This essay was published in response to The Hyde Park Art Center’s exhibition, Ground Floor featuring work by Jeremy Bolen, Guillermo R. Gudiño, Julie Renée Jones, Tony Lewis, Andrew Thomas Lopez, Eric May, Rachel Niffenegger, Josh Reames, Casilda Sánchez, Neal Vandenbergh, and Shane Ward. (Details and excerpt forthcoming). The show runs from August 19, 2012 – November 11, 2012 with an opening reception on September 23rd from 3-5pm.
A Net for Invisible Things
Ground Floor is an exhibition that platforms a series of recent MFA graduates from the Chicago area. It is an eclectic group of artists. Each one has carved out and defined a process for aesthetic investigation; each employs a unique medium, which in turn highlights distinct social, philosophical, and psychological concerns; as such there isn’t necessarily a single, cohesive curatorial aesthetic. There are, however resonant echoes and many share an inherent suspicion of images, their power and proliferation, as well as their use and function in society. Given the density of imagery in our culture, it is likely that we have all grown suspicious: images sell us things; they are capable of manipulation and they propagate values. Consequently these eleven artists are, by virtue of occupation, thrust into the heart of a maelstrom from which they must create strategies to describe, liberate, transpose, or skew imagistic intentions.
Rachel Niffenegger paints the figure—in particular, the portrait. Unlike her predecessors, these figures emerge from a bloom of dried watercolors on the surface of fabric or paper, like specters. Their haunted ephemerality is especially pronounced in the torn up “shrouds.” Brown, mottled faces peer at us like wispy spirits, frozen mid-rot and shimmering with the slightest wind. In Shroud (Etiolated Shred and Symbol) the surface of the portrait is all but disintegrated; it hangs off of a cross. The cross functions as an archetypal sign for the body—in this case, bone-like and almost pink. It is as though the shroud has drawn the life of that body into itself. Niffenegger describes these as ritual artifacts left behind by another, imagined civilization. Their purpose remains oblique yet their potency is clear. They are not entirely serious either, riding a line between B-horror movie effects and disturbing faces of trauma. The chains in the Art Center’s stairwell are clearly plastic, yet the shrouds billow like ghosts, moving of their own accord.
Painting, for Josh Reames, is duplicitous. He focuses on a mindless, looping line—what we might call the anti-hero of abstraction. By stepping in close, however, one quickly sees perfect control. The line is a red herring. While there is nothing ecstatic about its depiction, it is not mindless at all; it must constantly negotiate a splintered surface. For instance in Slipping (gold — greene) those mindless lines carry on over each surface, magnified in some parts, blurry in others. Reames creates works in which the very “line”—what is supposedly the most “authentic” gesture—can be just as easily reproduced. The distinction between what is reproduced and what is painted becomes meaningless. Reames is also one of the most colorful artists in this exhibition. The Perfect Sunset is a wash of bright yellow and orange neon color composed in a series of messy X’s with trompe l’oiel drips. Here is evidenced the humor and trickery of surface, the seeming inauthentic paint.
Material is key, even while the identity of that material might be difficult to comprehend. Shane Ward appropriates everyday materials—Miller High Life cans in particular, but also pennies, crutches and jet ski steering columns—and melts them down, draws out impurities, and recombines the result in various, new forms. It’s an alchemical process that transforms objects into possibilities. In Ingot #2 the former life of its substance lies dormant, inscribed as a text on the surface of the metal bar. Ward’s work is inherently connected to commerce as well. The way pennies circulate, or the way High Life advertises their veteran’s fund (where certain proceeds made through beer sales are given to veterans, to go to baseball games or fishing trips, where it is implied more beer will be bought and consumed). Ward’s final displayed objects contain entire systems of use. In Somewhere in the Dark Corner #3, Ward presents the perfect cast replica of a dinner table. It is cast in coal: a pure and dormant potential. This table is neither set nor has it been sat at. Instead it is a mess of black, yet-to-be-used material that nevertheless looks used up. It refuses roundness with a pitched corner, admitting hierarchical intentions. Somewhere in the Dark Corner #3 seems even suspicious of itself, with a puddle of reflective metal in the actual corner, like a surveillance mirror: it is set to view all angles and the sky. By modifying materials, recasting them, and noting their potential, Ward maps out invisible power structures that influence everyday life.
