HOUSTON, TX. Reduced Visibility, curated by Core Program Critical Studies Resident Kurt Mueller, explores the intersection of abstraction and political subject matter in contemporary art today. The exhibition features photography, sculpture, video, and drawing by five artists based in the United States: Rico Gatson (American, born 1966, lives and works in Brooklyn, New York), Helen Mirra (American, born 1970, lives and works in Cambridge, MA), Mark Lombardi (American, born 1951, died 2000), Lisa Oppenheim (American, born 1975, lives and works in New York, New York), and Trevor Paglen (American, born 1974, lives and works in Oakland, California).
"Abstraction is traditionally seen as counter to realism if not representation; abstraction distorts, occludes, or otherwise aestheticizes the direct and intentional communication of worldly matters," Mueller explains of the exhibition´s curatorial premise. "However, there is also a long historyfrom the Russian Constructivists to Maya Linof abstract form conveying political and social meaning. Reduced Visibility attempts to show how visual abstraction may be a viable, if not also a necessary, means to engage socio-political phenomena today. The artists here address a wide range of issuesfrom government secrecy, corporate malfeasance, racial identity, and the environmentthrough the production of abstract artworks."
Among the artworks in the exhibition, the drawings of Mark Lombardi help viewers visualize a very timely subject: financial and political scandals. International Systems and Controls c.1955 89 (1997), for example, documents the web of corruption and fraud spun by a Houston-based engineering outfit. Using public records, Lombardi literally sketched out the flow of money and influence between corporate identities and global public figures. A complex of arches and lines, the finished drawing provides an elegant and informative picture of power; Lombardi gives visual form, albeit abstract, to what normally remains invisible, fugitive, or behind closed doors.
This effort to represent the unrepresentable is shared by the photographs of Trevor Paglen. San Nicolas Island (#1)/~65 miles 9 (2007), is emblematic of the self-professed experimental geographer´s work to document the "blank spots on the map"typically secret CIA and U.S. military installations. The image depicts, purportedly, a U.S. Navy missile testing a classified-operations testing facility off the coast of Southern California. Paglen shot the picture by pointing an astrophotography lens from Malibu, the closest spot of public land to San Nicolas. The resulting image, a hazy, Rothko-like mix of color planes, indexes the limits of seeing what is purposely held beyond our visual knowledge.
Lisa Oppenheim´s Multicultural Crayon Displacements (2008) similarly reveal the shortcomings of representation, though of the highly visible subject of race. Her photograms each depict one of fourteen colors from Crayola´s Multicultural Crayon Set. Oppenheim recreated each Crayola hair, eye, or skin tone via the earliest known process for color photography, photographing each crayon color with red, green, and blue filters, and then projecting these black and white images through the same red, green, and blue filters and onto a photo reactive surface. The subsequent images are dynamic compositions of overlapping color, alluringly revealing the various wayssocially, optically, and categoricallythat race is constructed.
Racial identity is also the subject of Rico Gatson´s video-sculpture History Lessons (2004). In the ten-minute video, Gatson remixes footage from D.W. Griffith´s Birth of a Nation (1915), clips of stereotypical depictions of African-Americans from 1930s and ´40s Hollywood films, and photographs from the 1965 Watts riots. Gatson submits these images of injustice to kaleidoscopic filters, stylized editing, and the mirroring effect of four different monitors. Another segment of the video offers pictogram lyrics to Bob Dylan´s song Only a Pawn in Their Game (1963)which decries the murder of black Civil Rights leader Medger Evans. Through these processes of defamiliarization, Gatson re-animates history that might otherwise be forgotten.
Sculpture and text-based work by Helen Mirra further consider the potential for abstraction, whether cinematic, language-based, or sculptural, to deliver political import. Bartók (2006), and Unirondack (2006), floor-bound constructions of pinecones and hand-sawn shipping pallets from Berlin´s Grunewald, offer a personal, if not poetic meditation on the ecology of forests. These deceptively simple objects condense a range of ideological references, from Minimalist sculpture to narratives of industrial development, as well as their respective namesakes: the anti-fascist ethnomusicologist and composer, and a Unitarian Universalist camp in the Adirondack Mountains.
Like the other artworks in Reduced Visibility, Mirra´s abstract forms, far from rendering their political subject illegible or inert, open up to other readings. They offer new ways to see, regard, and engage social and political realities, in particular those that are otherwise secreted or hiding in plain sight.
About the Artists
Rico Gatson. (b. 1966) lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Gatson´s multimedia practice, which includes videos, sculptures, and paintings, has been featured in several solo exhibitions at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, including Dark Matter (2009), African Fractals (2006), and History Lessons/Clandestine (2004). Other recent solo exhibitions include Black Magic/Black Power at Steve Turner Contemporary, Los Angeles (2008) and Pocket Utopia, Brooklyn, New York (2008). An installation of his videos at the New Orleans African American Museum was part of the Prospect.1 New Orleans Biennial (2008-09).
Mark Lombardi´s. (b. 1951; d. 2000) work was the subject of a posthumous retrospective, Mark Lombardi: Global Networks organized by Independent Curators International. From 2003 to 2005, the exhibition traveled to nine United States venues, including the Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland; The Drawing Center, New York; and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco. His other solo exhibitions include Silent Partners, Pierogi, Brooklyn, New York (1998-2000) and Crossing the Line: 1994-1998, Museum of Contemporary Art, Washington, D.C. (1998). Lombardi lived and worked in Houston from 1975 to 1997.
Helen Mirra (b. 1970) lives and works in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she is Associate Professor of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University. Mirra´s recent solo exhibitions include 33 Bergwanderwege, Meyer Riegger Galerie, Berlin (2009); Case study: Swiss bird houses, Taka Ishii Gallery, Kyoto (2009); and Instance the Determination, a public project for the University of Chicago (2006-09). Mirra was awarded a residency at the Stiftung Laurenz-Haus in Basel, Switzerland for 2008-09. Her work is currently on view at The Quick and the Dead, curated by Peter Eleey at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis through September 27.
Lisa Oppenheim (b. 1975) lives and works in New York City. Oppenheim´s recent one-person exhibitions include The Making of Americans, STORE Gallery, London (2008), and By Faith and Industry, Galerie Juliette Jongma, Amsterdam (2007). She is an alumnus of both the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program (2003) and the Rijksakademie van beeldende kunsten (2004-5) in Amsterdam. Solo shows of Oppenheim´s photography-based and moving image work open at Harris Lieberman Gallery, New York, on September 12 and the University of California, Riverside/California Museum of Photography on September 26.
Trevor Paglen (b. 1974) lives and works in Oakland, California. An artist, writer, and experimental geographer, Paglen exhibited his work in solo exhibitions in 2009 at Altman Siegel Gallery, San Francisco; Bellwether Gallery, New York; and Galerie Thomas Zander, Koln. Paglen was also recently included in the 2008 Seca Art Award Exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2009), and will participate in the 2009 International Istanbul Biennial. Paglen is the author of three books, including, most recently, Blank Spots on a Map: The Geography of the Pentagon´s Secret World (Penguin Publishers, 2009).