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Daily Affirmations

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The last time I saw work incorporating an artist's blood, he had AIDS and was using blood to make a statement. But aside from its clinical aspect, Nina Leo's Trace 1 doesn't suggest illness. For this installation she's taken a sample of her blood each day since July 7, 2003, and placed it on a microscope slide, then dated it. Though the full version includes all the slides, only a portion of them are on the walls at Lobby; Trace 1a, also on display, consists of slides from the same series but stacked so they can't be viewed individually. In the single row of mounted slides snaking across two walls, each blotch of blood creates a unique shape.

Though Trace 1 is obsessive enough to hint at self-mutilation, it doesn't communicate much emotion--and Leo says she prefers that viewers "take their own story from it." Trace 2, the only other piece in the show, gives an idea of what she has in mind: to inject what she calls "forensic evidence" of herself and others into a space that's typically filled with symbols. Eighteen locks of hair varying in color, texture, and length are mounted on a shelf and labeled with dates and times, while above them is a row of 16 Polaroids, usually showing a bedspread, a floor, or the ground, sometimes with human shadows. Leo says that each shot shows some sign of the person whose hair is mounted below it, whether it's "an imprint on the covers or a mark on the gravel." Three hair samples have no Polaroid ("I didn't have my camera," she says), and one Polaroid has no hair ("The person was bald"). Like the blood samples in Trace 1, the photos and locks of hair in Trace 2 don't tell us much.

Raised Catholic in Toronto, where she lives today, Leo says that as a child she began to find "the whole idea of the drinking of the blood and eating of the body peculiar" and as an adolescent doubted a lot of what she'd been taught. At that time she liked to draw bugs, and she's returned to affirmations of the physical after making several detours through the art world: she drew realistically, then began making installations and sculptures when she became interested in connections between art and political activism. In the late 90s, when she was trying to "capture energy" in sculptures that were sometimes abstract, she bought a computer, which added to her sense of information overload. "I realized that it was becoming harder and harder to stay connected to the direct sensory experiences that are a part of feeling alive," she says. She thinks of Trace 1 and the tiny daily lancet cuts she makes to create it not as expressions of angst but in terms of pinching herself "to let me know I'm here."

Nina Leo

Where: Lobby, 731 N. Sangamon

When: Through May 28

Info: 312-432-4327

Since 1979 James Turrell has been digging tunnels and chambers in Roden Crater, an extinct volcano he purchased in Arizona, creating spaces from which to observe the night sky and, as he told an interviewer, "engage celestial events, kind of making music with a series of light." Of his eight pieces at Koppel, four are Hydrocal plaster sculptures from 1989 or '90, roughly three feet square, that look like models of huge observatories. All are titled "Transformative Space," though each has a different subtitle, and all suggest magical structures the viewer might occupy. Transformative Space: Third Day is a dome mounted on a rectangular block with a doorway cut into it and steps inside ascending to what seems to be a large room under the dome; a mushroom-shaped table is barely visible just inside. The "crater" at the top of Transformative Space: Jai Singh's Sky is perched on six square platforms and six circular ones, again suggesting steps; again an entryway in the base leads to a dark corridor, which opens onto an area lit by a small hole in the crater-shaped roof. All the pieces imply a journey to a place sealed off from the quotidian world and transformed by light, a place that might transform the viewer.

Turrell is best known for his sublime light installations, in which he uses simple means to create areas of light that open up apparently infinite spaces. There are none in this exhibit, and in fact they're rarely shown in Chicago. But two 2004 holograms, X-O and X-P, have some of their complexity. Though holograms usually create detailed three-dimensional views of recognizable objects, Turrell's pieces are abstract, each showing a slab of blue hovering against black. The slabs, seen in depth head-on, move when the viewer does, stretching to one side or the other, which further dematerializes them. They gave me the same unsettled feeling Turrell's installations do: if space and "objects" can be this insubstantial, how solid is my own body?

James Turrell

Where: Alan Koppel, 210 W. Chicago

When: Through June 4

Info: 312-640-0730

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