CULT | aimee friberg exhibitions
3191 Mission Street San Francisco 94110
SUZY POLING: Total Internal Reflection
January 15, February 27, 2016
Throughout Suzy Poling’s solo exhibition, Total Internal Reflection at CULT | Aimee Friberg Exhibitions, light fractals intersect the space, creating an augmented reality. Mirrors are everywhere, and the temptation to look at one’s self out of self-consciousness is unavoidable. But mirrors also play an important role as reflective carriers and shapeshifters of light; the gaze is shifted from the act of looking to a different kind of reflection—one of introspection and phenomenology. Through complicated theatrical performances, imminent and perpetual sound, meditative light installations and foreboding film, Poling calls attention to the body—particularly the senses of sight and hearing—heightening awareness of one’s habitation within this transcendental and mystical landscape.
Poling draws inspiration from Dada and eastern European Constructivist artists, such as László Moholy-Nagy. Moholy-Nagy is known for his work in the Bauhaus, which was highly centered on the use of new technology and industry to create art, design and architecture. The geometric shapes in Poling’s work echo the abstract aesthetic of the school, and like them, she relishes in the use of technology. Employing both analog and digital means of production coupled with man-made shiny materials such as silver Mylar, Poling’s work speeds through all eras. One moment it seems like ancient paganism or Greco-Roman polytheism, or a cross between 1960s psychedelia and early 1980s disco/pop glitz, and then suddenly some strange aesthetic future becomes present.
Occupying the small center room of the gallery is the installation Mirrored Chrystal System (2016). The use of reflective surfaces is very prominent, creating an all-encompassing visual experience. Photos do not do it justice, as the space becomes completely flattened and illegible when viewed as an image—it really needs to be inhabited to understand its merits. In person, light spins and refracts all around, sprinkling like tossed water against silver sheeting and bouncing sharp angles off of the mirrored polyhedron in the center. Brion Gysin’s Dream Machine comes to mind, though not as flickering. Viewers cannot step inside the space, so immersion in its luster is impossible, but the eyes can still take it in, causing an awe-like feeling while gazing in its shimmer.
Overshadowing the space is an audio piece, featuring sharp and unsettling rapid clicking noises scattered over a gurgling electronic ripple. Around the corner, a reel-to-reel tape skims across the wall through an old projector, contributing to the sound. At ear height, it is particularly psychotropic inducing when listened to for a long period of time. On an adjacent wall is Spectral Transmissions (2016), a portrait film featuring a body from the mid-chest up dressed in a silver lamé shroud. Its face is covered with dozens of mirror shards.
The head makes gestures as if looking around, yet it cannot see. Oddly, the desire to catch a glimpse of a landscape or another person on the mirrors is great, but that is never offered. There are other scenes with different shrouded characters as well. The abstraction and lack of context keep focus on the protagonist, while I was left in total discomfort, feeling a sense of concern for the vision impaired individuals in this dystopia.
A large piece titled Triadic Tower occupies the back wall of the main gallery. The title seems like a reference to Oskar Schlemmer’s famous film and performance, The Triadic Ballet, produced when he was also at the Bauhaus, in 1922. For the opening, Poling performed a vocal and sound piece in the Triadic Tower installation. She was accompanied by artists Drylek Yuccesm, Sanez Gangei, and Kelsey McCurdy. Poling’s installation is dissimilar to Schlemmer’s in appearance, so the reference to the triad is more easily interpreted by her use of the triangular shapes throughout. White painted wood three-dimensional pyramids are arranged on the floor and fixed to the wall, along with leaning and suspended triangle mirrors. Video projections cast perforated shadows upon it, in varying shades of illuminated grey, black and white.
Schlemmer was constantly at odds with Bauhaus administration for his insistence on creating theatrical performances and elaborate costumes. He was most known for the implementation of coursework focusing on the body. In his ballet, the characters are transformed into geometric shapes with the help of elaborately designed costumes. Similar to Schlemmer’s concepts of geometric body transformation, the artists in Poling's performance were all shrouded in metallic silver lamé fabric with black screen head coverings to shield their faces.
Purple light cast over them, complementing the rainy night outside. Glitchy and somewhat tribal sounding background noise is layered over strange and abstracted soprano vocals. The geometric projections created multiple dimensions around the installation, enlarging it beyond the physical installation. There is a definitive reference to the occult as well—the chants and costuming recalling the ritualistic and geometric portraiture of scenes plucked from an Alejandro Jodorowsky film.
