Cornelia Parker

at the Arts Club of Chicago, through July 28

Helen Ziga: Smarten Up

at ARC, through July 29

Leah Oates: Secret Selves

at the Cook County Administration Building, through August 26

By Fred Camper

It can be problematic when an artist relies too heavily on identity politics. Three women with current shows all use found materials or images to comment on traditional female roles, but only one of them–Cornelia Parker–constructs multiple levels of meaning, seeing the human presence not only in terms of Homo sapiens, female gender, but in the wood and metal and plastic objects of our culture.

Parker’s Chicago debut at the Arts Club–a smaller version of a show originated by Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art–establishes this Briton as one of the strongest voices on the contemporary scene. Three themes are intertwined in the 34 works on view, a mix of photography, sculpture, installation, and conceptual art with a performative component. On an emotional level, Parker hints at a mordant, sometimes bleak attitude toward romantic relationships and family life. Her cultural commentary critiques the way we reduce emotions and ideas to material goods, investing much of our identities in objects. And on a philosophical level Parker questions the extent to which the meaning of a thing is determined by its material and form, demonstrating how meaning changes as a material, its form, or both are altered.

The show’s largest and earliest piece, Thirty Pieces of Silver (1989), is a grid of 30 circular arrangements of several dozen silver-plated household objects–tableware, trays, goblets, pitchers, a candelabra, each hanging by one or more thin filaments from the ceiling. But something is wrong here: the objects have all been flattened. Nearby is hung a darkly humorous photograph showing how this was done: a steamroller is moving down a rural road, the objects laid in a band before it. Parker chose a road that bends, and the way the objects follow the curve gives the process a strangely merry air. The finished piece both expresses hostility toward the domesticity the objects represent and turns them into tapestrylike designs with their own beauty. Does the piece document Parker’s rejection of the housewife’s role? Jessica Morgan’s helpful catalog essay mentions “a particular type of British etiquette in which the best teapot or cutlery is displayed to impress visitors,” adding that “Parker’s steamroller literally flattens class pretensions.” Her title’s biblical reference to betrayal adds an edge, though one imagines several betrayals are evoked–Parker’s of bourgeois conventions, and those conventions’ betrayal of authenticity.

Several of Parker’s other pieces appear to unpack domesticity by unwinding the metal objects that symbolize it. For Wedding Ring Drawing, Parker melted two gold wedding rings, drew the metal into a single very thin wire, then mounted it in multiple loops in a conventional frame like a drawing. The piece suggests divorce–the unraveling of the human connection the rings imply. But the visually elegant intertwined loops may also suggest the relationships invented by individuals who have been denied or deny conventional ones. Linking her interests in domesticity and measurement, Parker also mentions in her wall label that the thread’s length (40 feet) is the “circumference of a living room.”

For Measuring Niagara With a Teaspoon, Parker melted down a silver spoon, then drew it into a thread the height of the falls and mounted it in coils in a frame. Again much of her work’s power comes from the combination of “hot” emotional and “cool” conceptual elements. A performative dimension enters Parker’s work in part through the information she offers on how pieces were made. The viewer thinks of the act of drawing metal into thin threads, of conversion from one use to another–a silver spoon becomes both a drawing and a measuring device. Two works hung as a pair, Suit Shot by a Pearl Necklace and Dress Shot With Small Change (Contents of a Pocket), suggest not only the physical act that created them–Parker shot pearls and small change from a shotgun–but also the emotional scenario that might have caused the shooting. Hung on the wall, the clothing suggests human figures; the “bullets” suggest a lover enraged but without ammunition, so the woman uses her pearls to shoot the man while the man shoots her with pocket change. The locations of the holes suggest that the intention was murder.

One of Parker’s central themes is evoked by a title, Matter and What It Means, used for one work not in this show. Similarly, the title Avoided Object suggests an approach underlying many pieces: the attention “deflected” from the “avoided object” is in some ways heightened. One of two works in this show with this title is described in the label as “Photographs of the sky above the Imperial War Museum, London / Taken with the camera that belonged to Hšess, commandant of Auschwitz.” The four mildly poetic photographs of clouds on view, while not as beautiful as Alfred Stieglitz’s famous cloud photos, certainly refer to the aesthetic of the sublime common in earlier art–and savagely undercut here. The Nazis were great celebrators of their concept of the transcendent, enlisting in their cause the mountain paintings of the 19th-century romantic Caspar David Friedrich. What Hoess might actually have photographed with his camera is not shown, but the images we are offered–like Parker’s crushed teapots and disfigured wedding rings–undercut conventional pride, whether in nature or objects.

Negative of Words and Negatives of Sound also speculate on what is conventionally disregarded. Once again, labels offer a crucial description of Parker’s process. Negative of Words consists of a heap of metal filings, nicely reflective and elegantly thin; we are told this is the “silver residue accumulated from engraving words by hand.” Negatives of Sound is a framed collection of very thin black filaments, some curling, some accreted into disks; this is “black lacquer residue from cutting the original grooves in records.” Parker does a couple of things at once here. Making an ecological point, she reminds us that the symbolic expressions we celebrate–music and printed words–produce waste material. She also suggests that “negatives”–a reference to negative space in art seems intended–can be laden with meaning. Parker’s rejection of conventional object-oriented thinking can be seen as a response to our object-oriented, monument-celebrating culture; it’s also a way of encouraging the viewer to think as much as look.

