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It is like a hunt.
So begins the widely anthologized, wildly rapturous essay by Jean Dubuffet titled “Empreintes” (1957) in which the artist describes his improvisational monoprint procedure. (The title translates as “fingerprints” or “footprints,” connoting imprints, impressions, traces, tracks.) Dubuffet proclaims that his approach to the technique, involving a sheet of paper pressed onto an inked but otherwise unaltered plate, results in “richly adorned surfaces like the depths of the sea or great sandy deserts, skins, soils, milky ways, flashes, cloudy tumults, explosive forms, oscillations, fantasies, dormitions or murmurs, strange dances, expansions of unknown places.”
Laleh Khorramian has exploited the iconographic potential of monoprint as a generative process in her studio for some years, using it to make animations that are both epic and intimate. There are no animations in Unearth, Khorramian’s current two-venue exhibition at September and Elizabeth Moore Fine Art in Hudson, New York — no moving images at all, in fact, except a two-and-a-half-minute video of dialogue in text looping on monitor—but the immersive fiction of this recent work has a durational dimension owing to its material complexity, multifaceted presentation, and grand thematic and narrative sweep.
A major undertaking, the show includes dozens of works — monoprints, of course, as well as sculptures, installation, light boxes, window treatments, sound, collage-based works on paper, drawings, and, at Elizabeth Moore, a room-filling, maze-like arrangement of enormous hanging “tunics,” dated 2017, that are essentially two-sided paintings shaped like robes for very large people. These are emblazoned with spray-painted disks, dots, grids, bars, chevrons and the like, ranging in graphic complexity from the logo-like simplicity of “The Surveyor East” to the layered, ornate, and data-rich visual matrix of “The Keeper (Guard of the Inner Sanctum).”
Elsewhere in the gallery is a selection of 16 square, smallish, casually made drawings in colored inks with a fidgety, febrile touch. These clusters of hatchings are titled “Peaks 1” through “Peaks 16” (all dated 2019) and many do indeed coalesce into the features of a craggy landscape; others are less about depiction than about the rhythms, textures, and density of mark-making. Their relationship to the tunics, materially and conceptually, is obscure at first — though one senses that, between the two, something evidentiary is afoot.
Khorramian’s erstwhile reliance on monoprint methods of moving pigment around reappears in “Vestment Illustrating the First Colony Formed in the Fault Lines Beneath the Ocean’s Stratosphere on the Fourth Moon of Golis” (2019; ink, oil, acrylic, and spray paint on polypropylene; 79 by 46 inches). A symmetrical, robe-like shape cobbled together from shards of color and oddments of graphical information, its most distinctive feature is a snaking passage of shadowy monoprinted blotches that alludes to eyes, lips, remote mountain ranges and otherworldly vistas. This eerily specific but unwilled approximation of recognizable imagery, like that which Dubuffet describes, complicates both the scale of the work and its pictorial space.
This particular idiom of making — assembling nonreferential imagery into meta-pictures that also merely hint at description — manifests in several large, utterly engrossing collages at September.
The majestically funky “Egg Rig” (2019, ink, oil, acrylic, and spray paint on polypropylene, 70 by 89 inches) builds on the hallucinatory suggestion of Dubuffet’s essay. The central section of this fragmentary, visually fleeting composition evokes a boxy, skeletal contraption above a churning patch of blue. The title points to an oil derrick at sea, but the pictorial or narrative impetus for the egg-shaped vignette surrounding it remains puzzling.
A trio of quasi-architectural sculptures dominates September’s capacious main gallery. “Portal” (2019), a house-of-cards style construction made primarily of plywood, seems to be made mostly of openings, windows, oculi — vantage points that open up onto one another, like hall of mirrors without the mirrors.
