What defines sculpture and painting? How do we understand the difference between flat surfaces and dimension? What colors represent contemporary misery? Specific Abject, a group show open through May 12 at the Rio Gallery, features two- and three-dimensional pieces that play with these ideas. Pieces by Jared Clark, Christopher Lynn, Abraham Kimball, Allan Ludwig, Joseph Penrod, and Jean Richardson invert expectations of media and texture. Individually, works like “Five Thousand Souls” by Kimball or “Wailing Wall Bild” by Clark confront dark contemporary social issues in colors and materials unique to our LED and polymer-saturated present. Taken together, the conversations between all the artists’ pieces deepen themes about current events and modern perspectives that run through the exhibit as a whole.
Rising in the center of the gallery and featured in marketing materials for Specific Abject, the most visible piece of the group is Christopher Lynn’s colorful “Misplaced Wall.” A native of Utah with an MFA from Ohio State University, Lynn’s pieces tackle most obviously what the artists’ statement describes as “the possibilities of painting, or the possibilities of how painting’s mores can be used to frame other practices.” An assemblage of cubes and rectangular prisms, each component of “Misplaced Wall” has a pastel-colored, painted surface that looks like brick and mortar or cracked stone. Like many other pieces in the exhibit, the work’s parts invert expectations of surface—the painted marks give an illusion of brick, but none of the dimension or texture of brick is present.
Walking among the dozens of these imitative building materials stacked and arranged in rows, it feels as though you’ve entered a cartoon environment or Disneyland set. Lynn’s piece dances with the kitsch and poppy, but the shape of ”Misplaced Wall”—a looming barrier—is a sinister reminder of structures used to keep people out of forbidden zones or inside prisons. Playing with painting and sculpture, Lynn creates a dissonance between the wall structure of the assemblage and the hyper-childlike, cartoony style of the execution.
Cartoon and kitsch stylistic elements are also present in the works of Penrod, Kimball, and Clark. The piece “Wailing Wall Bild (Homage to Philip Guston)” by Clark places the exhibit in relationship to Guston’s work and a style that many art historians refer to as “cartoon realism.” Guston departed from Abstract Expressionism in the 1970s, creating paintings of balloon-like structures with black outlines and pink paint, each with repeating black slits that resemble windows or doors. The rounded, fleshy shapes, coupled with colors that might be found in a child’s crayon case or a candy store, still manage to look sinister. Often read as a representation of the violent and entertainment-saturated world of the late 20th century, Clark’s use of the reference sheds light on his own pink-painted sculpture.
“Wailing Wall Bild” is a sculptural assemblage made of painted and stacked knife blocks. The description invites the audience to write sorrows, fears, or hopes on pieces of paper and place them inside the knife slits. The title’s reference to the Western Wall of Jerusalem, a traditional place of mourning for Jews, and its overwhelming size, partially reflect the confrontation of the grim realities of modern life that Guston experimented with in his paintings.
A Utah Museum of Contemporary Art’s commentary on earlier pieces in the Bild series notes, “The title of this series, Bild, references both imagery and construction, as it is the German word for a painting as well as a homophone for ‘build.’ While the Bild is clearly a sculptural installation, it poses itself with a flat rectangular side which begs to be read as a painting, while the backside of the Bild betrays its nature as sculpture…”
The painted flat surface of “Wailing Wall Bild” relates to Lynn’s wall, and demonstrates the same experimentation with flatness and dimension going on in his coated porcelain and metal found objects of “Piggy Back to Back” and the two “Kitschbild” works. “Kitchschbild: Birds” reads like a flat rectangular painting when viewed from a distance. On closer inspection, the flat surface is the underside of found porcelain birds coated in shiny wax. When the audience circles to the side of the piece, the work reads like an oddly orientated sculpture. Its dimensions are hidden until you move around it, as are its cute and unsettling animal building blocks.
Finally, one of the most striking works in the exhibit—also in the form of an imposing structure made of repeating objects—is Kimball’s “Five Thousand Souls.” The piece is made of 5,000 pairs of clean white sneakers, stacked in high rows that reach the eye level of an adult. The text alongside the piece explains that in the last few years, vendors on European streets have begun selling scores of used shoes. When the origins of the shoes were traced, authorities discovered that scavengers have been finding shoes and other possessions washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean, where an estimated 5,000 refugees have drowned since the beginning of the refugee crisis.
The repetition of the identical white sneakers creates an emotional and physically weighty object. Like the thousands of shoes from the Majdanek concentration camp on display at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, when the number of faceless casualties is represented by something we relate to—pieces of clothing that we wear on a daily basis—that statistic is harder to push aside and creates an emotional impact. The shoes in the piece are unworn and anonymous. In the past several years, thousands of casualties leave no record of where they came from, who their family members were, or who they were as individuals. The unused shoes also remind us of the human potential so often extinguished by violent conflicts.
Initially, Specific Abject appears to have a broadly material-focused theme of the most concern to artists. But at its heart are conversations about our perspectives on suffering and how to bring reality or depth to flat, deceptive components of the contemporary world (remote conflicts, casualty statistics, historic tragedies, or the animal origins of our consumer products). When viewed from different angles, the parts come together as elements of a larger whole.
Specific Abject, featuring the work of Jared Clark, Christopher Lynn, Abraham Kimball, Allan Ludwig, Joseph Penrod, and Jean Richardson, at the Rio Gallery (SLC) through May 12.
Hannah McBeth studied art history, classics, and Mediterranean archaeology before getting a Master’s at Cambridge University. She enjoys writing, hiking, and traveling to far-off places. Follow her on Twitter @hannahmcbee.