In Tony Lewis’ drawings, we are left with an overwhelming sense of soot: the residue of drawing and day-to-day exercise, as well as the atmosphere that exercise creates. His papers hang on the wall like thick, tough swaths of leather, disfigured and well worn with traces of graphite, rubber cement, and footprints. These drawings remain unfixed; as such their field of graphite will always be in flux, responding and changing according to their environment. Different kinds of graphite are also evident—certain kinds reflect like glitter while others are dull. Lewis began the series with a single phrase (what Lewis calls “the mother phrase”). Arial is the chosen font, a sans serif “American,” or “Poor man’s,” Helvetica. That mother phrase provides the dominant structure, and like an Oulipo poet, Lewis culls different text combinations, creating new iterations on each subsequent piece. The mother phrase is not public, although it has been hanging in his studio for the last year. Perhaps it is worth mentioning that its offspring texts presented here, the letters on that first drawing are not filled in, but cling to the paper like hollow ghosts, as an archetype or ancestor. They mark the point of origin and return, defining a field from which linguistic patterns emerge. Lewis works almost exclusively with graphite. The residue of that sooty environment is constantly challenging the blank white page, and in each piece Lewis actively intervenes with a line (the only real moments of artistic license, though those too are defined by the flow of letters). In the hallway, “///////” would seem to be the most “free” piece, with no letters, only black, almost censorial strips where letters were. Lewis’ characteristic line is especially dominant—yet here too, that original system of words is most present, most inescapable, because even in this open field, the line cannot go its own way. In the absence of text we feel the scope and weight of its omnicient authority.
Neal Vandenbergh appropriates signs and indicators of all sorts, transcribing them into a new context. In so doing, the picture plane becomes a mechanism to reflect a viewer’s automatic assumptions and associations. For instance, with CME, FED and CAN: one is inclined to perceive buildings because their particular grids look familiar. The angled perspective of each looks like it was drawn from a street view, looking up. But aside from that, aside from the window-like boxes, we have no clear case to make about what is seen. Vandenberg makes this point again and again in different mediums. The charcoal street rubbing, ONLY, is a literal transcription of a street—it has a sculptural, pockmarked, and ambient surface. Tire tracks emerge to pattern the massive text (remember, this is an excerpt from traffic instructions painted onto asphalt): ONLY. Or, as with White and Yellow, Vandenberg emphasis the surface as a plane. Like basketball backboards, they hang in the Art Center, divorced from usefulness, signs without linguistic representation, high above our heads. White and Yellow were fabricated with industrial materials, whereas Chain Link admits an index of hand. Its links vary, having been affected, no doubt, by various influences and stresses from the outside world. The careful attention paid Chain Link, the product of 100 drawing hours, is tender. While the same tenderness is not present in White and Yellow. Still, these works function as iconic, everyday placeholders fabricated by and for humankind.
Street food is Eric May’s medium of choice. It occupies an important position in national culture as a direct reflection of human migration and its flanking economies. Embedded in street food are those ill-documented and amorphous histories so easily lost in time. May places special focus on the discourse around the food he serves. He operates E-Dogz: A Mobile Culinary Community Center. Over the course of a month, May will be selling food from his food truck outside the gallery, on the Art Center’s property. There, he will keep weekly hours offering a menu that changes over time, including, among other things, certain Chicago hybrids: The Mother-in-Law (mass produced tamales from the Mississippi Delta served with chili), and Tamale Boats (hot dog bun, stuffed with a tamale and a Chicago-style hot dog on top with all the fixings). His menu reflects ongoing research and collaborations based around local street food traditions. Like the fare it serves, the food truck operates as a kind of nexus for socio-political and aesthetic concerns. It is unlicensed, for instance. Its presence is legal on private property, yet E-Dogz runs in opposition to the city’s prohibitively bureaucratic licensing procedures. In the gallery, May has one piece, Open Market, featuring a series of grocery store-style signs. These voice traditional fears of the city in witty colloquialisms (“AND IF YOU GO DOWN THERE YOU BETTER JUST BEWARE” or “WHITE FLIGHT”), expressing similarly common anti-suburb sentiments (“BOMB THE SUBURBS”) and food options (“BEEF” or “SofROOSEVELT CUISINE”).
Julie Reneé Jones
Extending out from Chicago in a seemingly endless grid, we meet the suburbs: house after house. Street after street—complexes sold in tandem with an American dream of Utopia, a dream where families grow up in communities unburdened by the grit of city life. Prairies, forests, and cornfields were replaced with housing developments, developments that grew exponentially larger in the 70s and 80s as white flight became a reality. It seemed like everybody lived in the suburbs in the 80s. Now, however, the suburbs reflect the stress of the American economy. The value of those properties has gone down. Julie Reneé Jones captures the atmosphere of these contemporary American suburbs. She captures the uncanny, latent within, the in-betweenness of its landscape between what is groomed and ungroomed, human and non-human. Hers are traditional portraits; the camera is an easy accomplice—its purpose is to capture what the human eye cannot see. There is a David Lynch-like atmosphere in The Lonely Fen, a portrait of a boy behind a bush. The bush seems vaguely threatening, as it obliterates or hides the boy’s torso. It becomes his body and he scrunches his face in an ecstasy we cannot parse. Here, we see the line between reality and the fantastic, a quiet reflection on designed environments. In Overgrown, an arm reaches up from rampant weeds like one of Buffy’s vampires. Except this arm is reaching for the light—a single shaft streaming from the sun, past the neat and tidy house next door, onto the wildness of this seemingly abandoned property. The arm stands upright like a plant, somehow equivalent to an empty packet of Cheetos in the foreground. Jones would say this work is about memory, about trying to access and relate to the past. She uses these youths to do so, like parallels or doubles: young ones following the same steps she trod, while remaining nevertheless remote.
