THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS

Left: Aram Han Sifuentes, Embroidery in Translation: Emperor's Robe to Designer Jumpsuit, 2016. Hand embroidery on black jumpsuit (with assistane from Verónica Casado). Right: Théo Bignon G(arçon), 2019. Hand-marbled mesh, thread. Photo by Michel Ségard.

Cindy Bernhard, Kim #2, 2018. Oil and faux eyelashes on canvas. Photo by Michel Ségard.

 

“Décorientations”

At Siblings, Chicago, from December 13, 2019 through January 18, 2020.
Matt Morris, curator.

 

“… more than naming a symptom, it identifies a process whereby personhood is conceived and suggested (legally, materially, and imaginatively) through ornamental gestures: gestures that speak through the minute, the sartorial, the prosthetic, and the decorative. Ornamentalism is thus an admittedly rather inelegant word that describes a very elegant (that is, seamless) alchemy between the borrowing properties of thingness and personhood…the flesh that passed through objecthood needs ornament as a way back to itself.”

 

Anne Anlin Cheng, “Ornamentalism: A Feminist Theory for the Yellow Woman,” pp. 429, 445.

 

Anne Anlin Cheng provides an elegant definition of the title to this exhibition. The show contains the works of 21 artists, most of whom are associated with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in one way or another. It is curated by Matt Morris, an Adjunct Assistant Professor at SAIC, and centers around a class about decoration in art that he taught there. The press release to the show adds the following:

 

“The space that houses Siblings is a home that is made to function as a site of display. It is into this confluence of the domestic and institutional, the private and public, that this group of artists explore the potential for decoration, ornament, and abstraction to catalyze new sensitivities around the ways that geopolitical power has been sorted into East and West, haunted by those desiring, appropriative impulses of orientalism. Projects based in painting, textile, and installation draw from aesthetic traditions that transgress borders between interior decoration, art historical canons, fashion, and craft in order to develop a discourse that acts promiscuously in relation to genre and category, while advancing an ethics that is inclusive of beauty, labor, and the means of production. The resulting exhibition is a feverish, heated interplay among tropes of geometric abstraction, sexual politics, cosmetic confections, and intricate handicraft.  Embodiment is made to return, transfigured into pattern, decoration, and far-flung abstracted entities.”

 

This art-speak paragraph sets down very ambitious criteria for what is a largely student show in a space that is actually an apartment that is also someone’s home. The show was so large (43 pieces were mentioned in the checklist) that it had to be continued in the bike room of the building—something Siblings has done a number of times before. In that room, Kimberly Tingyi Guo’s Mañjuśrī uses fluid, floral strokes (although somewhat overworked) to depict a Chinese Buddhist character in a black and white oil on canvas. The decorative characteristics of her strokes point to the culture from which they are based. Also in the room is Michael Winfield’s diptych Did it for the culture. Composed of two matching antique mirrors with pearls, screen-print and paint on vinyl and faux leather. The pieces made me think of the work of Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt and the late Frank Moore, two 1980s artists from the LGBTQ community who used decorative applique as part of their aesthetic and to help convey their message. Guo and Winfield have managed to capture many of the ambitious premises of the show.

 

     

Left: Kimberly Tingyi Guo, Mañjuśrī, 2019. Acrylic on canvas. Right: Michael C. Winfield, Did it for the culture, 2019. Found antique mirrors, pearls, screenprint and paint on vinyl, faux leather. Photos by Michel Ségard.

 

The coat closet of the apartment’s main room contained five garments, three from Comme des Garçons, the Japanese fashion label headed by Rei Kawakubo. Cool and monochromatic, all her pieces embody a gender neutral aesthetic. But the other two garments by Théo Bignon and Aram Han Sifuentes were more interesting. Sifuentes’ Embroidery in Translation: Emperor’s Robe to Designer Jumpsuit transcends cultures and generations. A black jumpsuit is embroidered with traditional Chinese motifs, resulting in a very contemporary, hip garment (I would wear it in an instant). Bignon’s G(arçon), a transparent “negligee,” is so French and has the playfulness and transgender quality (Bardot with balls at the Baton) that is referred to in the show’s statement.

Jade Yumang’s Page 26 (“Even if your name is Mary”) and Alex Paik’s Improvisation #3 for Partial Hexagon (Fan) invert the viewer’s traditional expectations. Both of these works are made primarily from fabric, and Jade’s is even partially fabricated as a quilt—materials and techniques long associated with women—yet both of these artists are men. I am reminded of the old show tune from Annie Get Your Gun, “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better.” But in the context of this show, these pieces—which were, incidentally, impeccably crafted—are not about one-upmanship between the sexes; they are about the elimination of arbitrary, gender-based social boundaries.

 

     

Left: Alex Paik Improvisation #3 for Partial Hexagon (Fan), 2019. Handmade quilt on schanned homophile magazine printed with archival ink on cotton, batting, cotton-knit ribbon, foam, zipper, acrylic on hemlock, hardware and plastic grommet. Right: Jade Yumang, Page 26 ("Even if your name is Mary"), 2018. Handmade quilt on scanned homophile magazine printed with archival ink on cotton, batting, vinyl, foam, striped sprot knit, bullion fringe, acrylic on pine, hemlock, and hardware. Photos by Michel Ségard.

