The playful, painterly gestures of Sara Bright’s small movable frescoes at George Lawson Gallery at first belie the artist’s rigorous, post-Minimalist attention to form. Beneath built-up layers of plaster on burlap and wood, the panels themselves are palpably sculptural. Viewed from the side as they hang on the gallery walls, where the edges of the paint extend just beyond the corners of the plaster, the works appear to float.
The small window of time in which paint can be applied to wet plaster limits the ways in which it can be layered and otherwise incorporated into frescoes. Bright uses this to her advantage, by refining her language into simple gestures, often repeated, as in Dark Water (all works 2015), which replicates a blue, craggy wave shape, like the sprawl of a signature, across a varying field of indigo created with a much wider brush, applied so thinly in places that it seems to glow from within. Bright’s free-form strokes appear spontaneous but are rigorously composed; and other, more pared-down geometric paintings, such as the gridded Windowpane, recall Agnes Martin’s restraint and emphasis on line itself.
A few of the frescoes flirt with figuration, as in Coi, a field of grassy green in which tiny, darker smudges of the hue seem to be rising from beneath, anchored by a few lines of pink and blue that suggest the edges of a pond. But the majority consist of two thick lines with a similar curve, or two repeated in different colors and configurations, creating studies of gesture in different registers.
This past July and August, Alejandro Almanza Pereda’s solo exhibition “Everything but the Kitchen Sank” at SFAI’s Walter and McBean Galleries presented a studio in which visitors could witness the creation of photographs and a video of subaqueous still lifes shot inside a eight-foot-tall Kevlar pool. The resulting pictures feature a plethora of found objects and offer ephemeral and preposterous arrangements that experiment with the behavior of materials underwater. Take, for example, the theatrical video Like Steaks and Salads, 2015, which is divided into a series of acts where different items—such as matches, candles, plates, and flowers—are manipulated underwater. Almanza orchestrates unexpected movements: Some objects float and others sink, moving faster or slower depending on their buoyancy. Among the Mexican artist’s captivating photographic works is Taking the Lid Off, 2015, is an elegant but absurd image that shows a pair of fruit bowls and a vase holding a blooming artichoke; some elements are inverted, defying the natural order of things. In all, Almanza’s constructions result in dreamy, counterbalancing compositions that trickily transform the quotidian into the surreal.
Concurrently, at the institution’s Diego Rivera Gallery, visitors can see two scaffolds: one depicted in Rivera’s descriptively titled mural The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City, 1931, which shows Rivera, engineers, and more laborers working on the reconstruction of San Francisco. Placed directly in front this, Almanza’s large scaffolding of fluorescent tubes, Change the World or Go Home, 2009–15, challenges the iconic mural and illuminates the ambivalent nature of progress and expansion, perhaps as a reference to contemporary art itself.
There’s a knowing humor to this solo exhibition, which features more work by others than by the artist himself. Though plein-air paintings of the night sky by John Riepenhoff line two side walls, the center, and the majority of the space, is devoted to other people’s paintings. This would seem a thinly veiled group exhibition if the paintings weren’t mounted atop pairs of papier-mâché legs for Handler (all works 2015). These are all legs—humanoid torsos are forgone in favor of clamps and metal rods—but their surrogate status is cemented by the fact that they wear Riepenhoff’s own clothes and shoes. Paintings and plaster combine to create temporary sculptures that don’t undermine authorship so much as flaunt it; there’s no mistaking these individuated works for the hand of one painter. Where possible, Riepenhoff gives due credit; wall texts cite Kojo Griffin, Amy Pleasant, Amanda Ross-Ho, Michelle Grabner, and an unidentified Wisconsin folk artist, among others, in a range of names that suggests inclusivity rather than insider status. The effect is playful, engaging (one can circumambulate the sculptures, adding one’s own legs to the mix), and a bit eerie—the hoisted paintings substitute the faces of these disjointed creatures, evoking sculptures that look back.
Riepenhoff’s own paintings take a backseat here, in hang and formal impact. One large canvas, which leans against an entrance to the exhibition, has been slit up the middle to allow passage, as if the artist has deemed it a throwaway as well. A video, Shaman en Plein Air, tucked behind a work in Handler, features a paintbrush hanging on a visible “invisible” wire, as if wielded by a ghost in a campy film. At every turn, the artist erases, substitutes, or rejects himself.
In Bethany Collins’s subtle, elegant works on paper, the act of erasing leaves indexical marks like scars. Take Skin, 1968, 2015, a triptych in which a dictionary definition of the word is inscribed thrice and then rubbed out, leaving a different synonym on each sheet. The erased areas are visible as violent rips in the paper’s surface, leading the remaining words—pelt, hide, and peel—to read as aggressive actions more than nouns. The refuse of a similar work, including shreds of paper in addition to a Pink Pearl eraser, is collected in Bound, 1982, 2015, a sculptural pile that resembles rose-colored ashes, suggesting a corporeal end. A more pointed note is struck in Black and Blue Dictionary, 2014, where any presence of the words “black” and “blue” has been removed from an outdated Webster’s dictionary, leaving abrasions on the thin leaves and questions as to the implications of altering an archival text, particularly one that no one is reading. The allusion to race here is potent without being didactic.
