Empty Set gallery, an artist-run cooperative in a South Bronx warehouse continues to expand the schedule they’ve maintained after their ill-timed inauguration in March 2020 when the COVID outbreak forced an online-only format. This latest is a group show curated by painter and exhibition participant Matthew Robinson, who along with Siobhan McBride and Brian Zegeer invite visitors to consider the portmanteau term confabulation as context for the show’s emphasis on memory.
Though Merriam-Webster cites its appearance as early as 1604, Dr. Karl Bonhoeffer’s 1900 clinical spin on the word underscores the exhibition’s premise. In a psychological context, confabulation refers to obvious falsehoods invented by individuals to fill gaps in their memory. Bonhoeffer identifies such episodes as symptoms of psychic or physiological brain damage, concluding that false memories were not dissembling if the patient believed them. That notion appeals to the trio of artists here who embrace inaccuracies as poetic license.
Robinson’s canvas “Domino”(2020) creates the illusion of a large interior space under a vaulted ceiling. However, the spatial background is abruptly interrupted about eight inches from the top of the canvas frame, as if it were a rendered backdrop. A vertical element standing in front of this backdrop reinforces that perception, yet it too halts short of the canvas frame. The whole would read as a large stage set surrounded by theatrical flats were it not for other oblique frames so distorted as to suggest a classic cubist scramble. And yet Robinson’s spatial arrangement reads as oddly conventional.
Zegeer’s wall hanging paper collage, “Escape Velocity” (2021) owes a debt to the post-cubist adaptations of Frank Stella’s aluminum wall reliefs but augments the form with representational content. Cutouts of digitally printed paper create the illusion of a clearly defined tenement airshaft revealed through a window that in turn functions as an open cornucopia spilling a cascade of houseplants, fish bones, seashells, a human eye, and photo fragments of painted surfaces into the foreground. By the time my gaze reaches the work’s lower shadows, the transformation to abstraction is complete. The flow proves as harmonious and as deliberative as a Bach fugue.
McBride’s “Pocket Universe” (2019) demonstrates the painter’s command of intense local color. Using tonal gradation fixed between hard edges, the overall effect is conventionally representational until one examines McBride’s method up close where color choices and lack of detail create surreal effects. Of the three artists, she comes closest to transferring the experience of confabulation back to the viewer. The more one examines the painting, the more unreal it becomes.
Considered as a group, I found their immersion in collage just as pertinent as any notion of memory gaps. And the popularity of collage aesthetics among painters these days seems to point to a digital influence more than fin de siècle psychological theories. On the other hand, “collage” and “confabulation” made their appearance at roughly the same time a century ago as paramnesia, the clinical term for déjà vu. It’s likely we’ve been here before.
Confabulation continues at Empty Set (860 East 136th St. # 10D, Mott Haven, The Bronx) through November 20, open by appointment only. It was curated by Matthew Robinson.