Angelina Gualdoni: Demo

at Vedanta, through February 8

John Wanzel: The National Defense and Interstate Highway System in Miniature

at Dogmatic, through February 1

Realizing that hubris lies at the root of civilization’s “achievements,” many recent artists eschew modernist claims to artistic truth in favor of more modest and contingent statements. Angelina Gualdoni’s six carefully crafted paintings at Vedanta all depict the 2000 demolition of the Horizons Pavilion at Disney’s Epcot Center while John Wanzel’s 13 pieces at Dogmatic explore our interstate highway system. Both 27-year-old artists critique the notion that technology makes life better.

The Horizons Pavilion offered 15-minute tours of its exhibits depicting a fabulous future, including an underwater city and a space colony. But Gualdoni’s painterly techniques link destruction and growth, at once supporting and undermining utopian ideals. She once said of her earlier work that she wished to create “expansive and sweet” spaces. Here the colors are pastel and gentle, suggesting baby clothes; in The Ebb and Flow she frames the partly demolished pavilion with branches bearing cherry blossoms–her own addition to the site. The foreground lawn is depicted in thick gobs of pale green paint forming undulating patterns–patterns also found in the partly demolished right half of the pavilion. Indeed, the curved lines of the lawn and building seem connected, forming a perceptual gestalt that contrasts with the straight edges of the pavilion’s undemolished portion. Suggesting that demolition is a natural process, Gualdoni’s technique–not just the content of her paintings–makes vivid for the viewer the notion that human constructions eventually return to nature.

The show is not without humor. The largest painting, From the Minuscule to the Grandeur, shows the pavilion in its most diminished state, with only a fragment still standing–magnified to look mountainous. Contrasting order and chaos, Gualdoni makes the foreground fence and rectangles of the roof clean and fairly regular, but between the two the building is twisted and jumbled. In Surface Color Burst the collapsed right side of the roof ends in an intense jumble, almost as if the building were spouting multicolored flames. A blank white space in the orange wall in front of the building, into which paint drips, seems a painterly “mistake” mirroring the destruction of Disney’s “perfect” creation. Similarly, in four of the six paintings the foliage is smeared, in contrast to Gualdoni’s usual clean style.

A Chicagoan who received an MFA in 2000 from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Gualdoni grew up in Saint Louis; her father is a painter and printmaker of abstractions and landscapes. In high school she was amazed by Pollock’s large canvases (“You could look at them and get the same feeling that you get looking at the ocean”), and shortly afterward she discovered her favorite painter, Sigmar Polke. His “collage aesthetic” inspired her earlier work, included an exhibit in which she extended floral patterns from her canvases onto the wall, “kind of painting wallpaper.” More recent influences include Sol LeWitt and the “hyperutopian” landscapes in Claritin commercials; in the last few years she’s become interested in architecture, doing a study of greenhouses and of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes and making a trip to Brasilia, Brazil’s planned capital. There she was fascinated by both Oscar Niemeyer’s “entrancing, sculptural buildings” and “the utter failure of the project–so awful, so mean to its inhabitants, especially if you don’t have a car.” Searching for “demolition” images on the Internet, she discovered the photographs that served, with considerable alterations, as the basis of these paintings.

The most classically balanced of the six, Fruition, places the pavilion and a surrounding wall almost dead center, framed by trees flanking a walkway. The roof at right is a chaos of wreckage, while at left center the lower portion has been removed and you can see through the building. The evenly painted wall and walkway form a pointed contrast to the chaotic lines of the partly demolished pavilion, and the lawn and some of the trees are painted in yet another style: their green is neither solid nor articulated but smeared horizontally, recalling the smearing of some of Gerhard Richter’s photo-based paintings. Like his work, hers introduces an element that distances the viewer from the artist’s hand and thus from the subject matter. Somewhat resembling the blur seen from a moving car, Gualdoni points out, the smearing implies that this is one of many possible representations of “reality.” Like the other smearing, it suggests that all human creations–including the pavilion and the building that will replace it, sponsored by NASA and Hewlett-Packard–are as arbitrary and impermanent as the images we make.

