A still from Lilli Carré's video "Glazing" (a drawing of a nude woman with brown hair)
A still from Lilli Carré's video, Glazing Credit: Courtesy Western Exhibitions

While living alone in the woods of northern California at the start of 2020, Lilli Carré started learning chess. Like many folks deep into the pandemic, she took up a new hobby. While trying to draw inspiration for her work, she incorporated her new vehicle for communication when all touch and connection were lost. 

Carré’s fourth solo show at Western Exhibitions, “Arrangement in the Steps of a Horse,” opened March 12. The show’s title comes from a classic move in chess where the knight touches every square on the board only once. The knight piece pivots in an L-shape across the board. Based on this movement, Carré says she started “making a web of connections around this idea,” and the show evolved as a result. 

The work clearly references chess but steers away from the look and purpose of traditional chess pieces. “I wanted them to stand at human scale in the room in a power dynamic with the other pieces that can only be imagined from their presence and names,” says Carré. 

“Arrangement in the Steps of a Horse” includes Glazing, an animated, one-minute-long, looped video. A nude watercolor figure folds and bends at a quick pace. Their hair whips, they slump to the floor, their skin melts into a giant foot, hand, and limb as the audio track plays the sounds of people talking in a room. At one moment, the figure runs into the distance and directly back again, bumping into an invisible wall or barrier along the way. Thinking about Carré’s chess pieces, I imagine this is how the knight fights when making his L-shaped movements towards the king. 

An excerpt from Lilli Carré’s video, Glazing.

Pedestals in the center of the gallery nod at chess pieces in a more direct way, although they are still reimagined. Their geometric shapes cut into the space as enlarged pieces that are human-sized. One piece, in particular, features a pawn—green in color and small in size. Titled Green Queen, the glazed ceramic on the geometric pedestal makes a bodily statement as is the constant theme of much of Carré’s oeuvre. The positions of bodies and how they move through space is an ongoing interest. 

artist Lilli Carre's sculpture Green Queen, a white piece in the shape of a chess piece sitting on a white pedastal
Green Queen, a 2022 work by Lilli Carré. Glazed ceramic, custom pedestal. Credit: Courtesy Western Exhibitions

Carré often exhibits sculpture, mosaics, ink drawings, animation, and weavings. When I ask her about the use of so many mediums within the show she says, “I’m always orbiting between different forms and materials and I couldn’t work any other way.”

“Lilli Carré: Arrangement in the Steps of a Horse” and “Figures, Grounds”
Through 4/23: Tue-Sat 11 AM-5 PM, Western Exhibitions, 1709 W. Chicago, 312-480-8390, westernexhibitions.com

The “pivot” that the knight makes is represented in how the artist works, jumping from one medium to another. “Unfortunately for me, I am drawn to very labor-intensive mediums like hand-drawn animation, weaving, and now stone mosaic, but there’s a tactility and meditation to those processes that is necessary for me,” she explains. These more tedious works are shown alongside her ink drawings, which she explains were quickly rendered. 

Carré’s background is in comics and experimental animation where she exaggerates and dramatizes the body. In these ink drawings, feet are engorged as they walk on the chessboard, hands seem monolithic as they determine which pawn to move, and noses seem comically large as they ponder their strategy. One of the drawings, Tip Toed, features two feet interlocking with the hands of a figure that seems to be being stepped on, as if the figure lying down is now the chessboard, directing the moves of the feet that it holds. 

Hands and feet are central in the exhibition. They reference movement, placement, and appendages that physically contribute to change. Touch penetrates the gallery. Carré sees “a cartoon body” being “freed from the usual physical and psychological constraints and expectations.” 

She says, “I liked all of the shifts between how the work all feels together in the room; the fluidity of the animated body smearing between art historical poses, versus the heaviness of the stone mosaic on the floor, versus the lightness of the ink gestures on paper, versus the verticality and posture of the ceramic chess pieces on pedestals that evoke rising and falling accordions.” A push-pull concept between the pieces in the space. 

In gallery two of Western Exhibitions is “Figures, Grounds,” a group show featuring work by Dan Attoe, Elijah Burgher, Julia Schmitt Healy, Leasho Johnson, Robyn O’Neil, Lauren Roche, and Frances Waite that also opened in March. Working alongside Carré, although in an entirely different show, “Figures, Grounds,” blends landscape and bodies within the work. Though these two exhibitions should not be compared to one another, it’s difficult to not see similarities. 

Attoe’s painting Midnight Swim (image 20 at the link) is the current background on my laptop. The painter and sculptor, who lives in Washington state, paints haunting depictions of landscapes and the small people who inhabit them. Often dark in hue, images of water contrast the small pale bodies that frequent the mountains or forests that Attoe dreams up. While Midnight Swim isn’t a part of the exhibition, two of his other works, The Hook Up and Escape From Women’s Prison, feature landscapes: one with water and the other with mountains and sand. Much of Attoe’s work includes text written so small that you have to inch up close and squint to read it. 

Dan Attoe, The Hook Up, 2004. Oil on wood. Credit: Courtesy Western Exhibitions

The works in “Figures, Grounds” illustrate the human body through silhouettes like Johnson’s work—who references his experience growing up Black and queer—or Schmitt Healy, a Chicago Imagist who focuses on the body’s absurdity, represented here in her 1974 sewn watercolor on treated muslin.

Many of the works in the exhibition use acrylic or oil, charcoal, or pencil to depict figures in movement. When in the space, the viewer is left with questions of who, what, where? While there aren’t many answers, the space and the works exist thoughtfully on their own and in conjunction with one another. Though they are two-dimensional, Western Exhibitions reverberates with bodies and the spaces they inhabit.