03. Britt Julious Reviews Dan Gunn & Wendy White

After a decade during which audiences were seemingly inundated with work that didn’t say much but was clever in a recognizable manner, it’s comforting to realize that contemporary young artists are still creating works that engage the viewer rather than just exploit familiar pop culture references. Two years in to the worst economic decline since the Great Depression, the art world is in a state of flux. And for many young artists like Chicago’s Dan Gunn, the fluctuating climate in contemporary art is a means to go back to ideas that make art a critical tool and one that engages with its public: a return to aesthetics, physicality, and the active courtship of the senses.

A return to these tenets should not indicate that Gunn’s work is in any way stale. Instead, his work is multi-faceted and layered, something that continues to evolve for the viewer. In his first solo exhibition, Multistable Picture Fable, the artist employs a variety of materials to playfully challenge ingrained ideas about sculpture and painting. The work comprises a series of panels that are linked together. Each panel supports assorted objects, each inviting the viewer in. Surprises are to be had in the tiny crevices or behind the face of each work; the experience of viewing this work is one that is fragmented as the viewer navigates from the specific to the total, particular detail to general impression, piece to whole.

There is a physicality to Gunn’s work that is alternately whimsical and challenging. Observing the titular piece as it spans across the main exhibition gallery requires time and patience, a demand seldom made on the contemporary art viewer. A white, subtle light reflects off the wall of the Lloyd Dobler Gallery. In the main gallery space, this light is the only aspect of Gunn’s work that meets the conventions of painting exhibition — that is to say that the wall supports the exhibited work. Here the light is not a separate entity, but rather an offshoot of the larger, all-encompassing eponymous work, highlighting the varying cut-outs, additions and sculptural elements that make Multistable Picture Fable a stimulating visual feast. The panels vary in height and size, weaving a twisted curvature that connects and separates to alternately create one singular piece, or two separate pieces that speak to one another. One panel features a broken wooden chair on the back, another sports a window that affords the viewer a less likely angle. One must literally bend and twist and circle around the work in playful engagement to suspend the norms and pretenses that so typically obstruct the viewer’s involvement with contemporary art.

DAN GUNN: MULTISTABLE PICTURE FABLE
LLOYD DOBLER, CHICAGO
1545 W. Division, Second Floor
11 September – 16 October

Wendy White can’t be contained. Her large scale works — part painting, part sculpture, part literary wordplay — are so enigmatic that the Andrew Rafacz gallery space, where her latest Chicago solo exhibition ran, seems small, downright tiny in comparison. This is not a reflection of the gallery itself, but rather a testament to White’s vision. Even the relatively small canvases from her latest work, constructed and manipulated in the same vein as the show-stopping first four works one encounters upon entering the gallery, take up space and demand active participation from the viewer.

FRENCH CUTS is not only an exploration of the practice of painting in the contemporary art world, it also serves a more direct purpose: the melding of various artistic disciplines (the literary, the visual) to make a more visceral and tangible experience for the viewer. White’s works are immediate; This is best exemplified through her use of short phrases carved into the outer edges of her spray-painted canvases. In the show’s titular piece, the words ‘FRENCH CUTS’ are hewn from the right side of a canvas that takes up nearly one third of the gallery’s walls. Though the viewer instantly recognizes the carved symbols as letters, it takes a few moments to recognize and form the phrase, and, from there, to synthesize the various aspects of the canvas into a total impression of the work.

White incorporates text with images as a means of elevating the traditional use of a canvas, but also, as a means of expanding on ideas and words through a more physical medium than the spoken and written word. White states that the words on her canvases express her thoughts, and that these time-cultivated ideas are made more real by their appearance on the canvas. She addresses the limitation of speaking and writing by employing text in a painterly and sculptural way, granting the abstract a strong physical presence.

Examining the relationships between the literary and the visual, sculpture and painting, is not what makes White’s work so distinct; It is the means by which she conducts these experiments — her playful choice of materials — that makes FRENCH CUTS a step forward in terms of responding to the work of other artists, such as Frank Stella who pioneered the shaped canvas. These works use “lesser materials” such as Day-Glo spray paint, a choice that heightens their immediacy. The transposition of street to gallery makes the works pop against the space’s minimalist aesthetic.

White connects the world of the gallery, the world outside and her own internal world via her use of materials and confessional pronouncements before a larger audience. By exploring the physical properties of text and typography, and treating the words as malleable, sculptural objects, her canvases tread a fine line between abstract form and conceptual point-blankness while still eliciting a visceral reaction in the viewer: one of recognition. The ideas that White espouses through the textual aspects of her canvases are things that the viewer can identify with, and though the medium is unlike the ways in which one would normally communicate — vibrating the vocal chords or putting pen to paper — the thought that shapes the canvas is relatable. If it all seems somewhat familiar, that is the point.

WENDY WHITE: FRENCH CUTS
ANDREW RAFACZ GALLERY, CHICAGO
835 W. Washington Blvd.
10 September – 23 October