Georgina Valverde

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through September 1

Copying the loud, flat colors and simple forms of kitsch objects, many pop-inspired artworks offer no more depth than their sources. Yet it’s legitimate to call into question the cultural relevance of much high art. Georgina Valverde addresses these issues in her seven sculptures at the Museum of Contemporary Art by creating objects that combine kitsch and goofy humor with subtle contrasts that cause the viewer to look again in quiet surprise.

Little Pussy Cat, Come ‘ere, hanging from the ceiling on a piece of yarn, contrasts two elements, one kitschy and the other more nuanced. At one end of a piece of foam in the shape of a fat crescent moon is a cartoonish orange flower cut from felt. Hanging beside the foam is a cluster of crocheted yarn interwoven with twine in pale yellow, blue, and tan; with no identifiable function, this object jokes a bit on Valverde’s use of the craft idiom (she does all the crocheting herself). At the same time, the cluster’s supple colors and lines and its mix of curving horizontals and hanging pieces are subtle enough to encourage close viewing. As the piece twists in the gallery’s shifting air currents, at times the foam provides a backdrop for the crocheted element, underlining the differences between them and offering a little lesson in seeing–reminding the viewer how rewarding it can be to look closely at everyday objects.

Born in Mexico City in 1962, Valverde studied ballet and Mexican folk dance as a child–and “didn’t feel that those were dichotomies.” Her mother played classical piano, and her father was an amateur painter (he taught her to paint) who made his living restoring antique cars. He was “very handy,” Valverde says, making her a pair of doll sandals, for example; he also gave her and her four siblings scrap materials like wood and glue to work with. She spent three years studying dress and pattern making but also became aware of such artists as Titian by looking at her dad’s books of European painters. Her family emigrated to the United States in 1978, and Valverde moved to Chicago in 1989 after undergraduate studies in Virginia; the MCA pieces were made just after her graduation this year from the University of Illinois at Chicago with an MFA.

Thingie 1 is sparser than Little Pussy Cat, Come ‘ere. A single piece of foam weighted by cement inside hangs from the ceiling; just above the foam a crocheted looping strand diverges from the yarn rope. Surrounding the yarn higher up is a tiny springlike wire coil with ends that poke out horizontally at its top and bottom. Overall the hanging form suggests weight while these tiny wire horizontals, defying gravity like a dancer, seem to oppose it. On the other hand, this spare piece may have been influenced less by Valverde’s dance background than by her parents’ “puritanical” hostility toward the Catholic Church, which in Mexico has even more to do with elaborate images and pageantry than in the United States.

Of all the pieces here the largest, Plaything, creates the most dramatic contrasts. A yellow polypropylene rope, which Valverde crocheted into loops, is attached to one wall, falls to the floor, curves up to the ceiling, then hangs straight down, held by a wooden dowel at the bottom. Toward the wall, a series of mushroomlike spirals crocheted out of yellow, brown, blue, and black yarn is attached to the rope. The simple strands take up far more gallery space than the column of spirals, but the thicker, more detailed column curiously balances the longer, thinner, plainer rope. Like the tiny horizontal wire extensions in Thingie 1, the spirals assume a kind of equality with the rest of Plaything, as if Valverde were saying size is unimportant compared to the subtlety of a shape. Returned to the piece’s details, the viewer learns once again the visual interest of everyday objects. The eye wanders around the mushroom disks, engaged by their organic mix of repetition and irregularity.

The contemporary artists Valverde cites as influences include Christian Boltanski, Annette Messager, Tom Friedman, and especially Sarah Sze. But Valverde’s work lacks Sze’s tiny details, complex rhythms, and multiplicity of materials. By using fewer materials, Valverde calls attention to them, in effect arguing for greater engagement with the ordinary.

She does so with humor, as is most evident in Globular, the kitschiest work in the show. A synthetic potted plant sitting on a stool rises from a base made of insulating foam (a home-repair material called Great Stuff) painted in several cartoonish colors. The plant’s thin, curved leaves thrusting into midair contrast with the foam’s bulkier–and goofier–globs. Perhaps what lies behind Valverde’s frequent contrasts between gravity-defying and weighty elements is her dance experience. But certainly the two smaller plants “growing” out of the base under the larger one suggest the triumph of nature over manufactured objects–like weeds sprouting from the cracks in sidewalks or parking lots.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Isberner.