at the Evanston Art Center

On a recent afternoon the view from the windows in the Evanston Art Center’s first-floor galleries was stunning: undisturbed, perfectly white snow-covered grounds, punctuated here and there by dark bare trees, blended softly into the distant expanse of Lake Michigan, which in turn knit itself into the gray sky. There wasn’t much color to speak of; instead, quietly interacting extremes–dark and light tones, large and small shapes, hard and soft edges–commanded attention. Given the large number of windows in each gallery, it was just about impossible to consider the center’s current installations apart from this view and this season.

Unlike many other site-specific installations, which one sometimes imagines would work just as well in one space as in another, Chicagoan Jo Hormuth’s Oil Spills relates beautifully to the center’s Paul Wieghardt gallery. Spaced evenly on the gallery’s white walls are 25 eight-foot-tall, two-inch-deep panels of varying widths, whose long rectangular shapes echo the space itself and the room’s windows. All of the panels are made in essentially the same way and of the same materials: a wood base (its sides painted a cool gray) supports a coat of relatively light, warmer gray concrete over which linseed oil has been spilled in streams to form fluid, ragged-edged dark stripes that run from top to bottom. These thin streams of oil draw attention to similar linear forms nearby–the trees outside, the window sashes, even the gallery’s floorboards–creating an almost organic relationship between the panels and the room; they seem to literally grow out of its basic elements.

Into the overall repetitive construction and design of the panels, Hormuth introduces subtle variations: some bear only one linseed-oil stripe, others as many as nine; the concrete’s tone is sometimes lighter, sometimes darker; some panels have a relatively smooth surface, others rough, depending on the tools and method used to spread the wet concrete. Such variations rescue the project from a potentially deadening uniformity. Like Jackie Winsor and other minimalist, process-oriented sculptors, Hormuth respects her materials: she doesn’t force the work to be anything more than the sum total of what wood, concrete, and oil–brought together through straightforward, relatively simple means–can be.

To a certain extent, Oil Spills is highly abstract–it is what it is and can be appreciated solely for its clarity of conception and construction. Yet it is also mimetic. Inspired by the artist’s memory of how the facade of Chartres cathedral looked one day after a rainfall, the piece imitates rain-streaked stone. It has other associations as well. Wherever there are indentations or other minute changes in the panels’ concrete surfaces, the oil stains appear lighter in tone. These tonal changes create an illusion of light dancing over an irregular surface and, combined with the imprecise, wavy edges of the stains, magically transform the hard, static concrete into something soft and continuously in motion, like billowing curtains or a cloudy winter sky.

Its mimicry of light and shade on flat, wall-mounted surfaces places Oil Spills as much within the tradition of painting as of sculpture, as does its use of linseed oil, the strong smell of which pervades the gallery. Contrary to expectations, here’s a sculptural installation paying homage to an important but normally unseen component of oil paintings.

In fact, Oil Spills delights in working against expectations. It takes drab, anonymous concrete and makes it singular and almost sensual; it renders an extremely minimal and repetitive design lively by alternating areas of dense activity with quieter, less eventful moments; it persuades us that the understated components of a winter landscape just might add up to a thing of great beauty.


at the Evanston Art Center

Next door, in the center’s central first-floor gallery, New York artist Reeva Potoff’s installation The Shape of Things to Come, 1992 also takes into account its room’s prominent windows and the landscape visible through them. But while Hormuth’s installation echoes and celebrates the gray winter scene, Potoff’s stands in contrast to it, simultaneously pointing back to late summer and forward to spring.

The Shape of Things to Come, 1992 essentially consists of a wide, continuous swath of black fabric. Draped in front of two windows, one at each side of a large bay, and then over several bamboo poles hung horizontally near the ceiling, the fabric hangs loosely in the center of the room, not quite touching the floor. At first glance it resembles an oversize curtain that, exceeding its usual function, dramatically dominates the room. Its materials are as unusual as its size and placement: spidery, crisscrossing black threads join countless pieces of torn, irregularly shaped carbon paper that’s been sanded until it’s full of tiny holes. Tucked here and there into this fragile material are yellow and green plastic branches and leaves, their newness and bright color standing out against the dark, tattered paper.

On every tree at the end of summer, as Annie Dillard wrote in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, scores of once-new leaves can be seen “half-eaten, rusted, blighted, blistered, mined, snipped, smutted, pitted, puffed, sawed, bored, and rucked.” Potoff’s carbon paper, poised on the brink of disintegration, looks like it’s suffered more than a few of these indignities. Yet the bright bits of undamaged artificial foliage caught in it and the nestlike shape of the space carved out by the fabric speak of spring and regeneration. As a result the piece vacillates between states of being, at once new and old, man-made and natural.

Potoff has hung the fabric so that viewers can make a full circle around it and inspect its materials and construction closely. But upon closer viewing the piece begins to disappoint–from end to end most of it’s made in exactly the same way. The two ends of the fabric, bunched on the floor beneath the windows, do have slight differences: on one side the pieces of carbon paper are larger, less worn, and more densely layered, while on the other they’re laced with pink thread. But these variations don’t go far enough–there’s no part so lush and thickly layered one can’t see through it, nor is any part so disintegrated as to consist of threads alone. As a result The Shape of Things to Come, 1992 doesn’t evoke the astonishing variety of forms and transformations to be found in any square foot of land or within a single season.

Still, Potoff’s carbon-paper curtain/foliage, contrasting pointedly with the bare trees visible through the gallery windows, points up the acute differences between seasons, differences most of us technology-dependent urban dwellers can avoid experiencing too fully. It holds its own elegantly against the severity of the white walls within the gallery and the white landscape without.