John Wanzel’s exhibit at Dogmatic, he writes in his statement, “explores the national highway system, specifically the span of Interstate 55 between Chicago and St. Louis,” focusing on “a fragmented history of the roads, as well as reconstructed empty spaces between metro areas in sound, photo and model.” The show is best seen in order, going clockwise around the room from the left as one enters, because it begins with framed wall texts offering background information: the interstate system was recommended by Roosevelt but wasn’t implemented until Eisenhower signed the enabling legislation in 1956 (he’d been impressed by Germany’s autobahns during World War II). According to one panel, the result was to “change the face of america…more than any single action by the government since the end of the war.”

Like Gualdoni, Wanzel is skeptical about technology’s promise. Also a Chicagoan, he got his BFA in 1999 from the School of the Art Institute. He grew up in the Saint Louis area as well, and returning there he’s often driven on the stretch of I-55 his exhibit documents. Like Gualdoni, he used the Internet, where he discovered most of the information included in his text pieces. Chris Burden and Joseph Kosuth were early influences, as were several sound artists; today Wanzel’s work includes sound pieces, broadcast on WLUW FM’s Something Else program.

This exhibit is undermined a bit by its easy irony, a hint of the smug superiority too often found in young artists’ work. And while Wanzel seems critical of the interstate highway system in his art, he nevertheless owns a car–though he feels guilty about it: “I try not to drive when I don’t have to.”

This is nonetheless a subtle, often affecting meditation on the nature of driving and highways, using text, sound, and images not as decoration but in an attempt to understand the world. The wall texts indicate that the interstates were born of a utopian dream, referring to a 1939 World’s Fair “Futurama” that envisioned 14-lane superhighways over which vehicles would move at 100 miles per hour, with radio beams preventing collisions. But Wanzel points out the disparity between dream and reality. One of two sound pieces, Portrait, Just North of Bloomington, IL, evokes the geographical and emotional displacements of a road trip: this eight-minute loop combines the familiar roar of a car at highway speed with a very restless hand on the radio dial–few stations are heard for more than a few seconds.

Wanzel’s incomplete, hand-drawn map of I-55, Across the Land of Lincoln, Interstate 55 and Other, offers a highly personal, ambiguous view: curiously tentative, it presents the road as a thin charcoal line only faintly distinct from the drawing’s dark background. Most impressive visually are the two final pieces: large painted plaster models of stretches of I-55, Southern Section, Around Lexington, IL and Northern Section, Outside Odell, IL. They offer a fitting climax to the preceding texts, “I Like Ike” buttons, sound pieces, and photographs. Because we know the road continues far beyond the edges of the models, their square shape emphasizes the way our civilization breaks up land geometrically.

There’s something oddly touching about seeing this monumental road–make no mistake, interstates are our modern monuments–modeled in such a fragmentary, imprecise, almost childlike manner. The road’s borders and white lines, for example, were not done with a straightedge and waver randomly. The absence of any vehicles and a small billboard communicating only its availability for advertising contribute to the desolate tone. The road isn’t at the center of either model, and it cuts through low hills in the southern section and is dominated by a brown patch of farmland (actually a piece of carpet) in the northern section–dislocations that add an odd melancholy.

Equally effective are the 12 small photographs in “Driving From Chicago to St. Louis and Back Again in Late October,” a series whose skewed angles and off-center compositions deftly capture the way a driver casts quick sidelong glances at the landscape. The sliver of a field under a huge sky, two overpasses with no context visible, a featureless highway shoulder–all are elegant visual expressions of the commonplace that highways destroy our sense of locale. After I left the gallery and passed under the Dan Ryan expressway’s massive overpass, which dwarfs the cityscape while creating underneath it a shadowy no-man’s-land, it seemed to me that a small vacant lot on Canalport and the short row of houses behind it were weirdly isolated and rootless, alienated from their surroundings.