Review: “Soft Eyes” group show hovers between familiar and strange, at Whitespace

John Dilg: Natural Wonder, 2007, oil on canvas.
John Dilg: Natural Wonder, 2007, oil on canvas.
Scott Ingram: One of These Day (I’ll Be Good at Something), 2015, enamel and latex on poplar and bass wood. (Photo by Keri Weiland)
Scott Ingram: One of These Day (I’ll Be Good at Something), 2015, enamel and latex on poplar and bass wood.

The exhibition title Soft Eyes might suggest that one bring a contemplative approach to the drawings, paintings and sculptures on view at Whitespace through September 12. But curator Pete Schulte, associate professor of art at the University of Alabama and a Whitespace artist, drew his inspiration from HBO’s American crime drama series, The Wire.

The term surfaces during Season 4, when one of the characters advises a colleague to “use soft eyes to look deeper than what you first see.” In this smartly curated show, Schulte asks us to absorb all of the details, the context of the art and the ineffable space that unites them.

With a cool aesthetic, the 11 artists balance their ideas on the skinny edge of certainty, tinkering in the liminal space between abstraction and intimations of the recognizable. Questioning parameters of the real, the artists bend meaning between the familiar and the strange.

The works are enfolded into the rustic carriage house architecture in a trail of visual, perceptual, material and perplexing evidence. Scott Ingram’s ironically titled sculpture One of These Days (I’ll be Good at Something) reminds us that certainty is transient. A massive I-beam cuts diagonally across the front gallery. I assumed it was a new structural support for the brick wall until I read the curator’s notes. Crafted of wood and painted silver to mimic a steel beam, the 37-foot sculpture questions assumptions about reality. When my assumptions take a hit, I am reminded that the eyes can deceive.

Julia Fish looks to the intimate spaces of her Chicago residence for a subject. She presents two minimal gouache paintings that examine the stairs and landings that she traverses daily. The paintings are installed either side of a step between the two main galleries, evoking time and memory in a lived experience.

Andy Moon Wilson employs a grid structure to produce obsessive ink drawings that confound stability through kaleidoscopic color and shimmering movement. A close look at Untitled uncovers mesmerizing patterns and vertiginous space that threaten one’s sense of gravity.

John Dilg: Natural Wonder, 2007, oil on canvas.
John Dilg: Natural Wonder, 2007, oil on canvas.

Imagined landscapes and schematic images of animals populate John Dilg’s oil paintings. Low-intensity neutral colors create a dense atmosphere that seems capable of devouring the fragile forms. In this dimly lit world, things are not always as they seem. Humor emerges from the gloom in Natural Wonder, where a rock formation that dominates the composition transforms into an enormous torso. The pared-down images suggest a prehistoric or post-apocalyptic narrative where entropy rules.

Richard Rezac’s cast bronze sculpture P.M., a white painted grid with attached knobs, suggests a gate-like abstraction. The details in his sculptures lean toward the real but fall just short of identity, like a jolt of memory that suddenly vanishes, leaving us in the indeterminate space of knowing. Rezac’s thoughtfully crafted objects offer hints of a furtive “thingness” where material and idea attempt to reconcile.

Amy Pleasant: Head, 2015, fired and painted clay.  Douglas Degges: Limbs and Letters 6. (Photo by Keri Weiland)
Amy Pleasant: Head, 2015, fired and painted clay. Douglas Degges: Limbs and Letters 6. (Photo by Keri Weiland)

In the tiny closet-like gallery off the courtyard, Amy Pleasant’s painted ceramic Head is paired with Douglas Degges’ laser-cut plywood Limbs and Letters 6 in a humorously spooky installation. According to her website, Pleasant has been mining body parts as an abstract subject in her sculptures and drawings for several years. In Head, a stark white face with large startled eyes mirrored my own surprise when I opened the door onto this secretive space.

On the far wall, Degges’ plywood drawing hovers ghost-like. The spare work cleverly swings between intertwining branches and the abstracted alphabet letter “y” in a ticklish back and forth game. Engaged in a private tête-à-tête, the disembodied limbs and head keep their counsel while we search for meaningful clues.

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