Performance is transitory. In a recent article by Jonathan Sturgeon in Flavorwire titled “Why All Contemporary Art Is Condemned to Die,” Sturgeon cites Boris Groys’s book In the Flow: “Indeed, contemporary art escapes the present not by resisting the flow of time but by collaborating with it.” In this way, performance uses time as a vehicle for tracking is a thing of the moment, and when it is over the thing is gone, and memory is all that is left. Not only are these kinds of performances a temporary moment, but the audio itself defies time as well. But that is true to Poling’s work and her extensive history as an artist and performer in the Bay Area noise scene.
The kind of sound Poling creates is too abstract to remember, not like a song with lyrics that one can sing later at a regular concert or musical performance. Poling’s sculpture and photographs present themselves as off-kilter archives of the performances. As Groys says: “Traditional art produced art objects. Contemporary art produces information about art events.” Poling’s work is by no means “traditional” in the sense of painting or drawing, but it does produce objects. Still, over time the light shifts and the pieces change, or the film ends and the sound loops continue but never seem repeated. The way one sees or hears things in the moment vanishes only to be new again with each following gaze, with each new listen. By default then, what was seen and heard is now gone—only a self-aware feeling remains.
 Oskar Schlemmer, ed. Tut Schlemmer, The Letters and Diaries of Oskar Schlemmer, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1990.
 The room was fully packed—standing room only—with a long line outside. It was hard to see from the back of the room where I stood, and it would have been more magical to have seen the performance on a raised stage so that the whole tableau could be watched.
 Poling’s previous work Elemental Forces strikes even more similarities, in particular, Jodorowsky’s, 1968 film Fando y Lis
 Jonathan Sturgeon, Flavorwire, “Why All Contemporary Art Is Condemned to Die” February 25, 2016
review as dialogue: Sf chronicle art critic charles desmarais in conversation with gallery 16 owner, griff williams
On February 24, 2016, Glossary magazine attended a talk with Charles Desmarais, the art critic for the SF Chronicle, and Griff Williams, founder/curator/publisher at Gallery 16. This is the second in our editorial platform, Review as Dialog, filling a need to archive public art discussions.
Afterward, Williams pointed out that when Desmarais was hired, there was a lot of backlash/outcry. This talk that took place last night was a missed opportunity for some; Williams was hoping that it would create a forum for people to come and really lay into Desmarais about the issues that concern them, be his appointment or other writing issues. There was even a Chronicle rep on hand . . . Yet, Glossary counted its peers on one hand: a couple of artists, two gallery directors, three PR folks and TWO fellow writers. TWO. At one point in the discussion, Desmarais mentioned the names of a few writers that he looks up to, that he reads. None of them are Bay Area writers.
Some Bay Area art writers are: Maria Porges, Glen Helfand, Christian Frock, Sara Hotchkiss, Dewitt Chang, John Held, Jeanne Gerrity, Monica Weston, Sarah Burke, me, Zachary Royer Schulz, Sura Wood, Emily Holmes, Dorothy Santos, Aaron Harbour—that is already more than one dozen Bay Area Writers [do we need a coalition?]. It would behoove Desmarais to read his peers—that’s who we are—not competition, but part of that collective voice that the Bay Area fails to recognize when they say things like, “We need more writing.” Writers, Glossary thanks you!
When Desmarais was hired, a lot of Glossary’s peers and colleagues took particular issue with the fact that the Chronicle seemed to just replace one privileged white guy with another privileged white guy. One argument stated that by doing so, the Chronicle is perpetuating a male-centric criticism hierarchy by not considering writers of color, women or queer writers. Although Glossary does not know anyone who knows which writers were in consideration, the rumor is that none were—he was already chosen. They do have diverse freelance writers, but the contention was with the one full-time staff position. One that perhaps to some defines the whole city's art scene.
But let us not forget—the SF Chronicle is not a civic or public institution; it is a private newspaper—just like the New York Times or the LA Times and others—they too are not city-run or funded organizations. Yet sadly, in the eyes of readers, and some galleries and artists these papers with city titles seem to subliminally hold a pretty high status as the voices of a city. It is perceived as a precious top-down entity that is pressured to bear all the weight of the artworld, and to speak for the city’s art scene inclusively as a whole. Moreover, with this perceived pinnacle status comes with a huge responsibility, and a weight of demands and expectations that frankly is impossible to fill.
