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Cowboys and Pendulums: Gallery Reviews

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On the Scene: Kota Ezawa, Sarah Hobbs, Angela Strassheim at the Art Institute of Chicago, Gallery 1 and The Discontented Pendulum at G2

On the Scene: Kota Ezawa, Sarah Hobbs, Angela Strassheim
Art Institute of Chicago, Gallery 1 (111 S. Michigan)
through September 3

On the Scene, an exhibition of three young photographers at the Art Institute of Chicago, features very recent work that illuminates some of the subtle cultural and personal quirks that characterize modern life. Angela Strassheim’s images are lush, intimate snapshots of family life—some endearing, and others unsettling. In Untitled (Horses), for example, a young girl has put her toy horses on display in a bedroom while she sits in the doorway between two plastic castles, wearing angel wings and reading. At first glance, the shining light behind the girl as well as the blissful smile on her face give the impression of a serene scene of childhood play. On closer inspection, however, a boy can be seen underneath a bed in the foreground, peering from the shadows, hiding and watching. Such small details give the photographs a subtle anxiety that would otherwise relegate the work to a series of pretty, domestic pictures. Each photograph carries a degree of tension, highlighting those small moments in the American family that can be both nostalgic and painful.

Sarah Hobbs’ work focuses more on the inner tension of the individual. In Periodic Table of the Traits, an extensive selection of human anxieties are placed in boxes and categorized in the same manner as the periodic table of elements. Her photographs can be seen as illustrations of these sorts of anxieties. In Indecisiveness, a chair is surrounded by walls that are covered by swatches of color, highlighting the banal but overwhelming choice of picking out a new wall color, and the pressure which characterizes this seemingly small decision. The photographs themselves may seem simple to interpret; the more substantive element of the experience, however, arrives at the moment the viewer goes from chuckling at the humorous insights that Hobbs illustrates so well, to wondering just how guilty of each trait they themselves are.

Kota Ezawa creates his work by modifying well-known photographs, removing detail and applying flat planes of color in their place. What is left is an impression—a comment on the collective memory, and the way mass distributed images can become a part of the visual subconscious without one realizing it. The photographs chosen by Ezawa are famous—such as Ansel Adams in the Sierra (late 1930s)—but they are images that one might not immediately recognize. Instead, as they are recalled gradually, it is interesting to see how unnecessary the removed details are in communicating the power those images hold. In a very real way, the simplicity with which Ezawa has pared the photographs is all that is really needed. In the work of all three artists, a mirror is held up to the viewer, and while the image reflected back is—at times—savage, it is often humorous, creating an accurate summary of the ins and outs of a complicated existence.

The Discontented Pendulum
G2 (847 W. Jackson)
through July 14

The Discontented Pendulum, a group show currently on view at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Gallery 2, aims to investigate the disjuncture between adolescence and adulthood and the way in which perception may be affected by such an experience of growth. Although the artists involved–who include Isak Applin, Carl Baratta, Leelee Chan, Adam Ekberg and Sarah Nesbit–use a variety of media, all are united in their particular interest in capturing landscape. In a photograph by Ekberg entitled A bubble rests in the grass, for example, the artist captures a singular bubble in the midst of a field of grass which comes in and out of focus, creating a stark contrast between the textural aspects of the two. The bubble–the kind produced from the plastic bottle soap mixture and wand that most viewers will likely recognize from childhood–is notable for the displacement that results from its viewing; although it is not particularly out of place outdoors, it seems notable in its singularity, isolation, and in the contrast between its reflective smoothness and the rough expanse of grass which surrounds it. In this way, Ekberg’s work invites the viewer to reconsider the sort of perspective often taken for granted as universal.

Sarah Nesbit’s egg on tempera paintings create a similar sense of confusion, evoking both the process and effects of transformation. In Boys Hanging, for example, a building appears in the middle of a sort of void created by abstract, isolated brush strokes. The placement of the building–which might be anything from a house, to a barn, or even a store–refuses to allow the viewer to create any concrete definition for the image. Perhaps most curiously, two figures stand in front of the building, equally static and vague. Although it is clear what Nesbit has painted, her images become Rorschach-esque in their openness to interpretation, in the contrast between the opacity of what they depict against the boundlessness before which they appear. Like Ekberg, Nesbit’s work contains a subtle but undeniable sort of beauty, reminding the viewer of what might be gleaned from reconsideration of a work of art.

Perhaps the best example of such distinctive sort of aesthetics to be found in the exhibition is the work of Leelee Chan, which consists of collage and acrylic on board. Chan’s collages are imaginative rethinkings of the ideologies of landscape; playing primarily upon the horizontality of the genre, her scenes consist of brilliant detail between the simplicity of land and sky. In one untitled work, for example, Chan collages seashell-like objects between two shades of blue. The intricacy of the objects is evocative of photorealism, and because of the degree of their detail, the viewer is compelled to believe that these invented objects exist in reality. The experience of viewing Chan’s work consistently conjures a sense of newness and, like the other works in the exhibition, invites careful reconsideration of perspective. Such works propose a sort of correspondence between the act of looking at a work of art and the process of maturation by presenting both immediacy–in the undeniable beauty of the works in the exhibition–and the rewards of reconsidering that which we may take for granted.

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