Sabina Ott, 'Inferno,' mixed-media installation (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Sabina Ott, ‘Inferno,’ mixed-media installation (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

CHICAGO — Looking at Sabina Ott’s work is like seeing a giraffe for the first time: there are so many odd markings, shapes, and textures that you think it can’t possibly work, until the moment the giraffe stands up on its spindly legs and, defying gravity, walks around. While Ott’s three-room installation here and there pink melon joy at the Chicago Cultural Center doesn’t include actual perambulation, there are moving parts, sounds, and projected images, in addition to a glorious mishmash of the weirdest materials and juxtapositions of objects. Enough stuff to make you think, at first sight, that it can’t possibly succeed. And yet in the end, it all somehow does.

The work in each of the three large rooms takes its title from the three books of Dante’s Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso. If you think long and hard enough, you might discern a progression from room to room that matches the journey in Dante’s 14th-century poem. The first space confronts the viewer with a hellscape of carved Styrofoam, spray paint, and a threatening lattice shape hanging from the ceiling and obstructing your view like a gateway. Clocks that might be there to remind us of the seconds of our existence tick inexorably away, accompanied by random bursts of drumbeats from a real drum at the center of a large sculpture.

Sabina Ott, 'Purgatorio,' mixed-media installation

Sabina Ott, ‘Purgatorio,’ mixed-media installation

The middle room has a similar assortment of sculptures, plus a fountain/oasis that rises up almost to the ceiling. Perhaps it’s a staging post in the soul’s journey from hell to heaven, or maybe it’s meant to be a giant middle finger to the Frank Gehry music pavilion that’s visible through the windows that look out onto Millenium Park. Whatever the intention, the visual impact is like coming upon the aftermath of an explosion in a plastics factory: menacing and quite beautiful at the same time.

In the third room, what appear to be quotations from love poems are projected onto the walls, spiraling outwards until they swirl around you and even below you, thanks to reflections cast by small mirrors glued to the wall. There’s also an accompanying sound piece by Joe Jeffers, though this wasn’t working when I visited. As I watched the white lines of text snaking around me in the dark, I wondered if they were supposed to be angels in Dante’s heaven, or lines of energy in a more secular universe. After the visual bombardment of the first two rooms, the animation induced feelings of tranquility and peace.

Sabina Ott, 'Paradiso,' animation and four-channel projection

Sabina Ott, ‘Paradiso,’ animation and four-channel projection

There is an ambitious intellectualism to Ott’s work, as evidenced by her numerous literary references (the title of each individual piece in the show is taken from the writings of Gertrude Stein). I find it more interesting that her readings and beliefs are born forth in works of such riotous kitsch. Not just ironic kitsch, the kind that plays with trashy colors and materials as a means of making a throw-away pop culture reference for a knowing audience (looking at you, Jeff Koons.) Ott genuinely seems to have a tactile love for Styrofoam, spray foam, cement, spray paint, etc., carving it into huge sculptural meringues that look delicious enough to eat.

Take care when consuming, though: the sugar is wrapped around steel and razor blades.

Sabina Ott: here and there pink melon joy continues at the Chicago Cultural Center (78 East Washington Street, Chicago) through January 4, 2015.

Philip Hartigan is a UK-born artist and writer who now lives, works and teaches in Chicago. He also writes occasionally for Time Out-Chicago. Personal narratives (his own, other peoples', and invented)...