Discomfort Levels
Misdemeanors / SPACES

Sidling a couple of steps away from normalcy is pretty much standard practice in the arts.
It’s no surprise that SPACES’ Misdemeanor features works that deliberately misread,
misappropriate or mistreat various realities, twisting usage and generally invoking the
“otherness” that is the muse of so much contemporary art. Unexpected angles, odd
materials, inexplicable choices, and efforts to adjust the comfort level of our culture’s
psychological thermostat are among the basic strategies employed, aiming ultimately to
reconstitute identity in terms of what philosopher Jacques Derrida has called “differance.”
Mainly, Misdemeanor reminds us that artists’ ability to invoke the uncanny, to petition their
materials to engender that strange mental shudder signaling a crossover into new realms
of thought and sensation, is an ever-more elusive goal.

Not that there aren’t some extraordinary moments here. Richard Fiorelli is a long-time
design instructor at the Cleveland Institute of Art who has taught a couple of generations
of students how to re-examine everything they thought they knew about form and function.
At SPACES he displays several pedestal-mounted sculptural groupings of found spray
bottles. Their white bodies and reddish-orange spray nozzles are comically suggestive of
domestic chickens. Fiorelli arranges them in groups of one, two, and five, changing the
direction of the “beak” and “crest” to create an impression of purposive movement. This
demonstration that a simple household object can, with slight alteration, seem poised at
the brink of animation offers an elegant lesson in how our perceptions rely on a substrate
of visual cues.

Or there’s Pile, another found object piece consisting of an old green velvet couch, spilling
its guts all over the varnished boards of the gallery floor. Artist Liz Sargent of Savannah,
Georgia, does more here than rediscover the intellectual thrill of Dada, importing an object
of truly profound ambiguity into the special-case scenario of art presentation. The couch
is menacing, as its uncontrolled fecundity threatens to invade and taint everything around
it. Yet from a different point of view this contagion might also be seen as a late stage of
comfort or relaxation. It’s an image that burns quickly and deeply into the mind, but exactly
why is a matter of interpretation.

It helps that the couch sits in a semi-enclosed space with a wall all to itself. The installation
of Misdemeanor in general is sparse and clean, helping pieces to achieve resonance.
Other sculptures that stretch the fabric of emotional apperception are Alexandra Newmark’
s crocheted mohair works, installed in appropriate isolation in SPACES separate rear
gallery. The Brooklyn, NY artist’s Cycle of Three is a kind of spider web hanging from floor
to ceiling. In the center ghostly white mohair nodules coagulate. It’s creepy, obviously, but
also beautiful, both in terms of texture and of form. As with Sargent’s couch, we are shown
materials that usually connote luxury or physical pleasure, but in a state that conveys
something quite different.

Likewise, Barbara Weissberger’s (Pittsburg, PA) watercolors are all about the pleasures of
eating, even as they move quickly from burgers to bulimia. Weissberger, whose work was
also part of the important traveling exhibit Figures of Thinking on view recently at the
McDonough Museum in Youngstown, paints more or less friendly looking creatures with
large mouths and lots of small, efficient teeth. At SPACES these begin to become the
things they are eating, and again the result is more than a little discomfiting. Weissberger’
s “you are what you eat” visions consist of stacks of very recognizable, mostly fast-food
items – lettuce, tomato, pickles, fries, buns – arranged in configurations suggestive of an
obese human body, sometimes surmounted by a mouth. Attraction and repulsion in such
close alignment set up a sort of appetitive feedback loop; it’s hard to take your eyes away
from Weissberger’s watercolors -- and hard not to.

In a similar vein, Kent’s Kortney Niewerski makes drawings and soft sculptures that would
be almost cute, if they didn’t so clearly derive from medical conditions; one three foot tall
piece resembles a badly infected throat. In her statement the artist writes, A balance
between…the grotesque and the disturbingly interesting is achieved through an attraction
to the odd.” Maybe, but the success of that ratio depends on how much oddness the
viewer finds attractive.

Travis Townsend’s (Lexington, KY) homemade devices sketch a semi-humorous history of
mechanical engineering, mixing and matching rudely constructed ancient and early
modern technologies with devices from the more recent past, like stereo speakers.
Nothing quite has a function and it’s all built out of plywood and other scraps, but visual
logic invents its own more abstract use for the mélange.

A pile of rumpled black fabric on a low white platform near SPACES front windows is part
of an ongoing series by Pittsburg artist Tessa Windt exploring ideas of presence and
absence and the elusive nature of desire. Her black fabric at SPACES could have covered
any large object and is intriguing here because the thing it draped is almost certainly
gone; the cloth, its skin, has taken on a new form – a volcanic landscape, perhaps.
Tschai Johnson’s (born Ethiopia, based in Denver) ceramic objects resemble something
like enlarged porcelain handles, separated from any original function and reassembled on
the wall in a lattice-like pattern. Engaging in a revery of domestic pleasures, her work is
lovely but seems too content to fit in with Misdemeanor’s over-all thematic postures. The
Houston-basded team of Stephan Hillerbrand and Marty Magsamen present a large two-
part video projection that is also a bit of a puzzler. Titled Coffee and Milk, it shows those
liquids combining; children’;s music plays in the background. The piece is about
disorientation and perspective, but again it seems out of place in this show.

But Lauren Kalman’s objects and photographs are situated smack dab in the middle of the
show’s favored territory, between the conventionally, sexually beautiful and what I can only
think of as the realm of the toad. Her color photograph Lip Ornament, for instance, is a
close-up of a young, lovely mouth with perfect white teeth, surrounded by an encrustation
that looks like scrapings from the back of a magic amphibian. At first sight this resembles
grit or just plain dirt, but it is actually composed partly of semi-precious stones, gold, and
other metals; it glints.

At its best Misdemeanor conjures strangely altered states in this way, evoking the
borderlands between dream and waking where reverie makes a sketch of other worlds.

[Free Times 12/20/06]