Aspen Mays at the MCA and Hyde Park Art Center
By Carrie McGath
Albert Einstein once said, “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” Recent SAIC graduate Aspen Mays puts that maxim to the test in her current exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art (on view until February 28) and in the Cleve E. Carney Gallery at the Hyde Park Art Center (on view until April 25). In these exhibitions, Mays works as a dedicated scientist guided by a creativity and imagination that Einstein would have admired.
Mays’ 12×12 exhibition features her meticulous and meditative “Every Leaf on a Tree” from 2009-2010. Spread over two walls of the gallery, this photographic installation is made up of a grid of 900 small photos of the individual leaves of a tree outside her studio. The total impression is that of an immersive, conceptual forest.
As the viewer walks through the gallery, her movements cause the photographs (which are affixed to the walls with long nails) to gently flutter, thus reminding the viewer of the forces of exertion and gravity. The beauty of the installation is in the precise capturing of an intimate moment with each individual leaf; beauty is palpable in Mays’s archiving of these dynamic, textured moments.
On the central wall of the gallery is “Every Book,” a piece that playfully considers notions of the archive, Einstein’s scientific revolution, and the concepts of light and gravity. 21 photographs comprise a grid that reveals a rainbow of color, constructed from the spines of hundreds of books meticulously placed on metal arcs that rest between two chairs. A closer look reveals that the books are all about Albert Einstein; in fact, the photographs document every book on Einstein that the artist could order from the Illinois Inter-Library Loan Service.
Again, the artist seems to be humorously pondering the artistic extensions of scientific revelations. “Every Book” is an imaginative composition that turns scientific history and abstract concepts into a harmonious, compelling image, and both works in the 12×12 eloquently reveal how our perception of the individual can alter our experience of the whole.
Aspen Mays’s playful approach to science continues with her exhibition “From the Offices of Scientists” at the Hyde Park Art Center, where the artist takes a risk by leaving photography behind in favor of a sculptural installation. Here, Mays strives to construct the bureaucratic setting (complete with metal filing cabinets and yellow legal pads) where scientific “knowledge” is ostensibly born.
The exhibition opens with the striking “Boulder Desk” from 2010. Two cubicle walls are the only elements left standing after an apparent catastrophe: a desk has been crushed by a boulder (or meteor) that appears to have fallen right out of the sky. There is a humorous but sinister quality in this, a conspiratorial indication that perhaps this scientist discovered a truth that she shouldn’t have.
Indeed, the narrative of the entire installation hints at corruption, secrets and silly conspiratorial moments. Other objects, which the artist claims to have gleaned from her own visits to scientists’ offices, include a sign proclaiming, “If you find a meteor, bring it here and we will check to make sure”; a jar filled with black jelly beans entitled “Jellybean Universe”; and a dry-erase board covered with small marker points, one of which has been circled and labeled “Big Bang.”
The exhibition has its playful moments, but is less visually engaging than the 12×12 installation. Nonetheless, it is encouraging to see a young artist strike out in new directions and tackle new modes of working, quite like a scientist.
Taken as a group, these exhibitions are related by similar interests in the production of knowledge, scientific insights, and gravity and time, but they also reveal a multiplicity of diverse feelings and concepts, resulting in very different experiences for the viewer.
“Every Leaf” and “Every Book” feel far more realized than “From the Offices of Scientists,” and the difference in these exhibits comes down to time itself. At the MCA, viewers encounter playful notions of gravity, exertion, and relativity, but also a meditation on imagination and the poetry in individual moments pulsing around us. At the HPAC, viewers see a satirical cosmic joke, a joke that seems almost too clever and too hurried to work solidly.
Mays’ talent seems to be in photography, when she has the ability to contain a moment within a frame, simplified and sustained like a piece of music. However, both exhibits are worth seeing as visually eloquent celebrations of the imagination.
Unfortunately, Chicago is on the verge of losing this gifted artist, as Mays has been awarded a Fulbright to work with astronomers in Chile through 2010. Only time will tell where this journey will take her work in the future.