While ostensibly the recent works that comprise the group show, The Arbitrariness of Signs, all point to that art historical juncture where realism was rejected in favor of abstraction, curator Sara Reisman pleads with the viewer to abstain from thinking about such theoretical and historical determinations: “In organizing this exhibition, I hope it is possible to set aside theoretical elaborations and absolutes and receive the artworks according to your personal visual language and codes.”
In her earnest plea, Reisman engages us in a game of semiotics, pushing and pulling us back and forth between two poles of signification: the very cultural specificity of the signs presented to us, and the extraordinary versatility of these signs. Indeed, Reisman has put together a show of varying symbolic and post-symbolic works in such a way where we are forced to reckon with our desire and drive to make meanings through our own creation and interpretations of signs.
The show is both loose and held together – loose in its open, associative quality between the works, but at the same time held together by a throw-back-to-abstraction visual vocabulary. There are fifteen artists in the show – quite a large number for such a small space – but each artist has only one or two pieces in the show. This makes for a certain pithiness not dissimilar to slogans or logos.
For example, Jenny Soloman’s pencil drawing, Untitled (Elephant / Woman) is a frontal image of a regal elephant with its majestic ears open and flapping, as it rushes towards the viewer. Inside the drawing of the elephant’s face, between the ears and above the tusks, is the image of an older woman, the weary lines on her face the same elegant wrinkles on the elephant’s. An oblique reference to that pop optical illusion test – is it a tiger or a woman? – the drawing challenges that test’s implicit sexism and is a sure representation of a idea (elephant or woman), in whatever way you see it. Similar to this drawing is Brendan Fernandes’ bizarre but beautiful giclee image of a hummingbird, its body filled like a tapestry of signs pointing to both animal and artifact. Called ChiWara archilochus colubris, the digital hybrid creature is comfortingly familiar, while at the same time exotic and unknown, primitive yet futuristic.
Many of the works in the show, like Soloman’s piece, call attention to the viewer’s own sense of self and perception in the very act of looking. Jane Benson’s Disco Globe X, is a simple object easily understood – a shape of the globe, titled and on a pedastal similar to how we would have encountered it in a grade school classroom, but tiled neatly with small square pieces of mirror. It is both a globe and a disco ball, but look closely, to try to really see, and all you see is yourself, multiply, but beautifully fractured – never quite the whole complete self one desires to see.
The anchoring work in the show is the dense video work of Shana Moulton. Her ten-minute video from 2008, titled Sand Saga, is a wacky journey with Moulton’s alter ego in her quest for good skin. What begins as the simple female ritual of putting on a facial crème mask leads to a dream of a parallel universe where a pomo pastiche of symbols – from new age crystals and Southwestern motif rugs to Georgia O’Keefe-esqe flower worlds and kitsch primitive sculpture – all create a fantasy whereby body treatments and domestic objects can transform the self into something, well, better than you really are. The video is a fantastic display of the slipperiness of signs in the context of consumer culture and pop goods.
The works in the show differ from each other by differentiating in a different way. And as the show points out, the sign as arbitrary is a radical concept because it suggests the autonomy of language in relation to reality: language (words / image) does not reflect reality, but constructs it.
Images: Shana Moulton, Whispering Pines 7 (2006), 4:43 min, color, sound, Courtesy 1602 Gallery; Brendan Fernandes, ChiWara archilochus colubris (2007), giclee print, Courtesy Momenta; Jenny Salomon, Untitled (Elephant/Woman) (2008), pigment pen on handmade paper, Courtesy Momenta.