Derek Chan is no stranger to the “monastic residency”; at the invitation of Theaster Gates earlier this year, he performed one as part of the Whitney Biennal. For his current solo exhibition, however, he was not contained within a courtyard as he was at the Whitney, and instead headed West, embarking on a trip to the four corners.
His travels are the fodder for this show and his trip across the sacred Salt Song Trail also inspired the publishing of a book, in conjunction with Golden Age, on view within the exhibition. It compiles the text and images from his journey.
Chan transforms the gallery space into a gathering place. The peaceful residue of his performed rituals (Chan performs here each Tuesday in November from noon to 4pm) clings to the meditative, process-oriented paintings, collage and works on paper.
The shapes, patterns and repetitive mark-making they display are drawn from a mixture of Eastern religious symbolism and Western Modernism, with the new addition of Navajo and Hopi imagery and objects bubbling to the surface. The recurring grid matrix, evocative of the warp and weft of a loom, frame many of these individuated marks like relics stowed within the cubby holes of a desert shrine.
Their meaning vacillates from the hermetic musings of a lone traveler in an alien landscape, to the overt political activism spelled out in the large format painting describing how Native Americans of all nations banded together in 1969 to occupy and reclaim Alcatraz Island.
Avoiding the pitfall of solipsism as well as the self-righteousness that is de rigueur of much social and political protest art, Chan’s show is ultimately an optimistic one. Despite the loss of land rights and repression of cultural heritage he recognizes several indigenous peoples have suffered, he finds their hope, faith and charity for continued sustainability inspirational. And just as Chan feeds off of it, so are viewers invited to feed off of the almost spiritual solemnity of his work on view. (Thea Liberty Nichols)
Through November 28 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 East Chicago.