A door to here: “Portals_Thresholds” at CIA’s Reinberger Gallery

“Window #2,” by Sara Ludy. 2010-2015, Inkjet print. Sintra courtesy of bitforms gallery, NY.

An exhibition title like Portals_Thresholds naturally raises the question, “Portals to where?” To give away the game: They take us back to where we are already, but via an unfamiliar route, offering new perspectives.

Portals_Thresholds is now on display at the Cleveland Institute of Art’s Reinberger Gallery. It features works by Sara Ludy, Rachel Rossin, Rafaël Rozendaal, and the collaborative Wickerham & Lomax.

All these artists incorporate digital imagery into at least some of their work. Ludy, for example, contributes manipulated photos and a CGI video depicting icily perfect homes. Rozendaal’s work lives entirely online, in the form of single-page websites. These sites host minimalist animations like an endlessly rotating egg, and oscillations in black and white waves.

However, Portals_Thresholds’ artists do not so much look at digital media as through it. A statement on CIA’s site describes the exhibition as “[a]ddressing themes relating to science fiction, simulated reality, and artifice.” It goes on to say the show is “an imaginative and at times humorous plunge into the fantastic and the strange, where the viewer is invited to test the boundaries of perception and to question concepts of reality.” Facts of life—home décor, racial segregation, nature parks, fashion—are given new, surreal appearances through the blending of analog and digital images.

The exhibit prompts us to question reality at the social level, not the metaphysical. However, social facts can profoundly shape even our most direct experiences of the world. This seems to be an assumption behind “Whales SPF 50,” a video presentation by Wickerham & Lomax, a Baltimore-based collaboration consisting of Daniel Wickerham and Malcolm Lomax.

Still from “Whales SPF 50,” by Wickerham & Lomax. 2017, single channel HD video. Courtesy of the artists and American Medium, NY.

The video begins with a shot of an unnamed Black man seated on a rock by a woodland stream. He wears faded jeans, puffy black coat sleeves, and a baseball cap. He is smoking, and taking in his surroundings. This man does not look like the average American’s idea of an outdoorsman, and not just because of his clothes or his cigarette. Hiking, scouting, bird watching, and hunting are almost exclusively portrayed as white people’s activities in contemporary media. There are, of course, people of color who camp, and lots of white homebodies. But in a nation as racially divided as ours, we cane expect demographic differences in how people spend their leisure time. And given those differences, we would expect discrepancies in how individuals from marginalized demographics experience nature, even on a perceptual and emotional level.

To explain that last sentence, let’s take race out of the equation momentarily. Imagine an Eagle Scout and a lifelong city slicker dropped into the woods, miles from civilization. Because the Scout knows which plants are edible, what wood is best for fires, and which natural signs indicate cardinal directions, the forest looks to him like a manifold of opportunities for nourishment, shelter, and exploration. To the city slicker, who has no idea which plants are poisonous and how to avoid wandering in circles, the woods appears as a place of unknown dangers.

An individual’s social and economic status influences whether she turns out more like the Scout or the city slicker. According to a 2016 survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there are significant income and race-based differences outdoor sport participation. Members of households making less than $35,000 are those least likely to engage in any outdoor activities. (The median household income for whites in America is $61,349, while that for Blacks is just $38,555.) More than 85 percent of all angling fishermen are white, while just nine percent are African American. Some 97 percent of hunters are white, and less than one percent are Black.

The smoking man in “Whales SPF 50” is not as distressed as the hypothetical city slicker discussed above. He is calm, even peaceful. Yet he seems unsure of what he should be doing. Later in the video, we see him killing time hopping between rocks, and making splashes with stones tossed into water. From the information in the video alone, it’s impossible to know what his life experience with nature is. But it does feel like his awkward presence is a statement. Whether we perceive nature as benign, hostile, or neutral is determined by life experience. Life experience in turn is shaped by social and political history. Therefore, experience of nature is influenced by socio-political history.

