by David M. Roth
I view any work of art that forces me to question my senses as inherently worthy. By that measure, Altered Perception, a three-person show of Bay Area artists, is a hit. As initially conceived, this elegantly displayed exhibition of Op Art-influenced work by Susie Taylor, Sarah Hotchkiss and Lordy Rodriguez was originally set to revolve around a suite of prints by Bridget Riley (b. 1931), widely viewed as the inventor of Op, an idiom that despite having been co-opted by commercial interests more than half a century ago, still wields plenty of art world cachet.
But first a caveat: At some point in the show’s planning, the owners of the Riley collection asked the ICA to insure prints from the artist’s 1965 Fragment series for more than the institution could afford, dealing the exhibition what could have been a fatal blow. To bridge the gap, the ICA filled more than half the wall space in the ICA’s front-room galleries with Taylor’s weavings. The decision turned out to be a masterstroke.
While Taylor owes little to Riley and much to Pointillism, Anni Albers, Frank Stella, Richard Anuszkiewicz, Agnes Martin and a host of other textile artists, ancient and modern, her work exhibits plenty of Riley-esque traits, seen in four different series made over the past three years. Six pieces from her Iconic Stripes series show colored lines arrayed to form squares and rectangles. At a glance, they recall stripe paintings from any number of 20th-century artists. But the resemblances are, at best, superficial. Look closely and the spatial relationships between these elements shift, opening up pictorial depths in which colors change, mixing and blending as it were, on the retina. Which ones are actually in the weave is difficult to say, owing in part to filament-like threads (either warp or weft-dominant) that appear like honeycombs on the surface, setting up rhythms that induce a mild sense of vertigo.
Bridget Riley famously activated these kinds of rhythms in her early black-and-white works with geometric “units” that expanded and contracted in scale, altering the speed at which canvases could be read, often to disorienting effect, as when phantom shapes emerged from what appeared to be repeating static patterns. Taylor, through different means, achieves similar results by fixing diamond-shaped flaps of black and white cloth to black vertical stripes in a series she calls Origami Op. The two examples on view, Ripple and Jest (both 2022), pull attention back and forth between those elements. Merged, they produce what looks to be a series of diagonal ziggurats. Fixing your gaze on any one spot is nearly impossible.
Taylor, you soon realize, is more than just a skilled textile artist. After years of research into materials, shapes and colors, she’s also become something of a phenomenologist. Evidence can be found in Social Fabric, a plaid-like pattern measuring 88 x 75 inches that hangs from a dowel. It occupies the gallery’s back wall, dominating the space with a supersaturated blend of hot and cool gradients, interwoven to effect the look of vibrating columns that blur without resolution. It’s the only work of Taylor’s not affixed to supports, and as a result, the fabric drapes in loose waveforms, part of what fosters the architectural illusion. Loose fringes at the bottom edge puncture it, affirming the material identity of the piece and the degree to which the artist transformed it.
Sarah Hotchkiss employs the vocabulary of Op in a group of nine paintings executed on wood panels, three of which appear on a pink-painted wall, a tip-off to their intended audience. But rather than manipulate those shapes to fool the eye, these black-on-white works, which bear affinities to the geometric shapes found in Riley’s Fragments, operate more as graphic signposts – a departure from her more aggressive, retina-scorching color paintings. The artist created the series for infants with the intent of forging neural pathways in developing brains. (Newborns, she told me, respond enthusiastically.) So do adults, a conclusion supported by a focus group of one: myself.
The remainder of the show belongs to Lordy Rodriguez, a terrific artist who seems misplaced in this context. While his paintings feature a lot of Op-ish shapes rendered in riotous pop/psychedelic colors, his true stock-in-trade is subverting the authoritarian character of maps to make pointed (and sometimes veiled) statements about identity, consumerism, celebrity, corporate power, borders and the like. The effects are simply a means to an end, not ends unto themselves – a distinction that appears to have been lost or overlooked.
No matter. Taylor and Hotchkiss pack enough power to carry the show: a testament to Op’s endurance and how readily we succumb to its perception-bending seductions.
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“Altered Perception” @ Institute of Contemporary Art San José through August 13, 2023.
Cover: Susie Taylor (detail) Social Fabric, 2022, weaving, 88 x 75 inches.
About the author: David M. Roth is the editor, publisher and founder of Squarecylinder, where, since 2009, he has published over 400 reviews of Bay Area exhibitions. He was previously a contributor to Artweek and Art Ltd. and senior editor for art and culture at the Sacramento News & Review.