The skies had just opened with a thunderous burst of rain as I walked up to the Roman Susan gallery in Rogers Park. Beads of moisture had gathered on the glass pane, creating microdistortions in the gallery's interior—which already had the appearance of a fun house. The artist Gwendolyn Zabicki had recently finished installing her disorienting solo exhibition "Windows, Doors, and Mirrors." She'd hung five oil paintings of windows, doors, and mirrors on a reflective material that covers the entirety of the gallery's floors and walls. The installation creates a confusing burst of layered images, forcing visitors to hunt for the painted mirrors hidden in the silver-tinged backdrop.
The paintings are hung the way mirrors might be at home. Door Mirror (2017), a full-length painting, hangs on the gallery's closet door at the right height for peeking at an outfit or getting a better look at a new pair of pants. Other, smaller paintings hang at face level, while one particular painting doesn't hang at all. Hand Mirror (2017), as one might assume from its title, is a painting of a hand mirror lying on the ground. The painting sits on the gallery floor, leaning against a real mirror. The juxtaposition forms a striking vignette that amplifies the confusion created by the competing reflections, making it harder to determine which is a real mirror and which is a painted imitation.
"I think the installation makes it harder to see the paintings at first, but that might be a good thing," explains Zabicki. "Being disoriented or momentarily confused gives you fresh eyes to see what is in front of you. It forces you to consider what you are looking at." Zabicki, who's 35, spends a lot of time thinking about painting. She teaches several painting classes at the Hyde Park Art Center, she interviews painters for the online publication Figure/Ground, she recently started a ladies' painting club, and she has begun curating painting exhibitions, including "On Anxiety," which opened at Cleve Carney Art Gallery at the College of DuPage late last month.
As visitors walk through the gallery, their feet smudge the floor covering, distorting the reflections of the painted mirrors that line the gallery. Zabicki has painted similar smudges or errors into her own work, as in the painting featuring streaks left from spritzes of unwiped Windex. These elements allow viewers to understand the surface and shape of the mirrors, rather than looking straight through them as they would while gazing at themselves in a real mirror. I can only imagine the difficulty of attempting to paint a subject that at its clearest is nearly impossible to see.
The streaks of cleaning supplies helped Zabicki through the challenge of learning to paint mirrors when she began the series last year. "The marks would be dirty enough for me to see what was happening," she explains. "This became a nice metaphor for unseen labor—the labor that we all depend on that is primarily done by women."
She'd started exploring this idea in 2016 in a larger suite of paintings that focused on women's often unpaid work: a hand swiping away dust on a wooden coffee table, a kettle pouring hot water into the dingy recesses of an overused sponge. For Zabicki the series called to mind Pat Mainardi's 1970 essay "The Politics of Housework," a text that outlines the many ways men avoid cleaning and make excuses for their failure to do their fair share, instead taking a spotless home as a given. Zabicki's focus specifically on mirrors grew out of this idea of hidden housework, but she chose instead to focus on the metaphor behind the streaky mirrors rather than a straightforward visual depiction of a household chore.
"When you see a system that isn't functioning properly, that is when you become aware of how much hidden work goes into making sure things go smoothly," she says. "When a mirror is dirty you notice it, but when it is clean you don't even see it, you don't even realize that you are looking into it. When a system functions properly, it is taken for granted."
Zabicki doesn't worry about the gradual buildup of scratches and footprints during the exhibition's run. In fact, it excites her. For the exhibition's closing she'll host a party rather than an artist's talk, using the mirrored surfaces as a disco backdrop for dancing. Dozens of dirty shoes will scuff, smudge, and scratch the mirrored floors, adding to the layers already produced during the show's monthlong run. Will anyone see the footprints? Or will visitors be too distracted by dancing to notice their own contribution to the self-reflective exhibition? v