Inga McCaslin Frick’s startling, seductive mixed-media works at Flatfile make you ask: is that a real object or an image of one? Her mix of actual objects with digital prints never completely blends the two visually, enhancing the sense of uncertainty. These six pieces and the three digital prints in the show have their roots in Frick’s upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness, her subsequent rebellion, and an intense depression three years ago. Fired from a job teaching digital art in Florida, she moved into a friend’s basement in Washington, D.C. She feared her marriage was ending, and on Christmas Eve 2002 she was alone. Though painting was her first love, she hadn’t painted in eight years, teaching instead and creating video installations with Gillian Brown (who’s also showing at Flatfile). That night, Frick began to paint over her old works. “I systematically ruined them–it was like picking up a musical instrument after not having played for a long time. I stayed up all night, and at some point I did something right, and that made me so happy I was crying.”

Frick says she took “a very aggressive stance toward recomposing this life that had gone astray. I thought, ‘I need some friends, some money, some love.’ I went to work on my marriage, and I got a studio space in a building with other artists. I started reading Buddhism.” She called one series she did then “Favela” because “a favela is made out of whatever materials are available, often scruffy things.” She drew the outline of a house over a few of these works–“a great metaphor for structuring the chaos of your world.” When she started to glue fabric and objects to the paintings, one piece “became a big mess, out of control, and I said, ‘I’ll take this into the computer and see what I can do.'” She photographed it, manipulated the photo, printed that, and glued pieces of the original onto the print. “I think of the computer as a metaphor for the brain,” she says, “and I was combining a very mental world with a very physical world.” One of the pieces here, Interior Decorating 1, is a large, mostly abstract digital print that creates complex illusions: an image of hanging fabric on the right is eerily like a piece of actual fabric on the left. Yellow Yonder combines prints of red cushions with real cushions and prints of striped fabric with sheets of the actual fabric, which gush out surreally from the surface. Attaching her prints and objects directly to the wall, as in Yellow Yonder, makes the illusions more vivid.

In response to the certainties of her childhood, Frick embraces uncertainty. For Jehovah’s Witnesses, she says, “there’s not even the tiniest element of doubt. You really are separated from the world. You don’t go to college, you certainly don’t marry outside of the Witnesses, and you wouldn’t use the word ‘believe’–it’s referred to as ‘coming into the truth.'” Frick was a fervent adherent until she was 14, when she got a job where people discussed politics and philosophy. “My head was spinning,” she says–and she had affairs with a number of these adult men. In the late 60s and early 70s she drifted around the United States and Europe, until she got the idea that “I ought to do something,” she says. “I put things I was interested in doing into a hat, and physics came out.” She went to college to study that, then switched to art at the University of California Santa Cruz, where she was introduced to abstract expressionism, whose “rich vocabulary” and “language of relationships” still influence her work. Inspired by the videos of Gary Hill–who “pays attention to the shape of consciousness,” she says–she began to study video and digital art, in part to have a reliable income.

Frick says that her marriage remains challenging, and her economic life in D.C. is marginal (“I live in a building without a shower”). But on another level, she says, “I’m deeply satisfied. I feel I couldn’t be doing anything that’s more interesting. I ground my world on nothingness–there’s no belief for which I’m going to argue. Our subjective beliefs are our illusions, but I do believe in the power of illusion.”

Inga McCaslin Frick

When: Through 10/28

Where: Flatfile, 217 N. Carpenter

Info: 312-491-1190