A Pattern or Practice, 2015, a ninety-one-piece wall installation featuring words embossed rather than printed on paper, crucially expands on the aforementioned themes. The text—crisply enunciated, yet ghostly due to the lack of ink—reprints portions of the U.S. Department of Justice report on the Ferguson police department. The artist’s reproduction makes plain the varied difficulties of reading or comprehending this text. The visual and symbolic tensions in this shadow of content bring two phrases to mind: “America Is Hard to See,” the title of the Whitney Museum’s inaugural exhibition downtown, and “Black Lives Matter,” the battle cry of so many Americans this year. Collins’s work is a rejoinder that confronts the slippage of lexicon and legacy, which can always be obscured or erased.
Rodrigo Lara Zendejas’s modest solo show, “Deportable Aliens,” mourning the forced removal of people of Mexican descent from the US in the aftermath of the Great Depression, shouldn’t be taken only as a history lesson. The artist’s timely critique of this reprehensible operation gains urgency in the context of Donald Trump’s presidential bid. Even if Lara creates fragmentary memorials to the victims of the euphemistically named Mexican Repatriation, we can’t help but think about the targets of such policies today.
The show features thirty-four white porcelain sculptures arranged on a bare wooden shelf, collectively titled Deportable Aliens, 2014–15. Each of them is shaped like a thumb, with part of a face added on. Furrowed brows and forlorn eyes emit suspicion, anger, and exhaustion. One playfully sticks his tongue out; another bares his teeth. Lara’s superimposition of eyes, ears, noses, and mouths on larger-than-life digits links markers of citizenship—a thumbprint, for example—with the idea of personhood. With their mustaches and beards, many of the sculptures represent men. Others could be construed as female, but no obvious attempt is made to signify gender.
Rather than glorify individual pieces, Lara leaves the sculptures on shelves as if they still lie in wait. Like Doris Salcedo, Lara employs synecdoche, although he has much to gain from channeling the Colombian sculptor’s attention to material. Immigrant Identification Card, 2015—just that, a large replica of the document mounted on the wall—with bits of Lara’s hair and saliva, is illustrative.
“What art does black life produce?” This is the question posited by curators Naomi Beckwith and Dieter Roelstraete for the exhibition “The Freedom Principle.” Key figures from the black avant-garde of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and AfriCOBRA are shown alongside contemporary artists, such as Stan Douglas, Catherine Sullivan, and Rashid Johnson, in a welcome dose of inspired poetry, music, politics, and psychedelia. This adroitly organized show examines the social fabric woven in the aftermath of the civil rights movement that generated a synthesis of life and art.
DIY aesthetics resound in Rio Negro II, 2007–15, a mystical, kinetic installation of rain sticks, bamboo, and earth by AACM musicians Douglas R. Ewart, George Lewis, and Douglas Repetto. Nari Ward’s gothic script of dangling shoelaces in We the People, 2011, pokes through drywall like braided locks of hair or regal tassels worn by an army about to burst forth. Across the hall, Jamal Cyrus’s untitled, 2010 ode to the Black Panthers, is a black leather-bound bass drum surrounded by microphones gathered close, ready to receive its thunder.
Furthering the legacy of influence, Lili Reynaud-Dewar’s La Grande Oreille (From Eye to Ear to Ass to Memory and Back), 2015, is an installation inspired by her father’s jazz-record shop in France that carried AACM artists’ music. Its booth of mirrored walls embedded with large speakers plays a soundtrack by a Chicago local band, Tiger Hatchery. The incredible dimensionality and ingenuity of the Black Arts Movement makes this an exhibition that will reverberate in the mind, just as the ink bubbles and vibrates inside the Tam Tam stools installed here.
The first dedicated to the films of Ana Mendieta in the US, this show collects twenty-one of the artist’s approximately one hundred films, along with twenty-six related photographs. Curators Lynn Lukkas and Howard Oransky have divided the gallery into six discrete spaces, with the films grouped thematically and presented on a scale that echoes the projection size Mendieta originally used—roughly, the size of her body, which increasingly became the focus of her practice.
The first, and largest, room features seven of Mendieta’s films exploring the juxtaposition of her silhouette against the earth—whether as a gunpowder outline (Untitled: Silueta Series, 1978) or as the artist’s actual body, prone and submerged under water (Creek, 1974) or under stones (Burial Pyramid, 1974). Other rooms showcase the artist’s related investigations with fire (Anima, Silueta de Cohetes [Firework Piece], 1976); blood (Blood Inside Outside, 1975, and Sweating Blood, 1973); stone (Esculturas Rupestres [Rupestrian Sculptures], 1981); and sand (Ochún, 1981).
