When we speak of the poetry of Robert Ortbal, as it unfolds in Hemisphere, his current show, we’re not talking about the poetry of written words but about recondite materials. Ortbal gathers them for their physical attributes and their symbolic leanings, and he combines them into mock-organic, quasi-architectural melanges that reach to express ideas beyond the constraints of human language. Though some of these materials survive to the final stages, the end products are by no means found-object assemblages: the survivors were already in a state that was sufficient for their role in the final act. Other materials are painstakingly repurposed: shellacked, flocked, bent, sanded, melted, and hewn so that they align with Ortbal’s ideas. Though he claims he’s still “searching,” the work at hand suggests that he found what he was looking for a long time ago, and is now simply searching for the best way to tell the rest of us.
If there is a grand “theory” uniting these moments, it is the wall of 29 Drawings. This collection, affixed to a metal grid, resembles nothing so much as the nightmare chalkboards of an advanced physics or chemistry lecture. Whether the drawings depict Schrödinger’s cat or some unknown successor to the H-bomb or a crackpot cure for cancer is impossible to know, but we still feel compelled to reach for understanding. It would appear that somebody has found the answer. Ask Ortbal and he will say that each drawing represents a separate exploration, not an explanation, and even if it does, he’s not telling. Perhaps he can’t tell; the words don’t yet exist, so we have the drawings. They borrow the signifier of the diagram, chart, graph, blot and stain, but give up little if any information. They are informational in form, but not informative. Like Mark Lombardi’s Narrative Structures, which attempt to map financial conspiracies,these drawings appear thoroughly researched, ominous, and incontrovertible. Rather than cite the collusion of individuals, they tell of a baffling conspiracy between matter and energy that we still lack the tools to explain or comprehend. They evoke the specific emotion of not knowing and with it the unresolvable desire to find out.
In this show, Robert Ortbal attempts to address the void before information becomes matter. Like the mirror surfaced works and black holes of Anish Kapoor, Ortbal uses the optical ambiguity of Plexiglas and deeply colored flocking to visually suggest this void. But unlike Kapoor's monumental scale, Ortbal has created a microscopic context with simplified architecture and globular organic moments reminiscent of a cell or diagrammed chemical compound. The context prepares the viewer to be an active pursuer of information, and the information that follows is a vast compendium of material references that fuse into dense metaphor. Due to the breadth of these references and the tightness of space in which they are assembled, the language of the metaphor implodes, collapsing into a singularity remarkable for the way its gravity tugs and rearranges the visible objects surrounding it. Thus, his objects become relational beacons: a poetry of theory and a theory of poetics.