Renee Rohr: Rubber Song

at ARC, through December 26

John Garrett

at R. Duane Reed, through January 2

By Fred Camper

The line between sculpture and installation has become increasingly blurred since the 60s, when the idea of sculpture as an autonomous form sitting before us in solemn grandeur came under attack. Instead three-dimensional works encouraged the viewer to walk around, into, and through them–interactivity became the norm. But in more recent years artists have begun seeking other ways of making their work new, and chief among these has been a return to content, though not necessarily in the form of representation. Renee Rohr’s 12 sculptures and six related paintings at ARC are abstract, but she’s sought out unusual materials and ways of arranging them that momentarily stump the viewer, who wonders exactly what he’s looking at.

Rohr, a French sculptor living in Belgium and showing in Chicago for the first time, arranges rubber forms on metal frameworks. “The flexibility and the elasticity of the rubber [are] sensually linked to the rigidity and the coldness of the steel,” she writes–but in many of her works both are black, and one can’t tell the rubber from the steel at first. And her gridlike arrangements on a rectangular frame are often unclassifiable: neither painting nor sculpture nor installation, they insinuate themselves uncomfortably into one’s consciousness. Looking a bit like discarded industrial materials or a structure meant to support something else, they nevertheless have no obvious function. Too flat to be sculptures and too three-dimensional to be paintings, these repetitious arrangements–also found in the paintings–suggest an unaccountable obsession.

Most interesting is the way Rohr’s grids suggest minimalism but undercut the minimalist quest for perfection. The rubber’s slight twists and inevitable irregularities remind us that materials are subject to physical laws and won’t always follow where the artist leads. Her rubber grids are a bit like a piece of embroidery based on a Mondrian painting: from the ether of idealized forms one is pulled back into the material world.

Many of Rohr’s works seem to be trying to burst their own boundaries–often the frames from which the rubber is suspended. Euphoric Cascade consists of four layers of black triangles of varying sizes attached to thin rubber cords. The triangles point downward, which combines with the title to suggest a rapid flow like a waterfall, and this implied movement quickly leads the eye beyond the confines of the small frame. The referential suggestion expands the work in other ways: its design is that of an abstract painting, but the layers and the palpable rubber project Euphoric Cascade into space. And though it lacks the full dimensionality and spatial complexity of interactive sculptures, its shallow layers and weird coercion of rubber into rectilinear shapes resist categorization, and the work slides into the viewer’s space, under his skin. It’s as if the frame were an artificial confine that the work aims to violate.

On the Road is transgressive in a different way. Two grids of crisscrossing rubber strands are placed one in front of the other; looked at head-on, one set is convex, the other concave–one pushes toward the viewer, the other recedes. By simply adding opposing curves, Rohr undercuts the presumed endlessness of minimalist grids. The title’s reference to travel is reinforced by the way the two grids suggest approaching and receding landscapes. But the title of AIDS Action is more obscure: a single horizontal bar, suspended between the frame’s sides, supports a number of black rubber strips, tied in the manner of the AIDS ribbon, and some hinged metal parts. Whatever the work’s meaning, these two elements clash on a visceral level: the elegant ribbons have an open feel while the metal pieces are snapped shut, solid, confining. Indeed, Rohr frequently evokes emotional dualities without specifying a context, so each work will be somewhat different for each viewer.

Several very large pieces also violate their frames. In Sonic Vibration two huge rectangles stretch from a few feet below the gallery’s high ceiling to the floor and across it for a few feet. Here the frame itself is rubber, supporting a large, flexible grid of rubber strands and triangles with copper spacers. By designing the piece to trail on the floor, Rohr allows a painterly shape to spill off the wall and extend into the viewer’s space.

Her six large paintings also “invade” the viewer’s space. Their geometric arrays look like those in the rubber works, though they’re never exact copies. The backgrounds are black, the grids white–in fact, at first I thought these were contact prints of the sculptures. But the paintings dematerialize instead of materializing their forms, which have the evanescence of photo negatives or mental images briefly imprinted on the retina. The paintings act as reminders that Rohr wants her very material sculptures to also project into the dematerialized world of the mind’s eye.

John Garrett, a Californian showing 13 sculptures at R. Duane Reed, began his art studies with weaving, and his dense assemblages of found and handmade objects have a fabric-like quality: variously shaped pieces of metal are arranged in repeating patterns that look as if they could go on forever. Like Rohr’s Euphoric Cascade, one piece even suggests a waterfall: Falls is an enormous wall-hung arrangement of braceletlike metal bands that also includes beads and solid disks. The dominant color is silver, so the gallery lights create a vibrant, shimmering effect; the various orientations of the loops give the piece a textured sparkle. And on an even more literal level, Jubilee Palm Basket recalls the way some of Rohr’s pieces violate their own boundaries: aluminum bands are woven together, creating wickerlike surfaces, on a square column–but the wickerwork comes undone at the top, metal bands shooting out in all directions like strands of a wildly fraying rope.

If Rohr’s work has a peculiar heaviness, partly because of her materials, Garrett’s seems almost weightless, airy and oriented upward. And if what makes Rohr’s work powerful is the questions it raises–“What am I looking at?” the viewer is encouraged to ask–Garrett’s pieces are lighthearted, less introspective. His almost decorative work lacks the divided, self-doubting angst of the best modernist art; for him, a change in materials is playful–it may change the mood but doesn’t require a change in form. Thus Falls has a companion piece, Nocturne, whose overall shape is little different but whose darker colors have a more brooding, inward quality. Indeed, by repeating similar forms in slightly varying patterns over the whole surface, Garrett almost empties the work of meaning: his unassertive, gently repeating patterns have no apparent cosmic significance.

Performance and Understudy, another pair, are both basketlike shapes of metal triangles flying out from a rectangular base; the shapes also resemble a flower in bloom, each triangle a different petal. But where Performance is a bright silver, Understudy is made of rusted, graffiti-smeared metal. The self-effacing title suggests that the rusted version might be considered inferior to the shiny one, but Garrett’s intent actually seems to be the opposite: both are made with equal care, and the rusted forms of Understudy have their own, arguably greater varieties of luster.

Here as in other pieces Garrett achieves a decorative effect by repeating similar forms with slight variations that serve only to tickle the eye, not add to the work’s meaning. Some might argue that as a result his work is second-rate, pleasant but devoid of significance. But it’s vital enough visually to suggest that its lack of “significance” is itself a meaning. Garrett seems to argue not only for reclaiming discarded or disregarded materials, but also for rejecting the position that art can and should express a worldview.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Euphoric Cascade” by Renee Rohr; “Understudy” by John Garrett.