The Renaissance Society has been a forerunner of the contemporary avant-garde since its founding in 1915. Over the past year, it marked this legacy with a series of centennial exhibitions, panel
discussions, film screenings, and performances that displayed the Ren’s customary confidence in its role as a grounded bastion for creative exploration.
Weighing the celebration of the Ren’s history and renowned reputation against the contemporary cultural moment, it seems fitting, as well as wise, that the subject of its first post-centennial exhibit should be the notion of doubt.
Between the Ticks of the Watch, exhibited at the University of Chicago from April 24 through June 26 features works by an ensemble of artists that, in one way or another, reflect on the notion of doubt in their making. This is neither an attempt to define the word nor assign any kind of hierarchical value to a space or situation where doubt may be generated. Rather, these works offer up an array of aesthetics revealing how doubt can shape perceptions of identity and influence choices we make vis-a-vis our world.
Walking into the gallery, the space feels sparse and open. One’s attention may be easily drawn to a set of sculptures by Kevin Beasley entitled Your Face is/is not Enough (2016) which take command of the room and confront the viewer. The sculptures reference to the figure is made most obvious by the fact that they are topped with gas masks adorned with complex forms that are simultaneously whimsical and grotesque.
The gas masks, already loaded with connotations of authoritarian violence, are humanized through the addition of paint, foam, and fabrics of both bright and muddy colors. These colors and forms make reference to handmade clothing one might recognize from various world cultures while some of the forms play with pop culture iconography like one gas mask adorned with Mickey Mouse ears.
It is in this pastiche of multicultural schemes and the accompaniment of megaphones that the authoritarian iconography becomes absorbed into a kind of global people’s army. This does not feel like an exclusively liberal call to arms against authoritarian oppression but rather a consideration of the potential complicity with power structures that conflicting social strata must negotiate in the 21st century.
A questioning and dismantling of social constructs is even more clearly investigated in two series of photographs from the 1970s by Martha Wilson. In A Portfolio of Models, the artist performs in costume for the still camera a set of feminine archetypes such as ‘the housewife,’ ‘the working girl,’ or ‘the goddess.’ Each photograph is accompanied with text that presents the horoscopic dilemma of each figure’s state of being.
Wilson’s work is both the most legible and possibly the most challenging to social convention. Like much of the work in the gallery, it appears modest in scale and production value but draws viewers into an intimate space where one quickly realizes that there is much more to be read here than one might expect at first glance.
The line of questioning is expanded upon further by the other three artists’ work in the space. Peter Downsborough’s text-based installations are subtle but do not go unseen. They are the invitation and decoder for this exhibition. Walking into the gallery, we are flanked by wall text in a work titled AS A PLACE SET (2016) in which those very words line the edges of the wall. Reflection is feigned by having the text appear backward on one side placing the viewer in the middle of the false reflection and activating the entryway as a space.
Similarly, AND AS THERE (2016) offers a perceptual rubric by connecting a line of black tape on the floor to a black rod hanging from the ceiling that barely touches the floor where the taped line ends. What appeared to be one line in space is actually two distinctly different objects and gestures that tell us “indeed, things in this room are not so simple in their nature.”
With that invitation, we can delve into the abstract realms of Goutam Ghosh’s paintings and assemblage constructions in which familiar materials take on an esoteric poetry. In works like Nuri and Further Border (2016) abstract marks, evocative of text and schematic sketches as well as modernist figuration, inhabit tattered un-stretched canvas and what could be a sack of dry goods hinted at by some purple printed text. When asked to question not only the origin of the materials but also the subjects of the drawing/painting we can return to a pluralistic narrative where ritual meets authorship and commerce meets expression.
These conflicting modes are further present in pieces by Ghosh such as Hug Me and Worm Pool. Constructions of found materials are arranged in mechanical forms that look as though they could be kinetic. It is in these works that mechanics and physics play into a painterly hand and eye. They are in a particular dialogue with Falke Pisano’s video and sculptural work, which engages questions of scientific and mathematical truth across cultures and practices.
All these works again cast doubt on what we take for granted. What is most interesting about this exhibition is how the work stands in as a kind of conduit to an immaterial experience. This can be said of most artworks but this curation seems more cognizant of this idea and deliberate in its instigation of an art experience that exists more fully outside of the object itself.
Looking back nearly half a century to Minimalism, artists like Robert Morris and Donald Judd were rethinking the language of objects. A legion of artists began creating works that engage the viewer’s sense of space while challenging their established notions of form and representation.
It is in Between the Ticks of the Watch that we see this language taking on subjects and generating further questions about established constructs in our world. There is beauty in the notion that nothing is assumed but everything is considered. It is rare to encounter work that tackles the nature of subjectivity in such a curious and productive way. With this first glimpse in its second century, we can rest assured in the Renaissance Society’s continued commitment to critical inquiry.
Evan Carter hails from Worcester, Massachusetts. He studied Painting at Mass. College of Art in Boston and is currently an MFA candidate in the Department of Visual Art at the University of Chicago
Volume 30 number 6, July / August 2016 pp 34-35