Racial history as a shaper of experience reemerges as a theme in a later section of “Whales SPF 50.” There, the narrator (also Black) segues between allusions to segregated pools, his own times spent swimming, and occasions when others expressed surprise at his swimming abilities (“They said we couldn’t swim. Yet we were performing butterflies at the deep end”). Throughout the video, a slim young Black man is seen trying on various garments associated with pools or the beach. Viewers see him don trunks, a wetsuit, goggles, water wings, and a Hawaiian shirt. The narrator recounts various questions he has been asked while swimming:

“What is happening to your hair?” When did you learn how to swim?” “What is a backstroke?” “Where was your local pool?”

Alone, any one of these questions would sound innocuous. But together, they suggest the narrator is perceived by others as suspicious for his swimming abilities. He is seen as an aberration, as someone who creates dissonance for not conforming to stereotypes. Swimming, for him, is thus bound up with anxiety at being gawked at.

Still from “Whales SPF 50,” Wickerham & Lomax. 2017, single channel HD video. Courtesy of the artists and American Medium, NY.

All this said, it is simplistic to say “Whales SPF 50” is about race. It is much too dense to be “about” any one topic. The narrator’s first lines aren’t even about humanity. Instead, they are a rhapsody to whales. The narrator praises the first terrestrial mammals to venture into the water, beginning the 50 million year-long evolutionary process that would make their cetacean descendants perfectly suited for life underwater. Throughout the film, computer graphics are used to render in three dimensions the sleek, strong bodies of whales.

At one point, the slim young man dons a puffy black coat, inviting comparisons to the ebony Orcas which flash across the screen. The narrator imagines a Black swimmer transformed into a “merman” with a blowhole and fingers elongated into fins. By these repeated associations of persons and whales, “Whales SPF 50” communicates a sense of connectedness to nature, fostered in spite of race and class barriers. The video’s final shot depicts the smoking man holding aloft a stick, facing down the stream, confident as Moses raising his staff to part the Red Sea.

Still from “I Came And Went As A Ghost Hand,” by Rachel Rossin. 2015, virtual reality. Courtesy of ZieherSmith, NY.

Rachel Rossin has the largest and most diverse selection of items on display. Her featured work encompasses oil on canvas, painted acrylic glass, and a virtual reality experience. This last piece, titled “I Came and Went as a Ghost Hand” is viewable through a pair of Oculus Rift headsets available in the gallery. The work is a guided tour through a number of ethereal houses hanging in an empty blue sky. In the “real” world, viewers remain stationary. The Oculus headsets rest on a table in the gallery, and visitors are encouraged to lay their hands on that flat surface if they need an anchor. While viewers’ feet remain planted, their perspective floats throughout the houses, sometimes passing through walls or rising up through floors. Viewers cannot control where their perspective drifts, but they can see their immediate environment from different angles by turning their heads.

The world of “Ghost Hand” is deliberately partial. Second storey rooms hover in midair, with no visible walls holding them up. Refrigerators, furniture, and radiators might appear solid from one vantage point, but be revealed as empty shells from another. We see the outline of a man seated at a desk, and a colorless adolescent boy lounging in bed. The most solid object in Rossin’s universe is the titular “ghost hand.” It is literally a huge hand, severed at the wrist and hanging in the sky like a dismembered sun. Its fingers jerk and twitch, feeling for something that isn’t there.

Though Rossin’s houses are spectral and the ghost hand is a ghoulish presence, we do not feel like visitors to the underworld. Rather, viewers themselves feel like ghosts in the realm of the living. We drift through Rossin’s world without belonging to it or affecting it. Solid walls are not barriers, and our perspective passes through them as easily as the empty air. The persons we encounter throughout the experience are strangers, and can never be anything but strangers.

Still from “I Came And Went As A Ghost Hand” by Rachel Rossin. 2015, virtual realty. Courtesy of ZieherSmith, NY.

This is felt most sharply in one small bedroom. In it, we encounter a woman in black. Her outfit could either be a t-shirt and shorts, or a nightie. She is laying prone, stretching her legs back while using her arms to prop up her torso. This posture resembles Americanized yoga’s “cobra pose.” At a quick glance, it could be mistaken for a “come hither” pose, but it is too exaggerated and uncomfortable to be sexy. If anything, it is a jokingly sexual pose, struck for the amusement of a lover or close friend. But we are not this woman’s friends or lovers. Even still, we see her at her most comfortable, casual, and vulnerable. Therefore, we feel like invaders into her privacy. It’s queasy, but familiar. Accidental intimacy is a fact of life. We share communal bathrooms, stumble into small talk with cashiers, and add acquaintances on social media without realizing that they use those platforms as diaries of their innermost souls.

