The visual arts scene in Chicago dispenses doses of exhilaration and frustration in equal measure. Not a month goes by when I don’t encounter a new artist producing engaging and substantive work. At the same time, the number of established galleries exhibiting such artists remains stubbornly small. While alternative spaces in the region do a good job picking up the slack, most do not have the connections or resources to promote their artists to a wider audience of collectors and curators.
As an example of the mismatch between the city’s vibrant art population and its undersized gallery base, consider artist Kate Friedman. For several years, Friedman has been showing her incisive, mixed-media works somewhat under the radar, at a variety of unconventional and out-of-the-way spaces. Cursive/Recursive, her solo exhibit at South Shore Arts in Munster, Indiana, argues forcefully that the artist merits greater recognition in Chicago.
Cursive/Recursive encompasses 18 works on mylar, a semi-transparent film made from polyester. Friedman alters this synthetic surface in a multi-step process. She first laser prints the film with an intricate web of black contour lines that multiply, overlap and fracture, bringing to mind topographical maps, engineering analyses of water flow and digitized images of reproducing bacteria. She then adds radiating lines and dots of colored ink and graphite, bright zones of acrylic paint that drip and bloom, and even collaged letters that resolve into words upon deeper examination. In some works, such as Arden Ardent, several layers of printed and painted mylar are superimposed to create depth and visual complexity. Other works, such as UUU (Why? O, U) Universe, hang from the ceiling, as a panel or screen, capitalizing on the venue’s ambient light as it plays across and passes through the film.
Acidic oranges and yellows, fluorescent pinks, and charged blues characterize the artist’s palette and inject each work with a fervent energy that is fortified by the obsessive mark-making. Works such as Fusion (Wassamattau) and Rude Orbit emit so many sparks that they are nearly audible. At the same time, Friedman is adept at quieting the buzz in a work like Aurora Borealis, which has only been brushed here and there with hazy washes of color that evoke the phenomenon in the title. In this work, Friedman’s signature lines fragment into thousands of tiny, irregular bubbles that cascade soundlessly over the surface like a microbial seeding event from outer space.
Aurora Borealis illustrates how Friedman destabilizes scale and orientation in all her works in order to open the door to myriad readings. By repeating an algorithm that combines the processes of layering, fragmenting and excerpting, the artist makes it impossible to determine whether what we view is microscopic or macroscopic, inside or out, up or down, on top of or behind. Amplifying the interpretive complexity is a dynamic interplay between transparency and opacity, and among disparate visual languages and methods of expression, from cartography to gestural abstraction. Looking at the exhibition as a whole gives one a sense of being on the cusp of understanding—on the outer edge of a unified theory of everything.
But I suspect that Friedman, even if she could achieve a state of complete comprehension, would choose not to. She understands, implicitly, that revealing too much robs us of the deep mysteries of life. Instead, Friedman focuses on creating a permeable interface through which separate—and sometimes incompatible—elements can transit and synchronize. She is a firm believer that, among the cacophony and crush of stimuli and information, it is possible to find moments of clarity and points of connection between the mind and the world that exists beyond the boney cage that houses this mind. It is a testament to her skill at building this interface that, upon leaving the art center, I found myself looking at cracks in the parking lot, and the dendritic trees encircling the building, with renewed wonder.
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