Empty Faces

photo by Isaac Dalke

photo by Isaac Dalke

“We had an impulse to name the beer.” This is curator Paul Hopkin’s explanation for the title of Slow Gallery’s latest exhibition, “Runs and Goses.” Slow has gotten in the habit of brewing its own beer for each opening, but doesn’t typically name the brews. At the opening last Saturday the gallery offered a rose hefeweizen as well as a black IPA–“our strongest beer yet,” Hopkin noted. The pairing of the two lodged the phrase “Guns and Roses” in his mind.

Pairings are the usual for Slow. All of the gallery’s exhibitions bring together two artists who Hopkin hopes will spark when shown side-by-side. For this show, Julie Potratz contributed a performance art piece focusing on the fashion choices of Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton. And Carol Jackson provided fanciful papier-mâché sculptures. “Both of them are interested in this modernist impulse to empty things out, but their work is clearly not modernist,” Hopkin explained.

Which draws us back to the beer. Paul expected some teetotalers in the audience, and so he decided to create an alcohol-free version of the black IPA–another work voided of content. “Guns and Roses,” beer, decadence, emptiness, language, power. Runs and Goses. “It all just sort of came together,” he explained, sweeping his hands together.

Jackson’s work deals in language and emotion. The SAIC grad has been on the Chicago scene for over two decades, and many of her older pieces incorporate sentences or phrases. In this exhibit the words are still there, but the language has changed. The set of papier-mâché figures pop out of the wall, with elaborate swirls and serifs, and blunt colors. One is bright purple, another solid red, a third a strong yellow. Many of the pieces incorporate photographs of sunsets that could easily have been in advertisements for Caribbean cruise liners or mutual funds. The forms come from the intricate shapes and designs that ordain the covers of old sheet music, like what you might find on a 1900 copy of “Maple Leaf Rag.” “There’s something profoundly old-fashioned, Victorian-cowboy about her work,” Hopkin noted.

“I don’t want to say cowboy, it’s such a strong word,” Jackson said. “But it’s kind of a western saloon feel.” She is also a highly skilled leatherworker, and pieces of leather are incorporated into her papier-mâché creations. In her work “Mnnnmuh,” a whimsical orange papier-mâché frame holds a photo of a brilliant orange and blue sea sunset. In the middle of the image, right between the ocean and the waning sun, there is a small slit, where out rolls a leather loop with lots of “m”s and “n”s and “u”s. A little motor keeps the leather tape in perpetual motion.

Another intriguing piece is her “Scary Rocket.” The frame thrusts to the upper right, with three long points trailing off to the lower left; the whole construct seems ready to fly off. The form contrasts with the thick white and light-blue vertical stripes painted across the surface, which could make it part of a wall in a child’s bedroom. In the lower left-hand corner, there is a little leather cylinder that steadily turns. The word “BOO” is pressed into the leather, enmeshed in a bed of delicately crafted white flowers. This is decidedly not scary. Yet the certainty of the past always seems less threatening than the uncertain future. “It’s about the way the promise and dream of large living is perpetuated, but old,” she said.

On the center of the gallery floor, Potratz and another actress performed her piece. They wore masks, powdery white faces marked by dark lines as if covered in soot. The two appeared forlorn. Any sort of tension or anguish was frozen in place, however; their faces remained stiff except for the occasional blink. The two rotated slowly back and forth on tiny pedestals, moving their arms cautiously by their sides. “I’ve been thinking of it as performing a Google image,” Potratz said. “There’s an expectation to be perfect from all angles.”

The glum expressions fought against the women’s grandiose attire. Hillary wore a purple dress that faded to pink as it neared the floor. Little pink flowers flowed down from her waist. Angela wore a sleeker dress, blue with a thick collar. She wore an exaggerated chest plate, overdone cleavage revealed by the dress’s low cut. Both dresses were recreated based on clothing the two had actually worn. Clinton’s dress replicated the one Hillary wore to her daughter Chelsea’s wedding. Merkel’s came from an opera appearance in Oslo–an outfit which drew much media coverage for its “plunging neckline.”

“I’ve been thinking of the way we know these characters,” Potratz explained, wearing her Clinton costume. She expressed frustration with the way that bodies are put into the foreground. “There’s an expectation that she has to be desexualized to be taken seriously in a man’s world,” she said. “I’m interested in the moments when she can step out of that.”

Over the course of the opening evening, several gallery-goers wedged themselves between the two figures to have their photo taken. Laughter erupted from the audience. “I think that was really funny, the fake celebrity photos,” Potratz said. “Because if Hillary was really here, that’s exactly the way people would behave.”

That sort of unrelenting attention is a burden of political celebrity for certain, but the tension runs deeper. “The quest of power is a kind of dying effort,” says Jackson. She sees Victorian-framed sunsets, Potratz sees plunging necklines. Both are moments of social upheaval, counterbalanced by a more sinister historical force–one that can be strikingly invisible.

Slow, 2153 W. 21st St. Through June 1. Saturday, noon-5pm; also by appointment. Free. (773)645-8803. paul-is-slow.info