Emily Severance

Covering Ground: The Honeymoon

at School of the Art Institute of Chicago Gallery 2, through January 31

Shane Montgomery

Image Auto at 221 W. Chicago, through March 1

By Mark SwartzIn the winter of 1987 Emily Severance and I took a creative writing class together at the University of Michigan. I wrote stories populated with angst-ridden teenagers that I swore had nothing to do with Brett Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, and she wrote violent prose-poetry about the moon and a little girl whose mother was a prostitute. Beyond her technical skill, which was substantial (at Michigan she won the Hopwood award for poetry by an underclassman), her work was characterized by a hushed atmosphere of genuine pain that left me feeling terminally suburban.

I ran into her a few months ago in the grocery store and asked her if she was still writing. “I’m in art school now,” she said. “I’m in ceramics.” I fell for it. I actually believed she’d forfeited her demons, and her ambitions, for a more modest pastime. A couple hours a day on the wheel, very meditative; some glaze, yes; and now let’s drive it over to the craft show. But when I got a chance to see her work, in a group exhibit of current and recent MFA and BFA students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago Gallery 2, there wasn’t any glaze at all. Severance’s installation, Covering Ground: The Honeymoon, offers an even bleaker and more mortifying vision than her writing did a decade ago.

A web of laundry lines hung with hundreds of squares of oppressively neutral clay dominates Covering Ground. From the outside, the installation presents a spectacle so gray in color and subject matter that the light fixtures overhead seem a futile joke. But remarkably the uninviting scene succeeds in drawing you into its recesses, around rusted basins, cinder-block walls, and wooden stepladders and under clotheslines that droop lower the further you go. If you want to get under the final one you have to crawl on hands and knees. You end up in a grottolike space with an old couch against one wall. The wall opposite the couch is decorated with green paper and images clipped from bridal magazines: smiling brides and at least one child in a flower girl outfit who looks on in awe.

After the difficult journey to the interior, the couch offers a place to rest and to contemplate the smiling brides. The thematic complexity of the installation starts to sink in. The brides appear ridiculous in this setting, but also touchingly naive. They don’t know what they’re in for. “Hon-eymoons tend to be idealized,” Severance told me, referring to the subtitle of her piece. “But what you get is an unfair division of labor.”

The artist calls Covering Ground a tribute to her mother, who is now ill but who used to enjoy traveling. I suspect she saw it as an escape from a tedious domestic existence. There’s water in the rusted basins, and at the bottom of them is sand in which Severance has written the names of places her mother liked to go. Travel brochures litter the ground under one of the ladders. The other has books lined up on its rungs. The title on the spine of one of the older volumes says it all: The Real Guide: Able to Travel.

Like Severance, Shane Montgomery borrows and recontextualizes images in order to critique an entire system of image-making–in his case, the one that supports the automobile industry. Both Severance and Montgomery focus on systems bigger than can be handled in a single work of art: not just bridal magazines but the patriarchy, not just car commercials but cultural ideals that rob the human body of its humanity.

A graduate of the School of the Art Institute, Montgomery was given the opportunity to create an installation using the storefront of Image Auto, a defunct auto-supply store at the corner of Chicago and Franklin. The local nonprofit organization Art Windows arranged for the project, and Cellular One provided a grant.

Image Auto left in the windows four neon signs: “Auto Accessories,” “Customizing,” “Auto Sales,” and “Car Phones.” The artist has added a neon word to each phrase, so that they now read “Auto Accessories Mimic,” “Customizing Flesh,” “Auto Sales Arouse,” and “Car Phones Throb.” To my mind it’s a better use of neon than anything I’ve seen by Bruce Nauman. I wonder if Cellular One knows what its money is going for.

Below the signs are four enlarged “drawings,” hybrids Montgomery pieced together from illustrations in car manuals, books on old toys, and plastic-surgery texts. Each drawing contains multiple conflations of anatomy and technology–the pelvis as oil pan, the retina as an array of electrodes, the thighbone as a shock absorber. Seen from a passing bus, Image Auto is extremely convincing: it looks like an ordinary storefront, especially at night. From the sidewalk, however, it’s possible to study the drawings and to consider their philosophical implications and satirical intentions.

When I talked to Montgomery I brought up Stelarc, the Australian performance artist best known for having doctors attach a mechanical arm to one of his arms, wiring it into his nerves so that he can actually control it like a flesh-and-blood limb. Stelarc claims that by automating his body he’s simply accelerating the forces guiding human evolution.

Montgomery acknowledged that he’s addressing some of the same issues, but he was quick to distance himself from Stelarc’s enterprise. “He’s running from a fear of his own limitations,” he said. Montgomery sees a circular relationship between human anatomy, which can now be altered by several means, and the shapes our machines take. “People develop an aesthetic about themselves,” he says. His work reflects a stance on the relationship of technology and biology that’s neither Luddite nor utopian but thoughtful and probably accurate. After all, we are living in the age of Buns of Steel.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Covering Ground: the Honeymoon” (detail) by Emily Severence / Installation by Shane Montgomery photo by J.B. Spector.