Andrew Thomas Lopez
Andrew Thomas Lopez also examines the life of children. Like Jones, Lopez explores childhood as though it were a strange and foreign country that is at once familiar and yet impossible to revisit. In this case, he works exclusively with his son, Sebastian (or Sabas). He calls it collaboration. Sabas makes constellations with the objects in their environment. It is a kind of world building. Lopez acts as the documentarian. He is not privy to the origin, inspiration, or justification for these worlds, but the photographs create a framework into which one cannot help but project meaning. Always there is an emergent strangeness. The boy does not look at the camera, but up toward the source of light. He is not smiling, but appears thoughtful and remote. Unlike our characteristic understanding of children and innocence, Lopez captures its seriousness and frustration; Sabas has been diagnosed with autism. Blocks are people too… shows Sabas beside a collection of precisely placed, anthropomorphic blocks. It is as though, with the boy’s hand and imagination, he can give life to these forms, and in so doing share a world view with his father through the camera. The photograph becomes a medium through which father and son can communicate on the same terms, using the same (in one case intuitive, in the other trained) language. Rather than emphasize Sabas’ diagnosis—which so often operates as a kind of blanket umbrella term with a wide range of variation and personality—Lopez instead studies his son’s specific engagement of the world.
And then there are photographs taken in the absence of light. Such photographs redefine the parameters and expectations of photography, undermining its most basic tradition. If a photograph does not document some measure of light, then what? In the case of Jeremy Bolen, negative film can document radioactivity. The scarring of its surface appears like spots and halos of light; these look alien and abstract. They map the footprint of phenomena—similar to Vandenberg’s transfer of a street’s topography onto paper. In Above/below ground and In the Fox River at NPL-11 (remnant of radiam dial company), Ottawa, IL photographs were placed underground in Ottawa, a town where Radiam watches were produced. Imagine all the employees—mostly women—painting tiny numbers on watch and clock dials. They used a radioactive paint called “undark.” Sometimes they painted their nails with the stuff to brandish show off glow-in-the-dark hands. People grew ill from exposure. More and more people. They stopped making the watches, and maybe because they didn’t have any better way to handle the town’s traumatic loss, they just tore the factory down. Contaminants leached into the ground, spilling into the water. More people (and plants and animals) grew sick. Bolen buried unexposed photography paper in this town. It bears a record of the still palpable radioactivity, reminding us to respect what is invisible. Yet also, you see sediment on part of the Ottawa diptychs—this comes from the still-running river.
Guillermo R. Gudiño
The island is a portal for the imagination. It signifies luxury, control, specificity, as a single, one unfragmented world with neat, indisputable borders. Gudiño makes islands from cut ups. He rips the edges of generic postcards to create unique archipelagos that are then framed in or on glass. Part reflective, part stained, and half cloudy, the glass in Ratchet Effect offers as much character and topography as the “islands” themselves. Conversely, in Then Becoming Now #11, 9, and 2, the black rectangles framing Gudiño’s islands are pristine, sheer, and deep. In both instances, the viewer is above and far away like a bird looking town on land. Gudiño creates opportunities for an impossible perspective. The index of his hand transforms the scale and topography on each postcard—a strategy evident in Gudiño’s work more generally. Gudiño is a magician of sorts, specializing in the transformation of space. Inside the tent of Forever Yours, he fits a glacier on the top of a mountain in Patagonia; like Dr. Who’s time machine, Tardis, this tent can somehow contain a space greater than its exterior boundary. Gudiño, too, reminds us of frameworks and expectations, challenging what is so often taken for granted.
Sometimes a moon ends up in a jewelry box. Sometimes it swims around in there, like a passive fish, bouncing from one wall to the next. Casilda Sánchez put that moon there. She accompanies its soft, restricted journey with a humming song—Quisiera ser tan como la luna (II). The title of the work is taken from the title of that song, a song sung by children in school: “I Wish I Was as Tall as the Moon.” Sánchez regularly plays with scale, magnifying the human body so that it becomes unfamiliar and, even, overwhelming. In past work, such as inside as the eye can see, two giant eyes stare at one another from other sides of the screen. They are so close that eyelashes bat one another as each blinks. The gaze between these uncanny and isolated body parts is claustrophobic and animal-like. Or in the touch of proximity, two necks curve toward one another in profile. Sánchez films select body parts in relation to one another; divorced from the whole body, they become foreign and strange. Perhaps a similar disjointedness occurs in the smallness of this moon. And, when the moon is out at night, you’ll see giant feet emerging on tiptoe, where they are projected against the Hyde Park Art Center’s digital façade. These feet are giant; the close field of Sánchez’s camera transforms the foot into a strange stranger. Sánchez’s contribution is about reaching and striving and following a path of expectation. Like Jones and Lopez, she culls something from the past, imposing it on her present position: that of the artist mediating the world with her expectations.