I had a dream a couple years ago in which a new, previously unknown continent was discovered on Earth. The knowledge entered my consciousness first like the ambient news of a radio dispatch. It was an impersonal knowledge, born through the slippery medium of dream space, the source of the transmission overlooked as my dream self wondered instead about the profound consequence such a discovery might have on the rest of humankind. The next thing I remember is that I stood on the ground of the new country. It was made of gypsum, entirely empty except for many animals who seemed to have been living there for a very long time. I woke up shortly thereafter in a warm stupor. Imagine the way our concept of global space would change upon discovering that we had, for so many decades, overlooked an entire continent. It would offer so much to the imagination. A blank place to start again. To be reborn, as they say, with the luxury of retaining prior memories. In his first US solo exhibition, Josef Strau examines such a place. The New World, Application for Turtle Island at The Renaissance Society reflects a real new world: the Americas.
Leaving University of Chicago’s academic corridors behind, The Renaissance Society’s double doors act as a portal, opening up on a flood lit, counter intuitively large, modern gallery; Strau uses that sense and shock of arrival into a new space as a backdrop for a series of material assemblages. Positioned throughout the room on various low-lying plinths, or occasionally on the floor, these small islands contain the same family of objects repeated in different configurations: metal gates, or printed flags with those metal gates, or messily painted ceramic tiles so small in comparison as to be easily overlooked. There are a variety of IKEA lamps, the lampshades of which are in some cases still wrapped in plastic. Others are fitted with tasseled shades or garnished with elaborate and lush folk-art-esque sequin paintings of Pocahontas, the Holy Mother of Guadalupe, a bear and a wolf together—as they so often appear in the rest of the exhibit—a turtle, a priest, a purple bird. Ceramic bamboo sticks make a regular appearance as well in this tableaux, as do fabrics and flags with Strau’s text. Another recurring component is a ceramic turtle—its shell hollowed out like a dish—offering itself up, as if suddenly in service. read more