Seen together, the works make a convincing case for Mendieta’s significance as a pioneer in the use of short films to capture the tension between transience and permanence. The show and its accompanying catalogue should help draw attention to her underrated influence as a filmmaker. These works dramatize the artist’s recurring theme of continuity between the body and land, and they blur the line between action and document. To poignant effect, the artist’s form is continually eroding—only to be reborn when each film loops.
Nancy Shaver uses and reorganizes the material chaos of our visually saturated everyday. As an assemblage artist, she weaves together found patterns and refashions them into eclectic juxtapositions of disorderly order. A typical Shaver form consists of a grid of boxy canvases, usually joined together two deep into a larger block, and covered with different patterned fabrics upon which are also collaged clothes and pieces of drawings. On display here is an early example, Cigar Boxes, 1990, consisting of various earthy brown and yellow fabrics over a stack of rectangular blocks on a grid of cubes, as well as a later iteration from 2015: Blue Chair as Base, in which a Matisse-esque series of cerulean-blue forms dance over a blue-and-green matrix of blocks. This entire piece snuggles against a low aquamarine chair—Shaver’s witty version of a plinth.
Invited to expand the context of her practice with historical material, Shaver picked the photographs of her friend Walker Evans along with some of Sonia Delaunay’s pieces to display. This juncture of repeating designs and quotidian scenes is the wellspring of Shaver’s bricolage. Things from the world gently work their way into her sculpture but also sit alone, deprived of function, exuding their own worldly presence. One of these is a Moroccan rag rug from circa the 1960s. The exhibition’s centerpiece, a triptych, is A Hybrid (a decorative ensemble), 2014, which includes a large round brass mirror adorned with a relief of the zodiac and flanked by Shaver’s trademark block matrices, making clear the worldly inspiration of her art.
In 1943, naval engineer Richard James accidentally invented what would become one of America’s most beloved toys—the Slinky. Seventy-two years later, there is nothing accidental in the way sculptor Tara Donovan wields this famous spring. Showing off her ability to see the potential for art in almost any object, the three abstract, site-specific pieces (all works untitled and 2015) that Donovan created for this museum—a wall relief, a freestanding sculpture, and a monoprint—are methodical exercises in manipulating form and emulating function, to celebrate the Slinky as well as to defy its designation as a toy.
In the relief, hundreds of flattened, connected Slinkys stretch from floor to ceiling. Just as the object is compact when still and seems to extend infinitely when in motion, Donovan’s piece can’t be contained. It fills the room, creeping from one wall to the next. The artist relies on a window to shower the piece in light, under which it shimmers joyously. Elsewhere, a sweeping sculpture twists and dips in a dizzying reef of metal. Architectural yet organic, the work is alive but immobile, striking a balance similar to the institution’s building itself with the local plant life that surrounds it. Both exalt the man-made and natural worlds.
The influence of Eva Hesse and Maya Lin is evident in Donovan’s labor-intensive process and obsession with organic forms. One thinks of Lin’s simplicity and serial aesthetic or Hesse’s affinity for experimentation and emphasis on materiality, most notably in Expanded Expansion, 1969, a sculpture that can also be compressed and lengthened at will. And, just as the Slinky captivates with its ability to “walk” on its own, Donovan’s transformed works stay with you as they walk through your imagination with nostalgia in tow.
Gustav Metzger, theorist of “auto-destructive art,” is best known for his avant-garde experiments in 1960s Europe—the heyday of Fluxus and Situationism and an emerging environmental ethics. This exhibition, surveying more than fifty years of his work, demonstrates that Metzger’s practice and polemics are as relevant as ever.
Like his Dadaist forebears, Metzger directed his practice toward destroying art from within, enacting what he called a “deep surgery” on its institutions. Working outdoors in 1961, he enlisted passersby to help make his Acid Action Painting, which involved literally dissolving three canvases with corrosives; in 1996, he publicly destroyed a car in the Camden Town area of London. Documentation of these works and models for unrealized projects are displayed here, each underscoring Metzger’s anticonsumerist and climate-conscious inclinations. More surprising is the formal innovation he continues to wrest from entropy. One location-specific project, for example, presents a stack of hundreds of Mexican periodicals and invites viewers to collage their contents on the wall. In a more abstract mode, on the far side of the gallery is Liquid Crystal Abstraction, 1965–2013, a massive screen capturing projections made through mechanized LCD filters that produce a postauthorial, if psychedelic, riposte to modernist painting.
Taken together, eighty-nine-year-old Metzger’s ongoing engagement with antiformalist techniques is revealed here to be as committed as it is relentless. But this show is also a melancholy reminder of art’s limited ability to truly self-destruct and of the persistence of a great many problems that bedeviled another era.