You must step into and through “Portal” to get to “Pod” (2019), a stall or kiosk built for one, as enclosed as “Portal” is open. Seated in the shadowy interior, you face a tall, narrow light box emitting spectral colors in a column of horizontal bars that taper gradually downward. You are alone with someone’s thoughts (but not yours) as a soothing robotic voice recites recondite events past and future, including something about an entity called Corp Corp gaining control of Mars, and the activities of a certain Lieutenant Swimm. A reference to the depletion of Earth’s oil deposits resonates with “Egg Rig.”
Nearby stands “Druid (Tower)” (2019) at around nine feet high, also in plywood with colored gels covering an array of LED lights. It’s roughly hourglass-shaped but hexagonal in plan. Equipped with castors and therefore mobile, it looks vaguely medical, designed perhaps for use by a futuristic ER technician on the go.
Even a partial inventory of Unearth’s myriad constituent elements should include mention of the window works at September, such as “The Scrolls of Rola: ‘The Battle of the Choir’” (2019; oil on polypropylene, lighting gels; 85 by 42 inches). In these inherently anti-illusionistic spaces, the data-like flavor of Khorramian’s design aesthetic comes to the fore — as does the sole appropriated image in the show (I think), a cropped illustration of a riderless camel standing near a tent in a desert. This surely is a clue! Is the work about the ephemerality of “home”? The illusory nature of privacy? Scarcity of natural resources?
If Khorramian’s interdisciplinary strategy is to disorient viewers, we become reoriented perhaps a bit too quickly. A wall text just inside the entrance to the September show divulges the backstory that encompasses this body of work: it comprises the only known artifacts of an ancient, technologically advanced civilization from another galaxy that met a mysterious but likely calamitous end on Earth. The text raises the possibility that some members of this extraterrestrial race have escaped our planet.
This clever conceit allows Khorramian — who clearly loves making all kinds of things — ample room to maneuver, and she deftly ranges across mediums and materials. My reservation about her strategy is that this conceptual cover is summarily thrust upon the viewer, announced literally at the door of the gallery, as a wall text reminiscent of the “didactics” museums use to contextualize exhibitions. It explains the show and accounts for its material diffuseness, and in so doing diminishes its weirdness. The issue is control: why is the viewer’s interpretive latitude constricted? Given so much to look at and otherwise absorb, one could otherwise enter the work in any number of ways.
On the other hand, in an ingenious twist, Khorramian buries a significant plot point amid this abundance of information. According to the audio component of “Pod” (the text of which is available at the gallery desk), the dialogue between Corp Corp and Swimm — the subject of that all-text video — apparently occurred during “the first Mars-based exploration of Earth,” around 2500 CE. The artifacts on view are unearthed in the year 2534, and in the decade preceding 2550 “the first timeline of the Rola is established.” This item concludes that very timeline, which can only mean that the viewer is transported to some point even further in the future. Now that’s a surprise.
Khorramian has been building this narrative architecture for years, so that it’s well established by now and probably familiar to followers of her work. As a stranger in this strange land, a newcomer to this world, I would have preferred to find my own way. Of course, the textual GPS at the gallery door no doubt saved me a lot of time and wrong turns, but then getting well and truly lost is part of the pleasure of looking at art.
In Dubuffet’s ecstatic inventory of the morphology of blotted ink there’s no mention of extraterrestrials, but he attests to a mystical experience of materials as the vehicle of sentient beings, insisting that “the being — more or less whimsical or spectral — populates materials we believe to be inert, in immense numbers; that supposedly deserted places are as rich in events as the heart of a great city […]” He seems to say that not only are we iconophiles, yearning to discern imagery in the arbitrary ebb and flow of pigment, we are lovers also of stories. We hunt for them.
Khorramian elaborates on Dubuffet’s premise, leaving us clues, setting us up, leading us on. (Roland Flexner is also working in this neighborhood, with extraordinary economy of means that contrasts, almost comically, with Khorramian’s maximalist aesthetic). Oblique but not willfully cryptic, Unearth might be an open-ended allegory for our time, or an archetypal tale of banishment and return, or maybe pure escapist reverie. In any case, it’s beautifully and convincingly realized, and I eagerly await the sequel.
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