Sullivan Galleries, “Experience is Never Unattached”
This axiomatically titled group show of current and recently graduated SAIC MFA students is a large, sprawling affair. Spread out over dozens of rooms and corridors in the labyrinthine Sullivan Galleries, it contains 30-some artists working in a variety of media. Sculptural installations, painting, and video predominate. Fortunately, all the artists are given ample wall and floor space — some have entire rooms — which places this show in sharp contrast to the chaotic clutter of recent year-end graduate shows. The overall installation bolsters the strengths of each work, and, if you have the time to devote undivided attention to each one, your efforts will be rewarded.
But whether the show fully succeeds as a curatorial statement is another matter. Title aside, the problem with “experience” as a curatorial theme is that it’s so open-ended, virtually any artwork could fit. It’s like curating a show around the notion of “time,” or “communication,” or “reality” — unless these themes are tempered with some specificity, they become vague abstractions.
Tellingly, some of the best works in the show address more concrete matters. Take Scott A. Carter’s “Of Private Devotion,” a room-sized installation just inside the gallery entrance. Evenly spaced on three adjoining walls is a series of small, white matte vertical wall paintings, created by delineating the surrounding space around each one with a glossy version of the same paint. Above each “painting” is a gaudy brass picture lamp, and on the floor in front, a single viewing bench made from old discarded picture frames. On one level, Carter’s piece is a cheeky send-up of the pieties of high modernist abstraction, and yet it still radiates something akin to spiritual aura.
Around the corner, both Craig Butterworth and Rafael Vega refer to modes of minimalist abstraction in novel ways. Butterworth’s freestanding sculpture, made with thin slats of untreated wood, resembles a trellis. But instead of festoons of garlands or ivy, it’s adorned with clamp-on work lamps. These dramatically illuminate the piece, and also turn it into a deft conflation of Michael Fried’s opposing notions of absorption and theatricality. Nearby, Vega is represented by a series of paintings, both large and tiny, that primarily consist of parallel diagonal lines, rendered with spray paint and other unconventional media. The combination of a dark gray palette with hard and soft-edged lines evokes the interplay of light and shadow within the urban landscape.
David R. Harper’s “Unrequited Needs” is equally evocative, but in a completely different way. This room-sized installation is comprised of three wall works and a sculpture, all of which are made with a striking crimson-colored felt. The sculpture is particularly noteworthy: a structure made with stark white logs, which supports a hanging, inverted group of red felt rabbits. With eloquent simplicity, the piece hauntingly explores the intersection of violence, trauma and memory.
Matthew Schlagbaum also works with a particular palette to unify two-dimensional work with sculpture. The former is comprised of 33 small, framed monochrome drawings in a variety of media, each frame and surface a distinct tint of gold. A large, boulder-like thing sits nearby, covered in painted patches of gold, bronze and copper. It’s called “Nothing This Pretty Could Be Real,” though some might beg to differ.
One work that completely stands apart in this context is an hour-long video by Benjamin Chaffee. It consists of a discussion between the artist and four participants regarding the introductory chapter to “Liquid Life,” a philosophical/sociological book by Zygmunt Bauman, which examines the fragmentation and disorientation of contemporary life (vis-à-vis the individual and the broader socio-economic sphere). The ensuing discussion documented here is profoundly thought-provoking. Significantly, each person is obscured by a sheet of wood, cut to the outline of his or her silhouette (Chaffee himself is not on screen). This clever distancing effect seems to mirror Bauman’s tenets concerning the pervasive destabilization of identity. And yet, by forcing us to pay attention to voice over appearance, the subjectivity of each participant is strangely fortified. Matters are complicated even further by the uncertainty over whether these participants are reading from a script, or voicing their own individual thoughts.
Near the beginning of the video, Chaffee says something that resonates with the exhibition as whole: “This would be something new, relatively new for everybody.” Perhaps the overall curatorial theme would be much tighter if the curators paid particular attention to this statement by focusing on experience’s antonyms: inexperience, novice-hood, new beginnings. Given that this show inaugurates the new academic year, the theme would be particularly apt.
Experience is Never Unattached
August 16 – September 22
33 S State, 7th Floor