It’s a good sign when a gallery can put together a group show of new work by the artists they represent and have it be almost entirely cohesive by coincidence. This is the case with Monique Meloche Gallery’s exhibition “New Work” where Ms. Meloche’s aesthetic preferences become an undercurrent for the work on view, with nearly every artist contributing strong examples.
Ideology becomes the subject that these fresh-out-of-the-studio artworks revolve around. The obvious exception to this is Carla Arocha-Stéphane Schraenen’s contribution, As If (all works discussed are from 2010), which is a fun Op Art piece consisting of concentric circles, well suited for its orientation to the sidewalk and the public. Inside the gallery, one of the first pieces that the viewer will see is Karen Reimer’s More or Less from her series The Domestic Partnership of Heaven and Hell. Two simple white pillowcases are neatly tacked to the wall, each bearing a phrase embroidered in black thread at the bottom. The left pillowcase bears a phrase that is most often associated with architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, executed in a modernist sans serif font, “LESS IS MORE”. The pillowcase on the right carries the rebuttal phrase, executed similarly but with serifs, “MORE IS MORE”. Although the ideological fervor and passion surrounding the modernist debate has died down since its height in the early twentieth century when architect Adolf Loos equated ornament with crime, it is nonetheless something we still deal with in our postmodern era. As Reimer shows, the two positions, once incompatible, now make strange bedfellows as we mix and match styles regardless of the ideologies that they once strongly represented.
Situated nearby to Reimer’s piece, is Joel Ross’ photograph Heaven or Hell, seen at the top of this page. The image depicts what appears to be an evangelical roadside sign bearing the titular words with arrows pointing up and down in a much too literal fashion, situated against a darkening sky. Here the sign appears unmoored from a particular context, aside from a stormy country sky, which provokes the viewer to ascribe meaning to the charged image. A religiously inflected reading will bring out the evangelical aspect, but it seems that Ross is asking the viewer to take responsibility for their own reading, prompting us to question what kind of world are we in the process of making, a heaven or a hell? In Ross’ image, both seem equally possible.
This sentiment could be echoed by Carrie Schneider’s enigmatic film Sleeper Awake, in which a sleeping figure is alternately covered and revealed by foam. The blanket of bubbles struck me as simultaneously menacing and comforting, were they choking off the air to the sleeper or was it a comfortable pillow? Again the viewer looks to oneself for answers.
Robert Davis/Michael Langlois. Left: Gil Scott-Heron, 2010. Graphite on paper. 30" x 22". Right: Richard Wagner, 2010. Graphite on paper. 30" x 22". Image courtesy of the artists and Monique Meloche Gallery.
A clear highlight of this exhibition is artist duo Robert Davis/Michael Langlois’ eponymous portraits of Gil Scott-Heron and Richard Wagner. Painstakingly executed in graphite on paper, these virtuosic images depict their subjects in an incredibly high level of realistic detail so that individual marks nearly recede to invisibility and a visage emerges as a product of light and shadow. These portraits are a continuation of the ideas behind the artists’ 2009 exhibition “In Our Likeness: Portraits of Illumination” where the artists drew portraits in similar dimensions of people that the artists see as “a dinner party wish list, serving Beluga and Dom.” The choice of Scott-Heron and Wagner continues to indicate the influence that a wide-range music and musicians play on the artists, but again the ideological stances of each of these musicians cannot be ignored and points at the deeper issue of ideology in art. You have the nineteenth century Wagner who held anti-Semitic views that still causes controversy to this day, paired with the twentieth century black power advocate and hip-hop pioneer Scott-Heron. I can only imagine what the dinner conversation between these two would be.
Finally, occupying the middle of the gallery is Justin Cooper’s sculpture Puberty that features an Atlantic Triton seashell transfixed in the middle of a length of garden hose. The juxtaposed natural and artificial elements are poetically effective in their economy of materials, and the vertical form echoes Ross’ image nicely. Unlike other marine snails, the Atlantic Triton snail does have distinctive sexes, thus the snail being suspended on a single axis (the hose) coupled with the work’s title indicates the process of sexual differentiation, a subject that Matthew Barney has notably explored as well. While this piece makes no ideological claims in itself, I was sadly reminded that puberty is itself now a site of ideological contestation as some high schools have recently refused to recognize the rights of their GLBTQ students.
I like the idea of just showing “new work;” after all, group shows don’t always need a theme, but due to Ms. Meloche’s discernment one came up, though unbidden. However, in an exhibition without an explicit guiding principle or idea the work included needs to be strong, which, in this case, it was.
-Abraham Ritchie, Senior Editor for ArtSlant: Chicago