 

In contrast, Ruby T’s Pussy Drug Flowers and Samuel Schwindt’s Sleazy/Calm are about the celebration of particular gender roles. Ruby T’s acrylic painting on hand-marbled silk couldn’t be more feminine with its pink background, flowers, and curvy lines—all quite beautifully done and strangely aggressive. And Schwindt’s wall piece is all male with its architectonic construction, earth tone palette, and sharp angular forms. These pieces proudly affirm the gender of their maker.

 

     

Left: Ruby T,  Pussy Drug Flowers, 2019. Acrylic on hand-marbled silk. Right: Samuel Schwindt, Sleazy/Calm, 2019. Spray paint and oil on steel, plastic, pins, screws. Photos by Michel Ségard.

 

In a less aggressive way, Cindy Bernhard affirmed her femininity with pieces made from faux fingernails and eyelashes. Her two small bas relief creations Kim K and Kim K #2 assemble these materials in patterns that resemble small sea creatures. There is a sense of a mother making a nest in both pieces; they are quietly beautiful and subtly menacing at the same time. It's interesting that both Bernhard's and Ruby T's works have a sublte "don't fuck with me" undertone to them, although they look nothing alike.

The apartment is a two-story affair with a narrow staircase leading to the second floor. Works are displayed on the walls of the staircase, often to the disadvantage of the art. One of the best pieces of the show was Mora Zhu’s The ‘Kitchen.’ It is a mixed media construction depicting an interior space. Rendered in black cardboard, the pattern of a curtain extends beyond the left edge of the central canvas. It is balanced on the right by a black form that reflects the shape of a mirror in the picture. The work uses pattern repetition (tile, curtain decoration) with a muted palette to create a very serene space. Here decoration is used to set an environmental and emotional mood. But this piece suffered greatly from the cramped quarters in which it was hung. There was no way one could get a clear view of it—a major curatorial error. There were quite a number of small works on the walls of the main room that could have been placed in the stairwell without suffering visibility to make room for a decent space for Zhu’s piece.

 

Mora Zhu, The ‘Kitchen,’ 2019. Cardboard, acrylic board, aluminum
wire, hemp twine, oil on canvas. Photo by Michel Ségard.

 

But some of the artists made errors of their own. Alex Paik’s Improvisation #1 for Partial Parallelogram (Small Right) is a case in point. This study of geometric forms was done with strips of paper that were too thin to firmly hold the shape in which they were folded. They suffered from a case of material ED. The problem could have been easily solved by using stiffer paper. Then the permutation of the forms could have been appreciated without the anxiety of wondering if they were about to fall apart.

Similarly, Yumin Kang’s Flower 1 on the first floor was a small, dark, heavily overworked black canvas that had almost no subject definition. Only the title let you know that it was about flowers. (Before an artist embarks on making a dark tone-on-tone piece, that person should familiarize themselves with Clyfford Still’s 1951-52 and the black-on-black series by Ad Reinhardt.) Yet on the second floor, his Flower 2, although still dark. had discernable forms that alluded to the title. It was a much better piece. Flower 1 should not have been in the show; it diminished the perception of Kang’s skill as a painter.

Faysal Altunbozar made the error of not being adequately familiar with American contemporary art history. His Foul consists of two ceramic vessels containing urine, synthetic musk, and rubbing alcohol. Urine in a bottle has been a cliché in American contemporary art since Andres Serrano’s 1987 Piss Christ. It no longer shocks or provokes; it only smells bad. And Foul had nothing to do with decoration.

There were a number of other works that were less than noteworthy. The range of artistic skill varied from the “just starting school” to accomplished professionals. This may be unfair to the student artists who have yet to hone their skills. Some of the less skilled participants in the show have not yet mastered the nuances of their media, nor have they found an intellectual foundation with which to explore a subject. Their pieces looked like first year BFA work. I could not understand the curatorial rationale for this extreme of technical diversity.

A curator’s job has traditionally been that of a gatekeeper and selector of that which is aesthetically worthy. Understandably and justifiably, in recent years curators have striven to be open to new, more inclusive guidelines. But that does not mean that you accept everything without exerting some kind of judgment both in the selection of works and in the hanging of the show. In addition, curators these days tend to over-rationalize the exhibitions and burden them with excessive sociopolitical criteria, trying to cast their net as widely as possible in the hopes of ultimately catching something.

“Décorientations” was weak in these areas. Still, there were a handful of artists and pieces in the show that made it worth seeing. And the purpose of Siblings is to have a space in which to explore and refine both artistic and curatorial skills. That makes it a precious and rare resource, and it is why this writer continues to support this space.

Michel Ségard

 

Michel Ségard is the Editor in Chief of the New Art Examiner and a former adjunct assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is also the author of numerous exhibition catalog essays.

 

 

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