One of the most intriguing comments about the work of Franz West I’ve encountered describes its ability to incite in the viewer a sense of participation in the process of making. Such an experience is heightened in The Hills Esthetic Center, given its shared studio spaces and clear evidence of “work in progress” at every turn. Things are happening there. This seemed to me no less true of the exhibition in the collective’s gallery space featuring Yale graduate and friend Lorraine Dauw. I first saw one of her pieces at an ACRE event held at Heaven Gallery last November, and unfortunately missed an opportunity to pay her a subsequent studio visit before she moved from Chicago to New York. So until now, I hadn’t quite understood the energy, playfulness and subtle misdirection prevalent in her work.
One of the first things you notice when walking into the space is a large Tom Friedman-like ring made of variously toasted pieces of bread placed directly on the floor. Its values shift slowly around the circumference from lightly singed to burnt beyond edibility. There is a dual transformation not only in the way color and tone are achieved through a process of “cooking” rather than “applying”, but as they are laid out these mundane slices of bread achieve an elegant minimalism.
Other works displayed on the walls throughout the gallery seem to occupy a state between sculpture and painting. They are substantial, heavy looking things that are actually made of a lightweight construction spray foam. They look like they could just rip out of the wall, yet hang effortlessly. The mark making on these pieces is at once serious and hilarious – grid patterns pressed into the material by using plastic ice cube trays. It takes awhile to identify this, and a few times the artist lets us catch a direct glimpse, while at other junctures uses paint, flocking, and other layering and filling effects to diffuse and hide the structure. The work can peacock as aggressive and rough – perhaps partly a function of its protrusion from the wall – but the color modulations make them not only quite beautiful and inviting, but you feel like the surfaces were allowed to happen in a more accepting way than if they were dashed or scrubbed in.
I chuckled to myself when I saw that Dauw couldn’t help but throw a cookie and a real half of a lemon into one of the circular pieces; more serious play that both foils and engages us. We’ve seen a lot of food and plants in art or as art in Chicago, some successful examples being the work of Eric May, Heidi Norton and Alberto Aguilar. Here it seemed to be more about the concepts, surfaces and textures in the mix of this body of work than a nod to certain other contemporary practices. Though the cookie sits on the surface in a rather perfunctory way, I could almost hear someone saying that the round shape of the piece reminded them of just that — a cookie — and so the artist may be acknowledging a certain built in issue with abstraction — people struggle to force identity into a work of art. In a way this moves you past it by just handing it to you in the first place. The lemon, though, had dried and actually formed a wonderful spoke-and-wheel depression; an organic analogue to her plastic excavations of the surface, evolving the dialogue about material.I had an opportunity to speak with Lorraine about her installation while she was in town. An abiding concern was to ensure that the objects vibrated with each other in specific ways. One of the principals of the space, Leo Kaplan, pointed out two objects across the gallery from each other that were thought of as “speakers.” Indeed, their rectangular shape and gridded faces were suggestive of this identity. But we could also think of them as actively “speaking” to each other in the vernacular of Dauw’s studio, with us as interlopers catching part of an ongoing conversation. What gives us that feeling of participation in the sense mentioned above with West — aside from the inventiveness and process visible in each individual work — is that together, you perceive a narrative of trials and experiments, of guesses and findings. Following this trail gave me a feeling of the space being activated by the artist’s search, and left me anxious to follow the conversation.
Lorraine Dauw, Nancy Drew Titan Savor, is on view at The Hills Esthetic Center, 128 N. Campbell, through June 16th. All photographs courtesy of the Hills Esthetic Center.