by David M. Roth
Is there any point in drawing a line in the sand if you can’t defend against those who’d cross it? Given all the lines that have been overstepped since the 2016 election this a question well worth pondering. The Catharine Clark Gallery does just that in an exhibition called Don’t Touch My Circles. The words come from Archimedes who is said to have uttered them in response to a Roman soldier who threatened to destroy some geometric figures that he’d drawn in sand. The plea, which cost him his life, forms the basis of a group exhibition that is nominally about protest and resistance.
Nora Ligorano and Marshall Reese, a team known professionally as LigoranoReese, submit a time-lapse video of an ice sculpture called The Truth Be Told, which they placed on National Mall in front of the Capitol building. It shows a succession of tourists taking selfies as individual letters of the word TRUTH melt and fall to the ground. To the footage, the artists added a perfectly synched soundtrack of Trump’s lies, boasts and obfuscations. With exquisite timing, each explodes across the mind like a cluster bomb, reinforcing the notion that words really do matter, especially when backed by evil deeds. Admittedly, the duo’s approach is heavy-handed, but the time for subtlety has long since passed. So here’s an immodest
proposal: install one of these sculptures at every statehouse in the U.S. and include with them a bevy of jumbotrons set in well-trafficked spots that display the same footage. Billboards promoting these subversions might read: “It’s summer. Time to break some ice!”
Jana Sophia Nolle’s provocations aren’t as easily parsed. She recreated homeless shelters, installed them inside the living rooms of rich folks, and then photographed them in the mode glossy home décor mags. The purpose was to ignite a dialog about homelessness, and she succeeded: Earlier this month, the gallery convened a panel discussion attended by advocates for the homeless which was said to have focused more on the issues than on the photos, and included, on nearby streets, billboards carrying images from the series. So far, so good.
But there are nagging questions that go unanswered: What did the homeless think about replicas of their shelters being presented this way? Who profits from the sale of these images? What did homeowners think when they decided to participate? And is this a harbinger of things to come – will faux shelters of this sort someday crop up in the pages of Dwell? The exercise calls to mind what Leonard Bernstein and his wife did in 1970 when they invited the
Black Panthers to their Upper East Side apartment to speak before a group of society swells for the purpose of raising money for the Panther’s legal defense (an event Tom Wolfe famously chronicled in a satirical essay called Radical Chic.) Though the two events are dissimilar and five decades apart, they raise the same issue: Is this a way for the rich to feign empathy without getting their hands dirty or is this a genuine act of detournement that might produce change?
Marie Watt, a member of the Seneca Tribe of Native Americans who works with fabric, made a rainbow-like arch of blankets and installed it on the gallery’s back wall. It is a wondrous thing to behold, a collection of solids and plaids that forms a radiant, welcoming portal – one that may remind you of similar shape painted on the Golden Gate Bridge tunnel leading to Sausalito (which in 2016 was renamed for Robin Williams). For Watt, sewing is a communal and community-building activity, not an act of protest. However, when seen next to Nolle’s pictures in a gallery bounded on one side by homeless camps, it’s tempting to view the piece in socio-political terms, as an elegant artifact of (and homage to) nomadic existence: an affirmation of hope, not a cry of despair.
The legacy of colonialism has long been central to Stephanie Syjuco’s art. Here she offers photos of spray-painted flowers that are as alluring as they are toxic, effectively injection the word “artificial” into the old FTD slogan “Say it with Flowers.” But what’s being said is complicated, having to do with the multitude of ways otherness and exoticism can be disguised as a survival strategy. Lurking beneath these makeovers is the damage done to the thing being made over.
Beyond this, the show slides off-theme, albeit pleasurably. Bill Jacobson’s blurry landscape photos might be collectively titled “Goodbye to Nature,” as they appear akin to what you might see at dusk in your rearview mirror – assuming your mirror displayed only grayscale tones. From the amorphous blobs pictured we can make out trees and roads, but the details are indistinct. His color shots of White Sands New Mexico, two of which are seen here, tell a different story. These exercises in minimalism have an almost one-to-one textural relationship with the sand and rocks pictured, a feat I’ve seen achieved only once, in David Maisel’s aerial photos of toxic sites in the Southwest.
Nicki Green’s primordial-looking ceramic sculptures, based on mushrooms, resemble something pulled from the ocean depths: collections of scalloped-out hollows that call to mind what Ursula Von Rydingsvard might come up with if she worked in clay. These gawky, protuberant forms obliquely reference the figure, none more so than Prolapse Figure with Cast, which is supported by bricks from Pete Voulkos’ kiln at UC Berkeley – an act you can view,? alternately, as a dismantling of the patriarchy or a fresh attempt to reinforce its crumbling vestiges.
The exhibition also injects humor into the proceedings. It comes in the form of bronze-cast “pothole positives” arrayed on a low table. They are the work of Pittsburgh artist Kim Beck who made them from molds taken near her home. Presented as specimens, they look more like space junk than something terrestrial. You could view them as a comment on the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, but when I think of potholes – especially those in the East – I think of the bike rim-ruining, car-swallowing kind, not these petit puddles of congealed metal. Were you to take them as a reflection of Pittsburgh, you’d have to conclude the opposite, that this is a city on the mend.
Don’t Touch My Circles opens some wounds, but it also attempts to heal them. In dog days like these, what more can you ask of a summer group show?
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“Don’t Touch My Circles” @ Catharine Clark Gallery through August 31, 2019. The exhibition also includes works by Kevin Cooley.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.