CHICAGO — What so frightens us about a void? Does emptiness arouse the unfathomable mysteries of life: what existed before the Big Bang; what lies beyond the edge of space; what happens when we die? Or do voids simply ignite a primal kenophobia — an uncontrollable human desire to fill every empty space with stuff?
Two current exhibitions in Chicago examine the void, in distinctly different ways. One is at Kavi Gupta’s Elizabeth Street gallery in the West Loop; the other is at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) downtown. Both exhibitions invoke the Light and Space and Finish Fetish movements, which emerged from the mid-20th century California art scene. But only one gets it right.
Beverly Fishman: Chemical Sublime, at Kavi Gupta Gallery, is visual ecstasy, in more ways than one. Based in the Detroit area, where she is artist-in-residence and head of the painting department of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, Fishman subversively explores perception and the ways contemporary humans fill the voids in our lives. For this show, she deploys forms utilized by the pharmaceutical industry.
Immediately upon entering the gallery, I faced the nearly eight-foot-tall, exalted, fantastical, glowing, abstract, minimalist icon: “Untitled (Sleepiness, Antipsychotic, Pain)” (2017). This assemblage of three pill forms — a chemical cocktail — was made with urethane automotive paint and medium-density fiberboard (MDF). Its glossy surface expresses the formalist concerns of the Finish Fetish movement, but, as I soon realized, these new works by Fishman are more than formal objects: they are metaphysics made physical.
Will spectators who partake of daily medicines experience placebic sensations while visiting this show? Can the physiological responses normally initiated by chemicals be initiated through an aesthetic interaction? Fishman seems to be asking, “What do we get from our drugs; and is it the same thing we get from art?”
Integral to the success of Chemical Sublime is the fact that so many of the works possess distinctive voids. Nicknamed “Missing Doses,” these pieces engage vacant space with color and light. They evoke the work of James Turrell in their ability to activate emptiness and raise questions about what truly is the subject of the work. They also harken back to John McLaughlin, the pioneering artist on whose philosophies most early Light and Space work is based. In the 1940s, McLaughlin became influenced by Zen philosophy — specifically the way it addresses the idea of the void. Similarly, Fishman’s abstract compositions reflect on the in-between spaces, the so-called vacancies, which provide meaning and structure to art, and to life.
These Missing Dose paintings, such as the hauntingly named “Untitled (Insomnia, Opioid Addiction)” (2017), are doorways into a contemplative world of self-assessment, in which what is missing becomes what is meaningful. As Fishman states, they “propose that — like our overmedicated population — art, too, chases a chemical sublime.”
I left this exhibition reflecting on how artists can invite us to examine our understanding of emptiness. Fishman has deftly restated the invitation to turn to art as a source of psychic replenishment.
On the contrary, a couple miles closer to Lake Michigan, the Endless Summer exhibition at the MCA addresses an altogether different type of void — the void of planning and execution that went into its presentation.
Endless Summer features 17 works in all, and seems to have been Frankensteined together in order to show off recent donations received from the collection of Walter and Dawn Clark Netsch. It unfolds across two, awkward, side-by-side gallery areas. The first area (two perpendicular walls at the landing of a spiral staircase between museum floors) features 10 works. On one wall, three pieces are crammed together: “Untitled” (1967), a fiberglass plank by John McCracken; “The Alamo” (1969), a nearly perfect square of aluminum coated in lacquer and polyester resin by Billy Al Bengston; and “Untitled” (1966), an acrylic lacquer piece by Craig Kauffman. Poorly lit and crowded, these works compete for breath. The Kauffman is stuck in the crease where the two walls meet, impossible to view straight on. On the second wall hangs “May 30, 1970” (1970), by Peter Alexander, an installation of five vertical resin strips, a few of which are damaged. Next to it, six screen prints by Ed Ruscha declare their lack of discernible connection to both Light and Space and Finish Fetish, the two movements this exhibition purports to examine.
The disaster continues unfolding in the small gallery to the right of the landing, where seven more works huddle together such that their potential to express their concerns is eliminated. “Untitled” (1969), a vacuum coated glass box by Larry Bell, cowers in a corner, behind a rope. Across from it, in the opposite corner, “Brown Black Wedge” (1969) by Peter Alexander sits duncelike. Between them a Robert Irwin disc, “Untitled,” (1965-67), hangs unlit.
Compared to the MCA curator who organized this show, I admit I am a novice. But I know to not put sculptures in a corner. And I know the point of Irwin’s discs is that they interact with light, which allows them to express their shadows, and they require space, which activates the emptiness in which they should appear to hover.
I also have two other concerns about Endless Summer. The first is that only one of the 17 works —”Pasadena Life Savers Blue Series #1” (1969–70), by Judy Chicago — is by a female artist. And the other relates to the writing that accompanies the show. Prominently on one wall, beside the exhibition title, a paragraph states: “Sometimes called Finish Fetish or Light and Space, this movement is characterized by works with slick surfaces and atmospheric colors influences by surf culture, custom cars, and the legendary climate of Southern California.”
Simply stated, Light and Space is a conceptual position. It is rooted in philosophy and deals with the ephemeral subjects of light and space, hence the name. Finish Fetish is a separate, formalist position. It deals with the corporeal subject of finishes — again, hence the name. Both movements originated in California, and both deal with perception, but they are not interchangeable. Thanks to this exhibition, thousands of MCA visitors are getting a slipshod introduction to art history and theory. And thanks to curatorial laziness, phenomenal works by talented and important artists are being experienced like so many gewgaws crammed into a Wunderkammer.
Beverly Fishman: Chemical Sublime is on view from through April 28 at Kavi Gupta, (219 N. Elizabeth Street); Endless Summer is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (220 E Chicago Avenue) through August 5.