The Plethora Effect
at I Space, through August 14
at Habatat, through August 20
at Marx-Saunders, through August 31
By Fred Camper
Feminists have long criticized the objectification of women. What's less obvious is that the phenomenon of objectification pervades our culture. Nature, for example, is often reduced to postcard imagery in documentary films, coffee-table books, and picture-window views. Cheap religious trinkets take images of spiritual transformation and turn them into designs whose effect lasts only an instant. And in museum gift shops you'll find bits of Monet paintings lifted out of context and printed on umbrellas and underpants.
To see something as an object is to feel that your eye can immediately encompass and possess it. Some art buyers barely look at the paintings they're considering, instead discussing that empty space over the sofa they want to fill. But in fact none of us is completely free of the tendency to see things reductively, stripping objects of their full complexity. Even a Rothko painting can look like a tchotchke if the viewer is having a bad day.
Artists have addressed this problem in various ways, often by making works that sprawl. Multipanel paintings, sculptures with many parts, and installations cannot be grasped all at once. All five artists in "The Plethora Effect"--which doesn't look like a student show even though the participants are recent MFA graduates from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign--make work that's dispersed in space. Kevin Kaempf not only designed the wall sign announcing the show but also redesigned the announcement card and catalog. Kaempf's interventions are interesting, but the other artists' works are more moving, specifically counteracting reductive seeing.
Two artists have created wall-mounted multipaneled works in which each part undercuts the authority of the rest. J. Todd Allison's House Beautiful has 21 wooden panels on two walls--though often the panels are so thick they're more like blocks. One side is finished as if it were fine wood while the other is generally painted a solid color. Each is also mounted on hinges so that it can be swung out perpendicular to the wall. The title underlines the piece's humor: it resembles yet mocks the sort of decorative painting that reduces art to kitsch. Most intriguing is the way Allison straddles the categories of fine art, interior decoration, and catalog shopping: one can't quite decide whether these are paintinglike objects, sculptures, or samples of paint colors and furniture finishes.
Jill Daves's The Tennessee Waltz is more confined to a fine art context, but the 17 panels of her painting do in a way undercut one another. Most are almost monochromatic with subtle variations; a few contain noticeable differences in tone--one mixes reds, oranges, and browns. The softness of these color areas suggests clouds or liquids mixing in water, and the surfaces have a strong three-dimensional feel, a sense of depth that recalls Rothko. But they're not at all uniform--each is a different shape and size--and juxtaposing them tends to undercut the importance of any one design: none is definitive. Further, the five hung along the bottom are very different from the others, made up of vertical stripes of contrasting colors. The University of Illinois professor who curated the show, Buzz Spector, writes in the exhibition booklet that these strokes are simply the result of Daves cleaning her brushes as she made the softer paintings. Juxtaposing these random designs with intentional ones suggests that no absolute value or "truth" inheres in any particular abstract pattern and that artists' choices can be less meaningful than the viewer thinks.
Anne Howard's Breakdown is the show's most elusive and poetic work. Twelve pieces of torn, somewhat crumpled paper each bear a different geometrical design--a simple but cryptic arrangement of circles, dots, and other shapes that suggests everything from wallpaper to a circuit diagram to some mysterious lost language. Additional lines and patterns drawn on the wall often extend the designs or connect the paper scraps. But the differences from one to another suggest a failure in communication, even implying that these "languages" are incompatible. The papers' torn edges suggest the coastlines of countries adrift, while their diverse designs offer a Babel-like vision of a world falling apart.
Andrew Shirk's Alignments has an even more explicit geographical theme, though he undercuts his images' authority in a video installation rather than multiple panels. Two maps, one of the United States and another mostly of Scandinavia, are superimposed in stark black and white on the floor of a darkened gallery. Controlled by a computer program that randomizes their movements, these images flail back and forth, stopping and switching directions unpredictably. On the one hand, these aerial views suggest perspectives from an ultrafast spacecraft able to range over thousands of miles in a few moments. On the other, the maps are schematic, pretty much limited to political boundaries and a few cities. Together the repetitive movement, narrow topographic focus, and absence of much detail remind us that maps are arbitrary, incomplete documents that are woefully inadequate at depicting the spaces they chart.
A gallery selling fancy glass objets d'art can be a good place to see "art" that's little more than a sterile, lifeless commodity. But some glass artists, among them Chicagoan Lance Friedman and the Polish-born Janusz Walentynowicz (who now lives in Bloomington, Illinois), escape and even undercut the safe domesticity of contemporary work in glass: Friedman's 13 pieces at Habatat all contain little autocritiques.
Incident is a box with six shelves; five of them hold a glass bowl containing a ball of cast gold-colored glass while one holds the "gold" alone. This intentional disruption of the piece's order introduces a certain mystery, a little narrative: perhaps the artist's vessels seemed so precious to a thief that he took one and left the gold. Even without that story, however, this visually elegant piece has a charm that comes from the way it incorporates incompleteness. In Reeds huge hollow glass tubes are contained in a wall-mounted simulation of a woven basket, splaying out in slightly different directions and introducing a natural disorder.
Tidal Wave and Tornado both enclose a miniature cast bronze scene within a blown-glass jar; one scene includes a tidal wave and the other a tornado, but both threaten not only to overwhelm the scene but to break the glass and wreak havoc on the world outside it. Like other recent artists, Friedman appears to use nature's mixture of order and disorder for inspiration rather than trying to make art that's as self-contained and neatly platted as the suburbs consuming our landscape.
Walentynowicz's 12 pieces at Marx-Saunders not only refuse to yield themselves up at a glance but give the figures he depicts a vaguely spiritual feeling. In Respite a realistically colored life-size sculpture of a nude woman appears to be encased in glass. But the slab is too thin for a genuinely three-dimensional body, and the colors are a bit more distant, more ethereal, than one would expect in a mannequin. What Walentynowicz has actually done is let molten glass harden around a sculptural form, removed the form, then painted the inside surfaces. So in fact we're looking through glass at a painted interior space. Moreover, the glass one looks through is rough, marked with "imperfections" intentionally left in.
The owner of this piece will get not a life-size nude lady for the foyer but a more distanced image of a woman's body that mixes delicacy and strength, solidity and dreaminess. In his catalog essay, James Yood points out that, unlike other contemporary glass artists who design complex shapes demonstrating "the infinite physical flexibility of glass," Walentynowicz creates flat surfaces. The flexibility is inside, hidden from our direct gaze, adding three-dimensionality to his painted figures, which hover before us with a peculiar mixture of intense presence and airy distance.
In other pieces Walentynowicz combines different types of imagery. Nine squares on a single panel are arrayed in a grid in Composition: Blue Star, each containing a different image or object. Several have women painted inside, as in Respite; there's also a star design, leaves on branches, and in the center a glass sculpture of a bird. Walentynowicz transforms what might have been mere kitsch--pairing women and nature is not exactly a new idea--by using muted colors and the peculiar light-generating glow of glass, creating an almost mystical view of an imagined sky: in addition to Walentynowicz's literal references to the heavens, the women's figures seem to radiate light, almost like clouds.
Walentynowicz's spiritual side is clearest in Red Rag, a self-portrait that takes the same form as Respite but is broken up into three glass panels hinged together like a Renaissance folding altarpiece. Above his head at the center is a triangular metal piece pointing upward that reverses the downward slope of his penis, visible at the bottom. His hands, shown in the side panels, hold a rag that continues across the center, leading the eye beyond the work to the left and right. While this piece is rooted in the physicality of the rag and Walentynowicz's body, it points beyond each panel's borders, extending infinitely into space.