They simply cannot please all of the people all of the time, and that is why a variety of art publications and voices in the arts is vital to keeping the Bay Area the place that we love. Furthermore, they certainly can’t afford to staff more writers to cover more content—the truth of the matter is: there is too much to cover each week. We know this just by the sheer number of press releases we receive each month; Glossary’s mailbox usually receives 20 to 65 press releases.
But should that entire burden be expected of the Chronicle? Does that mean they should cover everything? The sensible answer is no. We need many voices, not more voices or one different voice under one publication—but just a lot of us writing, talking, looking and loving art and its meaning.
Glossary feverishly took notes at the talk to share with you, dear readers and art lovers. Notes were taken in-situ, and are not literal transcriptions of neither audio nor direct quotes, but rather points that were touched upon. Certain key word choices and diction has been retained to accurately reflect the tone and sentiment of the discussion.
When Charles was appointed I asked him to dinner . . . anyone who leaves the position of president of anything, well, you have a lot of questions. I’d like to ask you what is the state of art writing and what you are intending with your new position. The Observer posted an article in 2013, noting that there are less than 10 full time art critics employed by United States newspapers. On the other hand, there is more “vernacular” criticism, webs and alternatives. It is the salaried positions that are dying out. The state of the newspaper is in debate, parallel to vernacular criticism. Serous criticism is on the decline.
[Bristles in defense of/support of serious vernacular criticism] It’s not the same issue. There are many people who don’t have the opportunity for a full-time position, and I feel privileged to do that. The Chronicle has created a strategy for survival. Newspapers need new ways to communicate. Few people have papers delivered to their front doors and it is likely completely going away in the very near future. Online is the direction it is going. What is the Chronicle doing to compete with other online publications, such as the New York Times? We need to be more local. The Times are not going to cover the local culture the way we do. We have a footing here. I consider my job an advocate for you. My love for art can be a guide as an analyst.
Journalism? News or criticism?
There is a journalistic side, but there is a critical side as well. Firstly, I get to choose what I write about [so in that sense he is a critic, and not a journalist given assignments]. And what the Chronicle does is different than something like Artforum, because we are a daily newspaper. I consider myself an advocate for the art scene.
As a painter, I think about my viewer, the image and who the audience is. Who is your audience? Are you seen in the context of championing art? There is the challenge of advertising that might sway who you write about, also.
My reader is a broad audience. But I don’t want to talk down to them either, that would be insulting. Sometimes I need to include a sentence or two about something for people who are not deeply educated about art—I should write about the things that perhaps people who would not normally be exposed to art, will be exposed to it in the writing. I want to advocate for art. For example, I am writing a piece on Kadist for this Saturday—it is a little known space in the Mission and this will be the first time that I write about race. [He is casting a wide net for launching his position as the new critic, and writing about a variety of genre, eras, places and issues.]
How do you pick what you write about?
What excites me. There are things that you know you have to include, certain shows—such as the Pierre Bonnard at the Legion of Honor. To not include it would be ignorant.
For better or for worse?
Museums are not always pushing the envelope when it comes to installation or scholarship and this exceeded my expectations so I wanted to write about it.
Because of your background in museums?
At first I thought that my background might be a disadvantage with my writing . . . so many people I know in high places and in the museum world—I didn’t want to offend them. But you know what, I don’t need to worry about that anymore, because the truth is I am not beholden to you anymore!
Do you have a responsibility to demystify the artworld?
Over time my observations based on my past experiences will come through in the writing.
To some art is impenetrable. For those who don’t work in it, it can be alienating. People peer in these windows all the time and never come inside. So demystifying might have a place, particularly a newspaper, giving transparency of the artworld.
Well, somewhere along the way someone decided that criticism had to be boring. [elitist, academic writing] I am still finding my voice. (He jokes) “Please tell me if I’m boring.” [Perhaps Williams was getting at the notion that a writer might consider educating people about the fact that art is not scary, while Desmarais seemed to interpret the question in terms of the kind of language that is used to talk about art].
How to you find your way—what radar are you using to make your decisions?
Well, to be honest I’m checking off boxes to a certain degree. For example with Kadist, they are under the radar and the artist is amazing, and I have never written about race . . . I want to give people a sense of what is going on with the artist’s work and at Kadist. There are a series of things that I want to touch on at the beginning of my career and I am going down the list. It might come across like I am mixing it up a bit right now.
Hitting the pavement is important. After doing this for 25 years I can say that we are in one of the most exciting times right now. Artists are doing new things galleries are popping up. It’s important to get familiar with your community.
Yes, it’s a very exciting time. I go to way more shows than I end up writing about. People complain to me, but . . .
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