Mia Curran, Curator
How might our understanding of art shift if we consider artworks not strictly as objects but as individual, constructed worlds? New York-based artists Lucas Blalock, Marsha Cottrell, Ben Hagari, Ajay Kurian, and Hayal Pozanti each self-consciously embody the role of world-maker by creating artificial pictorial and conceptual spaces. Within these separate realms, they alter the underlying structures of everyday behavior and appearance, whether by reversing color relationships, inventing and inverting language, or negating spatial illusion. They heighten the unnaturalness of their worlds through the use of bright saturated colors, synthetic materials, and digital manipulation. Although world-making can often be driven by escapism or utopianism, the five artists in Worlding each construct their realms in order to reflect and comment upon contemporary reality.
How Art Making Is Like World Building
Sarah Rose Sharp. January 30, 2017
Lucas Blalock's manipulated photographs of mundane and “pathetic” objects call attention to the malleability of images in the digital world. Influenced by Bertolt Brecht’s theory of theater in which the artifice of back-stage conventions is brought to the forefront, Blalock exposes the picture-making and editing process. Shot with an analogue camera, the artist edits his carefully staged and dramatically lit photographs with Photoshop, purposely leaving his gestural manipulations and “mistakes” visible. Referring to the uncanniness of such obviously altered images, Blalock states, “If I do something to a photograph, the viewer has an impulse to naturalize what happened, to correct the mistake.” Blalock’s practice repudiates the drive to correct or perfect images, subverting the widespread use of digital tools to retouch photographs for commercial and corporate purposes.
Marsha Cottrell's work reflects the experience of looking at the world through screens and lenses—evoking the inherent visual distortions as well as the psychological and corporeal disjunction of peering through a “looking glass.” To make her monochrome works on paper, Cottrell draws upon a corpus of simple geometric shapes—squares, circles, and rectangles with curved edges—that she renders on a computer using vector software. Cottrell then prints and reprints these images multiple times onto the same sheet of paper, subtly adjusting the original image each time. The resulting works, with their ghostly layers, document this repetitive and labor-intensive process. Cottrell uses porous, handmade paper that absorbs the powdery matte black toner, allowing her to develop sumptuously layered tonal surfaces that subvert our expectations of what a printed image looks like. The tensions and interplay between digital and organic, obfuscation and clarity, stillness and movement, and interiority and exteriority underlie all of Cottrell’s works.
Recorded on 35mm negative film, Ben Hagari's “Invert” presents a world in which colors appear in their opposite forms, and light and dark are reversed. Instead of transferring the negative into a positive print—customary when working with celluloid film—Hagari transformed his subject, building an elaborate set in which he manually altered the color of nearly every object and being. To create the hanging light and outlet—a prop on view in the exhibition—Hagari painted the bulb and its glow black, illuminating the plug from behind in order for the light to appear bright and the receiving holes of the outlet to read as dark. The constructed nature of Hagari’s film set is laid bare in moments when the artifice of the inverted world is exposed, such as in the white shadow visible under the collar of his shirt and in the white of the parrot’s eyes.
An absurdist tale unfolds in which Hagari, who features in nearly all of his work, attempts to teach his parrot to speak by repeating the Hebrew names of objects around him. Following the internal logic of the film, he says each name backwards, so the Hebrew word for wall—kir—is reversed to rik, which in turn means void. Hagari moves on to play ping pong with his brother in a game in which every serve goes unreturned. The artist’s thwarted attempts to connect with those around him, whether through speech or games, draws attention to the isolating and arbitrary nature of language.
Ajay Kurian’s vitrine “Comfort Zone #5 (Mind the Gap, Praise the Curve)” is filled with an array of objects—fluorescent cast resin bells suspended from multicolored Plexiglas rods, plastic gingerbread men, a toy owl, reindeer moss, and tangles of copper wire—all bathed in a sickly-sweet green fluorescent glow. Both alluring and repellent in its garish colors and bright lights, the vitrine resembles a commercial window display, triggering associations with the domineering forces of capitalism.
The title and imagery reference the use of bell curves to measure children’s academic success against a normative scale that ignores the uneven circumstances of educational opportunity. The plastic gingerbread men in “Comfort Zone” can be understood as the children who are forced to navigate such an unequal system. Their placement within the hermetic space of the vitrine can be understood as protective—placing them in a “comfort zone”—and objectifying—displaying them like animals in a natural history diorama.
The ostensibly abstract forms in Hayal Pozanti's paintings, sculptures, and digital animations are words and statistics transcribed in an alphabet that the artist invented and dubbed “Instant Paradise.” Pozanti explains that her written language, which consists of thirty-one characters comprising equivalents for most Latin letters and single digit integers, serves as a “personalized encryption system” that allows her to obliquely reference information about the effects of technology on human beliefs and behavior. Although it would be possible to learn and decode Instant Paradise, many of the letters and numbers in Pozanti’s paintings and sculptures would be illegible, since the characters are layered on top of each other, thus obscuring individual forms. Pozanti often elaborates on the significance of the featured word or number in titles of her works, such as “51 (Percentage of Americans who expect that computers will create art that is indistinguishable from that produced by humans).” Without a key, viewers are obliged to trust Pozanti’s statements, evoking the “blind” way that we receive and circulate statistics and news today. Pozanti’s work engages with communication and the modes by which we share and obtain information—whether language, data, or images. In a nod to one of the ways that viewers engage with art today, many of Pozanti’s canvases are scaled in proportion to the size of cell phone screens and app interfaces.
Mia Curran is an independent curator and a PhD student in Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City. Mia previously worked as a curatorial assistant at the Whitney Museum, where she was part of the curatorial team that organized America Is Hard to See, the inaugural exhibition in the Whitney's new building, and Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney's Collection. Prior to joining the Whitney, she held positions in the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art, the Research Department at Tate Britain, and the Modern and Contemporary Art Department at the Philadelphia Museum.