Including the current exhibition, there have been 15 installments of the Mattress Factory's Gestures series, a concept launched by the museum in 2001 to exhibit "small, site-specific works" by local and regional artists. I saw the inaugural Gestures exhibition 10 years ago, before even reaching Roman antiquity in my first art-history survey, and it made a lasting impression. It made me think differently about how art is experienced by those who make it and those who view it. It was completely engrossing, and it made me want to think about art a lot more.
When I saw Gestures 15 a few weeks ago, all it did was make me wonder where the Gestures series is headed.
Built for flexibility, experimentation and innovation, the Gestures model set out to complement long-term residencies with shorter-term projects produced on-site. While the rules of Gestures don't extend much beyond this, the first show set a precedent of disciplinary diversity, including a florist and wig maker among its artist participants. This first generation created provocative, consuming and diverse installations; they filled entire rooms with leaves, and left the museum windows wide open.
This time out, Katherine Talcott, in her fourth consecutive turn as a Gestures guest curator, selected "process and collaboration" as themes. Of the previous 14 Gestures exhibitions, roughly half seem to have used one or both of these terms to characterize the curatorial approach. "Process" as an art-historical term is very broad, but among the works here, it seems to refer most consistently to historical time, personal narrative or organic cycles, as opposed to the material, tactile aspects of making art.
Will Gianotti's "Mexican War Streets Plastering" offers a self-effacing examination of the creative process, in the form of a gray room with partially unfinished walls. Small artifacts left behind by the artist -- bottles, matches, candles and a sleeping bag -- suggest an impermanent dwelling, whose present state of use or disuse is obscure. While these objects underscore the absence of their owner, they depersonalize the space to the point of vagueness, suggesting more of an arbitrary encounter than a veiled, intimate narrative. Both the space and the work are aggressively anonymous.
Photographer Sue Abramson's and designer Ingrid Nagin's installations evoke aspects of genealogical continuity in the conspicuously domestic gallery space of the third floor's visiting-artist bedrooms. Abramson examines her seasonal use of elephant-ear leaves, sealing them in a laminate, capturing them in a large ink-jet print on the opposite wall, placing a few bare ones on the mantelpiece below. Nagin's "Recipe Dress" represents the culmination of her late mother's collection of clippings from newspapers and hand-written notes from friends, assembled over decades as a fluid grouping before entering a permanently inert state in the form of the dress-monument.
For me, it's the expectation of site-specificity here that actually costs both works a degree of impact. As formally lovely as Abramson's and Nagin's pieces are, their situation within the sterile, anonymous, ultra-modernist dorm room does little to emphasize the familial, genealogical nature of their themes. The surrounding environment actually detracts from the experience of the work, rather than enhancing it.
Rather than taking "process" as a cumulative trajectory, Jerstin Crosby's installation work "ON THE INSIDE" suggests a kind of temporal standstill. He presents various objects, some found, others handmade, against the backdrop of a video featuring the masked guitarist Buckethead playing "Smoke on the Water" over and over. A book of matches, a Magic 8 ball, hacky sacks, a pile of enamel nut-mix and a single, oversized match can all be viewed in isolation atop an oddly proportioned platform, suggesting the kind of distorted, surreal time-lapse that accompanies fevers or bong hits. While it may have been Crosby's goal to make the sum of these components evasive, the unsettling quality of evaluating each is more tech-fair funhouse than early Tim Burton flick.
A lot of what made that first Gestures show so exciting was the material and conceptual sensitivity of many of the installations to the premise of site-specificity, and the boldness with which these installations completely transformed their environment. In the current show, works like Deborah Hosking's paper-lantern video projection, while interesting in their own right, don't really seem to even engage the space in which they're presented. Stephanie Mayer-Staley's quasi-geodesic bamboo structures in the first-floor storefront space, and Gary Pyle's spindly mobile in the stairway do this a bit better, but remain restrained by comparison to the radical in situ dialogue we've seen here in the past.
GESTURES 15 continues through July 24. Mattress Factory, 500 Sampsonia Way, North Side. 412-231-3169 or www.mattress.org