REVIEW | Skimption
Ukranian Institute of Modern Art
The more art I look at, I realize I am an old-school maker and subsequently the same as a viewer and critic, wanting the work to be built around refined technique and craft; and with engrossing conceptual ideas that are completely flushed out. I want to be impressed and surprised and challenged; but at the heart of it, there is no denying the sincere wanting for a gratifying aesthetic experience. I crave that intense, undeniable, first gut, have-to-have-it response that simply just doesn’t often translate into words. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen here, at least not across the board and not without much coaxing (most of the works relied far too heavily on text-laden labels to explain the artists’ conceptual pursuits). Skimption, in its conception presents an interesting case and adventurous opportunity; and while a few artists rose to the challenge, others just didn’t live up to the unique possibilities curator Robin Dluzen set the stage for.
The most curious work by far was Sewing/Sowing by Catherine Schwalbe, a manifested indoor garden of Midwestern edible greens for viewers to harvest. Building from an intimate ceramics practice, Schwalbe combines hand-carved clay tiles with images of her personal experiences with living vegetation; adeptly juxtaposing notions of being human with nature and science in an artistic but methodical manner. The work incorporates multiple medias (photography, drawing, ceramics, sculpture) and does so successfully, each component is technically sound, each object is interesting on its own and emphatically combines to the collective presentation. Everything feels intentional and necessary, and I’m engaged on a number of levels: obviously visually, but I can also smell hints of the greens and the damp soil and I hear a light buzz from the overhead lamp adding to the din that so aptly contrasts with the earthiness in front of me. It's a dizzying display. My only wish is that the work had not been on the floor, as I (and other viewers) would have been more inclined to physically interact with the work had it been raised.
In the center of the exhibition, Rusty Shackleford presents Mar. 13(2b)2014c, Mar. 13(2c)2014c, and Mar. 13(2d)2014c: three large-scale, vivid prints that steal the visual thunder from all the other works surrounding them. Shackleford’s prints are neither paintings, photographs, or collages; but rather a unique combination of a formal exercise in understanding and then manipulating the elements of art (figure, ground, space) on top of found images that are laden with infinitely inexplicable connotations. Layer by layer, by hand and then digitally and then again by hand, Shackleford creates intense magnifications of material and process and subsequently, his very response to his own act of making becomes the final works. In just the first moments of viewing his images, his bold use of viscous color and contradiction in visual and tactile tension compel me to join his very active dialogue. Days later, I am still thinking of them, my mind conceptually wandering within Shackleford’s synthetic and bold planes of color and space.
At first glance of Diana Gabriel’s Interlace, I immediately think of Plexus Series by artist Gabriel Dawe, (renowned for his installations integrating thread into architectural sites); yet Gabriel’s piece here lacks the same power and capacity to occupy and own the space. Primarily a painter in practice, this linear-patterned, fiber installation is her attempt to bring drawing into a three dimensional space; an endeavor that falls flat both aesthetically and conceptually. From a distance, two arches are revealed in neon threads, one whole and one incomplete, that visually become a sparse soft wave that reads from left to right along the wall with an alternating wave dangling in front. The threads are thin and the colors barely decipherable, so the piece feels nearly invisible and empty. I read the placard placed near the piece to find out more and upon doing so, find only more confusion in Gabriel’s somewhat contradictory statement.
She notes that she “loves the immediacy of drawing, a playful trait she finds important in art making. The drawn line is the embodiment of this spontaneous medium and allows her work to be responsive and rooted between observation and introspection.” But then, in describing her installations, she notes that she “heavily relies on process and repetitious actions……the idea of manual labor is redundant to most but its an important aspect to my work because the familiarity of these motions connect the viewer with the process of making.” So is it about the impulsive or is it about the monotonous? I look again to the work, seeking some kind of entry point but it just isn’t there; her ideas of drawing and notions of installation just don’t intersect. This quandary begs the inevitable question: if I have to read an artist’s statement in order to try and find something in order to engage with an artwork, then is the work successful (or worth my time to view)? I’d have to say no, with the caveat that “getting” what the artist intends is not what I mean; but rather, if the work cannot stand alone visually and peak an interest (any interest), then I’m inclined to simply move on – regardless of the discipline.
Adjacent to Gabriel’s thread installation is a freestanding sculpture titled A Lost Conversation With An Old Angel (pictured at bottom) by Luis Sahagun. I should state up front that I am not typically an admirer of this particular aesthetic: a cobbled together, mish-mash of “common” materials. The practice of juxtaposing commonly found items into sculptures has been done, like many things; but is more often than not, not done well. One could argue that artists like Joseph Beuys, Robert Rauschenberg, Joseph Cornell have the luck of context and hindsight to put their works in perspective and value (I know I appreciate their use of common materials), but contemporary artists emulating this aesthetic right now just don’t have the same vivacity, they don’t have enough chutzpah to make it seem serious. Regrettably, I find Sahagun’s sculpture bears the stigma of unintentionality, a haphazardness that I find incredibly off-putting and an immediate turn-off. From its cardboard box base to its pierced used tire and lifeless twine – it reads like only as repurposed rubble and nothing more. But more importantly, it, on its own volition, illustrates the point that just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. However, Sahagun’s smaller works, two paintings on the wall titled Secret Landscape I: Como Un Naufrago Sentimental (pictured here) and Secret Landscape II: Cuando A Una Esterlla Descaba which incorporate actual painting with the found materials are far more interesting. There is a sense of possibility in the delicately imagined landscapes, cupped by the harsh and broken concrete that lends itself to a mature view of fantasy that I particularly enjoy.
