays intended to convince the client that this was a good idea.