Rossin’s simulation expertly provokes this sort of discomfort which occurs at the blurring of the public and the private. Even the work’s title “I Came And Went As A Ghost Hand,” brings to mind the parts of our lives when we are spectators. We float in and out of each other’s lives; sometimes our influence on one another is one-way. We might witness a scene which profoundly affects us, but which its participants never give a second thought to.

Still from “Dream House” by Sara Ludy. 2014. Video (color, sound), projector. Courtesy of bitforms gallery, NY.

In a pair of inkjet prints and a projected video, Sara Ludy presents three homes too polished for habitation. “Window #2” shows us a living room with a jack-o’-lantern couch, orange and glowing as if lit by an internal light. “Window #6” takes us inside a two-storey glass building. It has no floors, but only an elevated walkway wrapped around the interior walls. The only convenience in sight is a handrail. The video “Dream House” guides us through a hall of mirrors leading to an atrium with floors as smooth, white, and shiny as a new iPhone.

Tellingly, we see no people in these houses. More than anything, these beautiful but uninhabitable homes suggest a warning against the disconnection of aesthetics, instrumental rationality, and moral values. When combined, modern art and modern engineering can create forms and functions undreamed of in previous centuries. But if architectural efforts are not informed by the needs of concrete people, we may build nothing but a glittering dystopia.

Throughout Portals_Threshold’s duration, animations by Dutch-Brazilian artist Rafaël Rozendaal will be screened on the Digital Media Mesh located on the west facade of CIA’s George Gund Building. The screenings take place from 5 to 9 p.m. However, the rest of his work can be viewed anywhere, anytime via this link to Rozendaal’s personal website.

Still from “thisemptyroom.com” by Rafaël Rozendaal. 2016, website. Courtesy of Postmasters Gallery, NY.

Rozendaal’s animations are appealing for those of us who have enjoyed the GIF renaissance. Like GIFs, his videos go on forever. However, not all Rozendaal’s moving pictures are predetermined loops. Some, like slowempty.com, are even interactive. Visitors to slowempty initially see a gray triangle slowly revolving around the screen, dragging with it multicolored planes. Visitors can click any point on the animation; after doing so, the triangle will relocate there, and the planes’ colors randomly change.

These websites are not so much interesting for their animation or interactivity, though both are fun. Rather, they represent a new horizon for artists and curators. Anyone with an Instagram or Tumblr can post photos of their drawings online, but there is little art that made exclusively for online consumption. There will, of course, always be a place for art in studios and galleries, but Rozendaal’s project is admirable for claiming a corner of the web for the artworld.

Besides putting together an engaging exhibition, the Reinberger staff deserves recognition for its efforts to engage the student population it serves. For Portals_Thresholds, Nichole Woods, director of the Reinberger Gallery, said that she wanted to display work by artists who “bridge gaps” between mediums usually considered distinct. She said that many students she talks to want to develop work that contains elements of, say, both ceramics and painting, or painting and video. Woods said that the Reinberger team wanted to show work by artists who achieved success while developing multidisciplinary practices.

Still from “eggalone.com” by Rafaël Rozendaal. 2017, website. Courtesy of Postmasters Gallery, NY.

Woods also afforded students a unique opportunity to contribute to an exhibition. Instead of brochures or postcards, the primary publicity material for the exhibit is a series of four posters. The posters include all the information one would expect from an exhibition notice, such as dates, artists’ names, image previews. But each of the posters also includes one of four short stories written by CIA students riffing on the themes of the exhibition. This is a radically inclusive decision, and an example of the outside-the-box thinking that makes Portals_Thresholds such an exciting show.

Portals_Thresholds will be on display through June 15 at the Reinberger Gallery. The gallery is located on the first floor of the George Gund Building at 11610 Euclid Ave. The Digital Media Mesh is located on the outdoor facade of the same address. It is most easily visible on the south side of the intersection of Euclid Ave. and East 115th St. For more information, go to CIA’s exhibitions website.

Special thanks to Nichole Woods and Samantha Konet.

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.