September 6, 2011
JOY AND ELUSIVENESS
The First Show at Prole Drift Is Post-1970s and Straight Out of the 19th Century
by Jen Graves
Prole Drift is a new gallery in the International District. Let’s not concern ourselves too much with it yet because, whatever its big ideas, its future is still in front of it and we will see it then. Right now, what’s to be seen at Prole Drift is An Empty Vase, a show that takes the form of a gallery-within-a-gallery. It’s an airy box built by the artists in the white cube of the architecture, and there’s a miniature version of this gallery-within-a-gallery on display within that.
Much of what’s seen here is made of paper, or some sympathetic material or treatment—things you could imagine being thrown away, things that have been folded, paintings made by pressing 3-D flowers made of dried acrylic paint between the pages of books and then attaching those pressings to a canvas as if they’d been painted there all along. The artists involved are some of the most clever and wonderful Seattle has, led by Matthew Offenbacher and Jenny Heishman, who envisioned the structure and frame for the show—the title An Empty Vase is taken from a writing by Heidegger in which he admires a vase for its ability to be grounded at its base but open at its top.
Each work in this show is mounted on this cube of hinged Styrofoam walls. The hinges mean that the walls can shift the way view windows do, and the artists manually change the tilt of the walls every few hours, meaning the show changes, the way the pieces intersect and reflect each other changes—but always, as the visitor, you find yourself both looking at the walls and looking beyond them, through this cube with an empty center, to the other visitors across it. You see them seeing. You also see tangles of metal that look like mounted abstract sculptures on the Styrofoam, but they are not sculptures or works of art at all, they are the ties of metal holding the piece of art on the wall on the other side. Balance is a central theme of the show; when you see one thing (connected ground), look for a corollary (open sky). A drawing that says, “You suck” by Gretchen Bennett has another drawing on the other side of the wall from it, so they balance each other perfectly, no tangles of metal needed. On that other side, it says, “No I don’t.”
Heishman, Offenbacher, and Bennett work alongside one another in studios off Dearborn, in Sodo, and have shown collaboratively before (Light Show for UNESCO in 2008, Second Peoples in 2009; note: Showing collaboratively means more than just showing together). And they’ve managed here, again, not to simply make things privately that will then be shown according to given public conventions, but to seep their creative process into the gallery space, almost like a writer saying just what she means, and being understood, without using any recognizable words.
This mise-en-scène is a base for joy, love, obsession—qualities not typically associated with the white cube, but harking back to 19th-century cabinets of curiosities. This show was inspired by Sir John Soane’s Museum in London—hence Bennett’s sticks found in the shapes of letters spelling out the word “Soane” near the entrance. The intention of these artists is not confrontational; their attitude is less direct than the 1970s institutional critique artists who’ve influenced them. But their intention is no less radical: elusiveness. Heishman’s sculptures are already mysterious, and here she shows only printed-out images of them. Look what paper can do to the meaning and appearance of a real thing! When you go to this gallery, I have no idea in which direction its walls will be folded.