Though Rena Leinberger had never made a video, she had a strange thought while lying in bed in late 2003. She’d been diagnosed with mono, had had a migraine that lasted two weeks, and was sleeping 16 hours a day. Suddenly she flashed on the idea of making a potato video. “This is kind of nutty,” she thought. She didn’t do it–in fact she was too sick to make any art. When she started again she knit giant mismatched pairs of stockings that represented, she says, “the futility of domestic labor” (they reminded her of “the way things always get lost in the laundry”). When these were exhibited in a New York gallery, she knew something was missing but wasn’t sure what. Sometime later she bought some potatoes and “they found their way” under pieces of corduroy she’d sewn into a 15-foot-long strip. Then she knew what her work needed: potatoes.

Leinberger’s current show at Zg includes potatoes “hiding” under the long corduroy strip (Unearth/Hallway), potatoes stuffed into five-foot-long socks (Close Enough, Squirreled Away), and a video of potatoes cascading down a stairway (Into the Cellar). There are ink drawings of potatoes, six photographs of potatoes arranged in the artist’s apartment, and an installation, To Fill, in which potatoes sit on the gallery’s window ledges and pipes. Blurring the boundaries between image and actuality, Leinberger has created a collage that includes potato shapes cut out of sandpaper (For Length of Days), a photograph of a wardrobe with the door open and potatoes stacked inside (Harvest), and a wooden bucket she carved with two potatoes at the bottom (To the Infirmary).

“A certain blandness” has influenced her aesthetic, Leinberger says. She was born and raised in Ludington, Michigan, which has a “pervasive Protestant practical ethic. The churches have straight-backed pews. Everyone wears sturdy shoes. Their idea of diversity is that there are Catholics in town. A large part of the year the landscape is really colorless. The only seasoning is salt and pepper.”

She notes that her work at Zg is in gray and brown. Despite or because of the blandness of her hometown, however, there’s also “an underlying psychological discomfort to everything, a weirdness and absurdity to life there.” And there’s a strain of absurdist humor and almost demented variety in Leinberger’s work.

While studying at the School of the Art Institute for her MFA, which she received in 2002, Leinberger became interested in “interior spaces and common domestic things” in the work of Guillermo Kuitca, Rachel Whiteread, and Doris Salcedo. Seeking to translate spaces into different materials, she made a model of the floorboards in an Art Institute gallery using more than 4,000 sticks of gum. “I would tend to work completely in silence,” she says. “It was a meditative process, with the same kind of appeal that knitting holds for me now. I hoped I was altering things through materials and scale to make them a bit less familiar, a bit more psychologically uncomfortable.” At Gallery 400 she placed plaster casts of its hinges and doorknobs in an otherwise empty room. “I was interested in having the space itself spread and grow on its own, like a virus.”

Once Leinberger stuffed potatoes in her hand-knit stockings, they gave her “the weird idea of an unseen character who was storing up potatoes in socks.” She started researching the history of potatoes and found that it paralleled Western colonization, since they were brought to Europe from South America by the conquistadors. She also thought about the way potatoes are dependent on darkness–“You have to bury them in order for them to grow.” In 1996 Leinberger was diagnosed with food allergies and advised not to eat bread. She eats a lot of potatoes.

Leinberger felt a bit burned-out and moved to upstate New York in 2003. That November is when she became ill, and she still hasn’t fully recovered, nor has the cause of her “overwhelming fatigue” and recurring migraines been determined. She moved to New York City in April 2004 to work as assistant director for a gallery. But she continues to need more than ten hours of sleep a night, gets dizzy if she stands up too long, and when lying down feels as if “everything underneath me is shifting back and forth ever so slightly.” Many of the pieces at Zg suggest the knitting, whittling, and sewing she undertook while sick. “Illness really does impair your cognitive functioning,” Leinberger says, adding that the show may not make “a whole lot of rational sense–but I feel it does make sense on some other level.”

Rena Leinberger

Where: Zg, 300 W. Superior

When: Through March 12

Info: 312-654-9900

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