How do you imagine space? Do you take it as it comes, or is it a sculptural element that you can carve – an immaterial substance that can be shaped to alter human experience?
Seth Orion Schwaiger's answers are on view in "Complex I," his vast, ambitious solo creation at Pump Project. This must-see exhibit contains Schwaiger's spatial manipulations as well as charcoal drawings, monotypes, video projection, sound, carved wood, cast iron and bronze, his studio, and more.
The artist, who also writes about the visual arts for the Chronicle, has transformed the gallery into a maze of four-square, vertical boxes-cum-columns stretching to the rafters, with Sheetrock constructions massive enough to be more than we can take in with our eyes blocking the normal sight lines of the space. The "columns," however, are just the entrance to the temple. The exhibit sprawls throughout Pump Project's studio complex, as well as the adjacent, cavernous industrial space that was formerly home to Juke Auto repair shop. If our lives were configured as temples, they would contain our life's experiences within. One senses this is such an exhibition.
Despite its grand scope, "Complex I" isn't dealing with celestial space, which transports us outside of ourselves and our bodies. This is about internal space, manipulated to engage the human body and to evoke many experiences. Physical space creates psychological and cognitive space. We know our world in this way – it is an ur-sense that lets us know if there is danger, if we can relax, if our movements will be fractious or easy. Yet, like breathing, we take space for granted until it is transformed.
The first space – the maze – is blockage where once there was space, which forces us to form new pathways through the structure. It evokes Richard Serra's sculptural use of space, but is more open – with many comfortable paths to take, not Serra's one difficult route. In the open industrial area, darkened but for the arc of light illuminating six circular drawings, is an homage to the architectural interventions of artist/architect Gordon Matta-Clark: holes pierced in the wall through which one can see neighboring studios filled with Schwaiger's art: prints and sculptural busts. The light-filled holes are smaller than a human face and placed at various heights (including one so high that for me to get a view through it required taking a cell phone photo at arm's length). Bending over or stretching to see through them can lead to the playful surprise of someone else appearing on the other side. But unlike the broad, relaxing expanse of the bright arc of drawings, these small piercings are glimpses; it's impossible to see more than fragments of the whole – a reflection of life itself.
Upstairs is the realm of the gods. In a long, darkened studio, a beautiful video projection of clouds, skewed sideways, is seen on a round hanging disc. The source of the light is behind the disc: a projection coming out of the mouth of a carved wooden figure. The sculpture is reminiscent of Goya's painting Saturn Devouring His Son, as if the artist were disgorging his very being – discomfort resulting in beauty, an apt metaphor for the creation of the show.
At the end of the walkway is a balcony, looking down on the maze. Atop each box are the bones of a person, as if dried in the air, atop structures too high for animals to reach – an ancient British practice dating to Stonehenge. As gods looking down at humankind, we see the maze constructions are pedestals for the dead: those who came before.
This confirmed my sense of the presence of generations of artists who came before: references, not repeats. Schwaiger doesn't knock off the dead; he honors them. He refers to artists in the pantheon like Matta-Clark or Serra because his ambition is to join them, not to stamp his name on their work. The last drawing in the hanging circle series announces Schwaiger's "Complex IX" exhibition at the Guggenheim Bilbao. Schwaiger has thrown down the gauntlet and is off and running.
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