CHICAGO — The unwieldy synthetic materials of late capitalism’s throwaway culture are worth their weight in gold spray-painted styrofoam bricks. In her solo exhibition Ornament at the Riverside Arts Center’s Freeark Gallery, curated by Anne Harris, artist Sabina Ott shoves aside the confines of what constitutes acceptable, eco-friendly materiality and throws it all back onto the mirror. There is no “fairest of them all” here — only playfulness in the puffy, lumpy, misconstrued, not cute, and grotesquely delightful sculptural works that intersect with the contemporary Baroque, wherein aesthetic laws are complex and malleable. The surface layers give these ornaments their meanings by glossing over the façade of meaningfulness.
Embedded in these amorphous objects are household objects such as lamps, clocks, speakers, and many, many mirrors. A quietly ticking clock and perfectly circular mirrors are lodged into the hunk-a-chunk of hanging polystyrene that is “why is a pale white not paler than blue” (2012). Attached to the ceiling by a thick chain, the piece contains a single lightbulb shining at the bottom, leaving one to wonder how it would shatter if this non-chandelier came crashing down. The clock, of course, would still tick, since nothing can stop the passage of time.
Mirrors are the foundation of both “a spectacle and nothing strange” (2013) and “everyone is themselves inside them” (2013). Excesses of spray enamel, glitter, styrofoam, and wood appear to be growing off the reflective surfaces; yet they’re not bodily outgrowths such as warts or bunions, but rather decorative elements that show the viewer how to look at them — maybe even how the viewer looks.
In this way, the sculptures give agency back to the viewer. She will inevitably be drawn to the mirrors, and as she gazes into these reflective surfaces like Narcissus or Dorian Gray, she sees herself as part of the sculptures. Integrated into the whole, the viewer becomes a central component in this hyperaestheticized art experience, which is neither beautiful nor sublime.
That’s what we encounter in the front gallery; in the back room, a cluster of 10 works by artists in Ott’s community — including Michelle Grabner, Dan Gunn, Matthew Girson, Suzanne Doremus, Anna Kunz, and Phyllis Bramson — offer complementary reflections of both one another and Ott’s works. Either through the color palette or the material choices, we see little slices of Ott, like a mirror that’s been smashed, its shards filling a contained space ripe for contemplation.
Ott’s “pleasure for the poor” (2010), a functional styrofoam and plastic fountain located behind the gallery, welcomes visitors to sit on its synthetic surfaces. It completes this tour through a late capitalist revision of the Baroque. There will be no segue into the rationalism of the Renaissance, however; in Ott’s universe, these elaborate objects take on lives of their own, and there’s no reason or rhyme to them beyond a joyful exuberance for this opportunity to exist.
Sabina Ott: Ornament runs through January 12 at the Riverside Arts Center’s Freeark Gallery (32 East Quincy Street, Riverside, Illinois).