When I arrived to view the Judy Pfaff exhibition at David Weinberg Gallery, the gallery was filled with frenetic hustle and bustle as staff prepared for the upcoming Art Chicago fair. This meant works were being re-arranged and crated up to head over to the Merchandise Mart. And while there was plenty of activity, I didn’t feel distracted or that the work of Pfaff’s that was on view was detracted.
This is Pfaff’s first solo exhibition with the gallery and in Chicago. A surprising fact, since she not only works with Tandem Press (based in Madison, WI) but more importantly, her aesthetic sits well with Chicago, particularly River North.* I am speaking of that general taste for the hand-touched, delicate and earthy sensibility that pervades the city, second only to the inclination for the Imagist tradition.
Usually filling gallery walls salon-style is a bad move, but instead of feeling crammed, here the predominantly horizontal works lead the viewer along the long main gallery to the terminus of the gallery, a small wall on which hangs a large square assemblage. Each piece flows into the next due to repeated motifs such as decorative tissue paper flowers, a variety of textured papers, black aluminum foil and collaged prints. There is a pervading theme of “Japonisme” in the selection of rice papers, depictions of Asian flora and the odd paper umbrella and lantern included here and there. This is all a bit too much on the precious side for me, but interesting shifts occur between constructions mounted directly to the wall and ones encased in custom aluminum shadow boxes. Pieces like I dwell in possibility are almost dioramas or terrariums, little environments unto themselves. But then works like Lemongrass precariously dangle from the wall with loosely collaged found materials drifting off the support.
Judy Pfaff. Lemongrass. Image courtesy of David Weinberg Gallery.
The utilization of found objects, i.e. junk, is interesting to witness in Pfaff’s work because its deployment is generational. In work by younger artists, like those seen in the “Unmonumental” survey at the New Museum in 2008, the materials themselves are signifiers for specific cultural references and are often tinged with irony. In Pfaff’s, the objects are transformed, their origin not immediately apparent. In North Wind streamers of rough black aluminum foil give way to thin black “lines” that first read just formally, then as a type of plant, only to become recognizable as the skeleton of an umbrella. In other pieces manila file folders have been sliced into, as if used as a cutting mat to protect a tabletop. These slices become drawn lines because their backs have been stained with a watered down paint that has seeped into the incisions creating a scrimshaw or tattooed effect. The way these found everyday materials are assembled and composed can only be described as “poetic.” There seems to be a sincerity and belief in the materials and in art’s transformative powers that absent in the work of younger artists.
In the larger assemblages the balance between all the elements is in perfect alignment, not too romantic, pragmatic; not ironic; and light, not delicate. The best example of this is Underbelly, installed in a small gallery off from the main one. Cardboard packing material, strips of paper and tissue flowers hang in abundance, like shredded Kleenex. It is messy, or “rough” as the artist says. This looseness works better than the controlled compositional strategies in the smaller works, which can come off as overly fussy. Scale helps here too, the hanging construction becomes almost an environment or still life that the viewer can enter rather than peer into as in the shadow boxes.
The work in this exhibition holds its own, but it also feels geared towards an audience with middlebrow expectations. The works are reasonably sized, suitable for purchase, and not particularly aesthetically daring. That sentence could double as the motto of the River North gallery district. With the captivating installation Buckets of Rain documented on Art:21 in mind, Pfaff’s Chicago debut feels more like a whimper than a bang.