Parker’s themes converge in the exhibit’s most stunning work, Hanging Fire. Burnt shards of wood–the results of “suspected arson,” as the label tells us–hang on some 100 wires arranged in a grid. Arson evokes the destruction of homes, insurance fraud, and mental illness. But apart from these cultural associations, Parker’s burnt fragments remind us of the transformation of meaning when materials are transformed. Whereas in Embryo Firearms she suggests a material’s future–these are “Colt 45 guns in the earliest stage of production”–Hanging Fire evokes a rich and varied past. Suspending her fragments in a giant matrix, Parker presents them almost clinically, like specimens in a museum case–and indeed Morgan suggests that one of Parker’s themes is the way museums deaden the objects they display. But this installation also cuts the other way: Parker creates a ghostly labyrinth that beckons the viewer, its three-dimensional complexity revealing something of the rich fabric that the arson destroyed.

I enjoyed the beaded collages of Helen Ziga and the thoughtful location of Leah Oates’s installation and appreciated their themes. But seeing their work alongside Parker’s reminded me of the difference between great art, which cuts into one’s consciousness like a scalpel, and art that explores well-navigated territory. In her statement, Ziga identifies her exhibit’s focus (in part) as “glamorized fashion photography and its relationship to the function and conventions of beauty, contemporary crafts, traditional painting….How does beauty affect our impression of the worth of an object?” We are on familiar art-world turf here.

By applying brightly colored beads to fashion photos from magazines such as Vogue and Mademoiselle in her 24 pieces at ARC, Ziga converts one genre, the fashion photo, into another, the craft object. Ziga, who lives in a Philadelphia suburb, was unaware of other artists who apply beads to images, but Mark Newport, for example, adds beads to football-player trading cards. Still, there’s nothing wrong with working within a tradition–one of modern art’s silliest myths is that originality is synonymous with quality. And Ziga is very good at what she does. Beading mostly over clothing and hair, she both parodies and enhances the photos’ glamour, literalizing the glitter of these fetishistic images. In Passage 1, a woman’s dress fills the bottom half of the image; Ziga cleverly suggests a wide belt by arranging elongated cylindrical beads in horizontal bands. The basis for Like (14) is a black-and-white photo; Ziga beads the dress faithfully in black but paints the hair beads a bright copper so they shine out from the image’s grays.

There’s humor here, a kind of gentle mocking mixed with genuine appreciation of the images. Expressing an ambivalence common among younger artists, Ziga sometimes seems to be offering not so much cultural critique as cultural apology: it’s OK to like kitsch as long as we do so with a knowing wink. Indeed, for years Ziga has read the magazines she now appropriates. Her beads add glam–but do they offer anything fundamentally different from the original photos or merely foreground their fetishism?

Parody becomes a bit more explicit in a few of Ziga’s images. In Smarten Suit 2 she beads a businessman’s suit, femininizing the male in the way Newport does with his trading cards. Ziga covers the bits of gray hair on his bald pate with silver beads, gently joking about what little he has left of this traditional symbol of youthful potency. In Same Women, her original is an oddly archaic shot posing six women in long dresses amid motorcycles and oil drums in front of an old brick building. Here Ziga’s beads clash powerfully with the scene, reminding us that the original photo represents less a view of gritty reality than the conversion of the unstylish to the stylish, as oil drums become glamorous through their association with motorcycles–to say nothing of the six models.

Leah Oates’s installation, Secret Selves, is the second in a series at the Cook County Administration Building curated by the Hyde Park Art Center. In her statement, Oates, a Chicagoan, writes that “numerous print campaigns picture women in traditional roles….We accept that women are associated with family and nature….In Secret Selves I analyze how these viewpoints affect our development.” These are well-explored themes, and Oates’s printing of natural images (flowers, soil) on silhouettes of women seems a bit tired. Nevertheless the location and installation together provoke some thought.

At opposite ends of a long lobby Oates has installed circular mirrors (evocative of vanity tables) on walls wallpapered to a height of almost 20 feet. Cutout silhouettes of women in fashion-model poses hover some two inches in front of some of the mirrors; photos are printed on either side of the cutouts, the rear ones visible in the mirrors. While the silhouettes generally evoke the idea of woman, the printed images suggest the cultural determination of identity; the mirrors suggest the way women are held up to viewers’ gazes.

I was bothered that Oates used the same kind of photos on both sides of the cutouts. But apparently this was intentional. “I wanted the cutouts to be devoid of personality,” Oates told me, adding that she was responding to the effects of advertising on individuality and the depersonalizing influence of the huge lobby. And the installation does give the viewer an active role–that is, if he chooses to take one. That’s partly why this busy location is provocative: people scurry by without looking at Secret Selves–or much of anything else around them. I recalled the Josef Albers I’d passed unknowingly many times in the lobby of New York’s former Pam Am building, never looking at it until a friend wondered if it might be an Albers. The height and attention-getting mirrors of Oates’s installation challenge all who would walk through public spaces in near blindness. i

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Hanging Fire” by Cornelia Parker; “Like (14)” by Helen Ziga; “Secret Selves” (detail) by Leah Oates.