CHICAGO — Quickly darting up a cement cast of artist Jack Schneider’s left arm, Cthulhu, a brightly colored mantis shrimp, snatches a clam before retreating below a rock in a 75-gallon, acrylic tank. The assemblage “R’lyeh” (2015) sits at the center of the gallery Born Nude and, like the shrimp’s name, is a direct reference to H.P. Lovecraft’s short story which is also the title of the exhibition, Call of Cthulhu. In the story, humans, with their restricted vocal range, call the alien-like deity “Cthulhu,” though it’s understood to be only an approximation of the actual pronunciation. The exhibition attempts to understand the eponymous animal by imitating its natural environment — praising the shrimp’s advancements while pointing out our own evolutionary failures.
Within the supremely minimal show, Schneider literally extends a hand towards the encased mantis shrimp — one of many humble gestures towards the caged beast within the exhibition. Surrounding the shrimp’s aquarium hang three white canvases produced from zinc oxide on stretched silicone. Each of the work’s images remain invisible to the human eye, since zinc oxide’s UV absorption cannot be detected by our limited color receptors. Although the audience is oblivious to the works’ content, the mantis shrimp’s 16-color receptors allow it to presumably view the imperceptible works. Schneider is showcasing a viewpoint that lies beyond human comprehension.
Despite the lack of imagery, the works are still a successful addition to the all-white space, adding texture to the exhibition with material depth rather than visible mark-making. In addition to their stark aesthetic, the works depict bleached coral native to Cthulhu’s natural environment, providing it with some context. Bleached coral has expelled the algae pigmentation needed to survive, a phenomenon that has begun to increasingly occur because of global warming. Like prophetic ghosts, these white images lie just out of our sight, keeping the audience blind to damage that may exist within their control. Instead of perceiving the coral’s distress, the audience remains distracted by the colors they can actually sense, blinded by their own limited visual scope.
Although the 2D works are void of algae, its presence is found in the exhibition’s adjoining room within three “ecosphere units” that sit on pillars of varying heights. In these small works algae is purposefully added to the self-sustaining, glass-encased habitats which also contain ghost shrimp and brackish water. The pods’ man-made nature vaguely references humanity’s failure to survive in a similar manner during the Biosphere 2 experiment in the early 1990s, a sealed-off commune that ended within a span of two years due to depleted oxygen supplies, low food levels, and heated disagreements between the project’s scientists.
By positioning Cthulhu as both the subject and audience of the exhibition, Schneider forces us to take the perspective of a creature with four times our color receptors, questioning, with a subtle, yet cautionary tone, what we’ve missed by casting ourselves as the leaders of the Animal Kingdom. Schneider delicately regards his own role as the author of the exhibition with a respectful distance, referring to each work as an “assemblage” rather than sculpture to ensure the autonomy of the organisms included in the show.
Jack Schneider: Call of Cthulhu continues at Born Nude (1711 S. Halsted Street, Unit #2, Chicago) through December 19.
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