The final works in the show were by Emily Hermant, both two-dimensional and three-dimensional, each meant to challenge the divide between slow handmade processes and fast-paced digital communication. On a slick wooden and powder-coated steel table are seven hand-turned birch logs, each imperfect and uneven, precariously leaning to the left or right depending on the cracks in their bases. It is unclear if this is Hermant’s first attempt at wood-turning, but the lack of refinement in these works is disappointing – there is an implication that handcrafted objects have to appear amateurish or slipshod in order to retain the artist’s presence. I find this wholly untrue. For woodturning in particular, artists like Christian Burchard, Thomas Hopkins Gibson, or the renowned Moulthrop Family easily maintain the presence of the artist’s hand, yet its application is exacting, intentional, and resoundingly beautiful. The more time I spend with these logs, the more irritated I become. Perhaps I find this issue to be of mounting aggravation because of the objects’ placement: I am forced to view them in conjunction with Hermant’s wallpaper tacked to the wall behind them and then because I find the execution of her wallpaper equally dissatisfying.
If Hermant’s intent is to challenge the notions of the handmade with the readymade, I am simply unable to find the inquisition point. The hand-turned logs against the dripping dashed, hand-rendered wallpaper both illustrate the same evidence of the artist’s hand and imperfections only found in labor-intensive works, they do not offer any contrast. Her wallpaper, a series of white pages pinned to the wall, pregnant with the ever-popular and over-done pastel and neon colors titled Walled Garden, are merely tacked to the wall and allowed to hang until the edges curl just enough to rest on the floor. I find this method of installation with the billowing sheets and obvious seams, in addition to the fact that I really want each page to go all the way to ceiling, a massive and unnecessary distraction. Given that the surface of the work is covered in original paintings, Hermant could have created a genuine wallpaper (and subsequent new space within the space altogether) without losing the notion of the handmade she has already instilled. As such, it makes the work feel undeveloped and insignificant.
Overall, my lingering response to Skimption was two-fold: 1.) It all felt a bit like an artistic “de ja vu:” the works all seem familiar, duplicated, like I’ve seen or experienced them before, and 2.) the quality, though not applicable to all the artists or all works on view, overall felt arbitrary. Which leads me to wonder, how has the notion of working across disciplines challenged and/or affected the quality of contemporary artwork? Just because an artist works (or wants to work) amid a variety of materials doesn’t make the work successful or make the artist multi-disciplined – there is an argument to be made about the knowing one’s skill set and being will to master new ones desired to be included with the same fervor as the initial.
I agree with Curator Dluzen that one of the most exciting aspects of contemporary art making is being able to work outside of the fixed contexts of the traditional art dialogue and the usual qualifiers such as painter, sculptor, weaver, or ceramicist. I think of artists like Picasso, Dali, or Bourgeois or more currently Miller & Shellabarger, Jason Walker, or Laura Splan who easily maneuver(ed) between and among medias which much success. What differentiates those artists from some of the ones presented here is that the level of skill and technique in EACH media was/is exceptional and executed scrupulously. I had a conversation about this topic recently with a friend about other genres that seems applicable here: just because Beyoncé can sing, doesn’t mean she should act, and while Serena Williams is an accomplished tennis player, it doesn’t mean she should have a clothing line. Or more succinctly put by Joan Cusack in Working Girl: “Sometimes I sing and dance around the house in my underwear. Doesn't make me Madonna. Never will.” There are always exceptions of course, in whole and in part, though much of the time and many of the results simply fail to live up to the acclaim.
I challenge you to go and see Skimption for yourself, and see how (and if) the works by artists Diana Gabriel, Emily Hermant, Luis Sahagun, Catherine Schwalbe and Rusty Shackleford explore the grey areas between a variety of established genres. It is open now through January 31 at the Ukranian Institute of Modern Art, located at 2320 W Chicago Avenue, Chicago – which, if you haven’t been to this space before (I hadn’t), its worth making the trek. For more, visit: http://uima-chicago.org/exhibitions
Images (from top to bottom): Rusty Shackleford, Mar. 13(2c)2014c (detail), 2015, ink jet print; Catherine Schwalbe, Sewing/Sowing, 2015, ochre stoneware, porcelain, terra cotta, iron, potting soil, micro greens, urban detritus from growing projects, soil/raw clay from two IL farms, Chicago tap water, brass needle, and gold leaf; Rusty Shackleford, Mar. 13(2b)2014c, 2015, ink jet print and Mar. 13(2c)2014c, 2015, ink jet print and Mar. 13(2d)2014c, 2015, ink jet print; Diana Gabriel, Interlace, 2015, yarn, mason line and staples; Luis Sahagun, Secret Landscape I: Como Un Naufrago Sentimental, 2015, oil painting on wood and quikrete; Emily Hermant, Untitled, 2015, hand-turned birch logs and Walled Garden, 2015, hand-painted gouache on paper panels; Luis Sahagun, A Lost Conversation With An Old Angel, 2015, quikrete, hemp, wood, foam, nails, screws, tree branch, plastic wrap, cardboard, acrylic and found rubble