Reading Rainbows

Courtesy of DOVA Temporary

Nicole Mauser’s luminous colors are the first thing to strike you–ambitious and assertive, her bright palette is a perky antidote for the dark and dreary first days of spring. Her show “Kinematic” at DOVA Temporary features only seven pieces of art. Yet at the University of Chicago’s Department of Visual Arts’ exhibition space in Hyde Park, her modestly sized collection drives home its grand vision with impressive force.

Most of the pieces in the exhibit are reminiscent of the rainbow scratch sheets used in elementary school art classes, where the matte topcoat is flaked away, gradually unmasking a joyous, colorful under-layer.  Like kids’ scrawled loop-de-loops on the scratch-off pages, Mauser opens a window to another, brighter world.  Looking at the paintings from far away, one sees snatches of tropical vistas, viewed through confused bushes or windows of flatter, darker colors. Close up, the paintings look like vaguely geometric arrangements of colors that have been rolled rather than drawn, with uneven ends. But the vitality of Mauser’s hues destroy all simple geometric strictures: the lower half of the canvas for “systole, diastole” is dominated by dramatic splotches of color and wild, irregular tessellations.

Given Mauser’s explosive color-play, her works achieve greater coherence when viewed from a distance.  One could even make speculations about what they represent, though Mauser rejects clear symbols and forms. One piece, “Trench foot déjà vu,” was a kaleidoscopic rainbow of hues with a thin peach line suggesting a calf extending toward a black shape–a high heel, perhaps? Is Mauser playing with the notion of “duty” here, likening the modern woman who adheres to an arduous dress code to a Great War soldier who sacrificed his health and comfort for the sake of some higher cause? An essay by fellow artist Tobey Albright accompanied the exhibit, and in it he warned that with Mauser’s art, “we can only rely on our own pattern production.” Seeing a woman’s foot is an example of what Albright calls “this pursuit of identifying a pattern […] a choreography of abstract implications and a mining of rhetorical form.”

The DOVA Temporary gallery is a no-frills space–all white and concrete with nothing to distract from the art itself. Though located in Harper Court and ostensibly a link between the University and the Hyde Park community, the crowd seemed insular, all socializing in small groups and sometimes gesturing enthusiastically toward the art. Art students wearing military-influenced garb and thick glasses, some older people, and one reporter still quite literally in Art 101 mingled and identified various themes and messages in Mauser’s paintings. One man stood out, clutching a cup of gallery peanuts and counting out his one-dollar bills. He disappeared shortly afterward. One wonders what patterns he found when looking at the paintings.

In her artist’s statement, Mauser writes, “the way that my paintings are constructed reveals how they are made. Paint is applied, added, subtracted,” This process is, for Mauser, an exploration of “how knowledge is an empirical product–inscribed both in and by the body.” Looking at the paintings is an objective experience on the one hand, and subjective on the other, as we draw connections from the images to our memories and experiences.

Our knowledge and comprehension of the work is empirical in that it is learned through sensory experience (i.e. through the act of looking at the paintings) and for that reason, is very personal as well. It is not immediately clear how rectangles and triangles constructed out of bright splashes demonstrate this property of knowledge, according to Mauser, but the artist’s work is strong and focused, and ultimately we realize that the very lack of straightforward representation challenges us to produce our own understanding. As Albright reminds us, when confronted with a stark lack of ready-made interpretation, “we need to be the light and color.”

DOVA Temporary. 5228 S. Harper Ave. April 1-23. Wednesday-Saturday, noon-5pm. (773)324.2089.