contemporary art

Shared Eye #36, Sequence 11

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Sadie Benning, Shared Eye #36, Sequence 11, 2016, installed at the Renaissance Society, Chicago, IL

Immediately upon entering the large and open ballroom-like gallery space, nearly all of the pieces came into view at once. Most were arranged in small groupings, others large enough to occupy comparable amounts of space. These groups and stand-alone images, some dark, some emanating a spectrum of colors, demanded an immediate reference point from which to absorb the series as a complete idea. However, as we approached the work we realized that the complexity of each piece made this impossible. Any reference point could have become a fixed standpoint.

Because of their arrangement, finding a way into fragments of the exhibition was easy; with no pathway into the work set, we could move back and forth between larger and smaller pieces. At first glance, these looked like photomontages – digital images layered and ranging in style, type, color, resolution and age in order to produce a larger composite. Upon closer examination however, the materiality of the work emerged. Instead of bringing clarity to the series, the rigorous handmade construction left us bewildered. The pieces emerged not only as objects in space, but also evoking our individual visual vocabularies. Our understanding of each fragment in this exhibition emerged purely from our own visual histories, inviting us to experience seeing itself as an examination of what we could bring to the work.

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Sadie Benning, Shared Eye #36, Sequence 11 (detail), 2016

In Sequence #11: Shared Eye 36, two small rectangular tiles had been strategically inserted into the surface of a larger horizontal panel; uneven cuts and wrinkles revealed the handmade construction of this piece. The small sections carried their own peculiar images, acting like figures on a larger background or puzzle pieces fitted into a larger picture. Both photographic and rendered, the images were vague in content and quality. We could not overlook a single aspect of the work, as any image removed from the whole would seem out of place. The piece was multi-faceted in its ability to induce a sense of data oversaturation and confusion from any approach, whether material, pictorial, temporal, formal, or contextual. Its conveyance of its own reference points seemed to be from everywhere. The title suggested that the arrangement was generated – perhaps using a formula or a predetermined system. The result was a disquieting shuffle that evoked an online image search, referencing glitchy graphics, peeling street posters, or an indiscriminately edited composite. The piece alluded to information sharing with the added struggle of data sorting and the contemporary uncertainty of material reality. In some sense the piece denied representation as a form of communication while relying on its materiality as a more dependable language.

 

In the course of multiple viewings, Sequence #11: Shared Eye 36 cast the viewer out of a personal space of interpretation and into the public space of seeing as developing a familiarity, irrespective of standpoint. Through this work, we found narratives, commentaries, puzzles, ambiguities, lessons, and most importantly, an ever-shifting framework in defiance of those things. As a paradox it showed us that although our experiences generate knowledge, that knowledge can change and reveal dynamic unknowns.

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Sadie Benning, Shared Eye #36, Sequence 11, 2016, installed at the Renaissance Society, Chicago, IL

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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