After the Fall

Sarah Mendelsohn readily admits with a small smile that she has spent years poring over footage of foreign protests and symbolic leaders. The results of her labors have transformed the white, empty rooms and dark floors of Pilsen’s Plaines Project Gallery into “Stretches Topless,” an artistic meditation on the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Iraq in 2003. Mendelsohn presents a collection that was born of a “dialogue,” as she calls it, between the pieces. The politically charged footage led her to create large paintings of white and bright orange pigments on nylon sheets that hang limp on every wall.

It is eerie, viewing the scenes that once filled the 24-hour-news-cycle become inescapable once again. But Mendelsohn has melded dated images with a new one. Her collaborator, Fred Schmidt-Arenales, mimics the statue’s descent in each cinematic piece. The thuds that resound from his fall to the ground grow louder each time. “It didn’t hurt,” he replied when asked, “but my wrists hurt after a bit. I mean, I’m a performance actor, so I’m used to it.”

The image of the man follows viewers all around the gallery and the recurrence is not lost on Mendelsohn. “The repetitiveness of these paintings really helped me answer the questions I had about art,” the recent University of Chicago graduate explains. “And I felt it was really important to play with the fabric and layers and help them create their fates as objects of art.” When asked what she felt their fates had become, she said her hope was to make the paintings reminiscent of banners.

The first painting listed on Mendelsohn’s informational sheet at the gallery, “Stretches Topless on the Back Porch in Pilsen,” is by no means the largest, but the figure is imposing. From the gallery’s entrance it is blocked by a support column; but unobscured, the white-backed painting hangs down from the ceiling to about a foot off the ground free from a wall. Its heavily layered brown and green strokes fill the canvas like a shadow, the dark paint melting together to form the familiar image of the man with his arm outstretched. For a moment, it is unclear who is actually being depicted in the image: the statue in its final moments upright, or Fred before the fall. The work looms in the gallery space, fluttering as people moved around the room, almost as if it was a flag, waving in memoriam. Small groups of people stand around its billowing presence, contemplating in silence, conversations dying out in the shadow of the imposing man.

The rest of the gallery floor had much of the same effect on the crowd: conversation, then pauses for thoughtful contemplation, a few moments of quiet. After collective ruminations, a person amongst the group turns or moves away, attracted by the piece. The small crowd disintegrates, each asking another who and what they saw as the statue fell. These same viewers can easily remember when they watched the Hussein’s literal and figurative falls, his regime crumbling just as ungracefully as his toppling metallic likeness.

Downstairs, beneath the other works, a video loop called “Stretches Topless Bows” played. Fred, with his back to the camera, performs the fall of Saddam’s statue, save for one difference: Fred continuously pops back up to his previous position. The fully-foliaged trees that stand on the background shake their leaves in silent applause for a man about to fall.

The Plaines Project, 1822 S Desplaines St. Through February 8. Hours by appointment through Free.