Khôra at Mt. San Antonio College Art Gallery
By Larry Gipe
Through December 7th
It’s hard to imagine a slipperier siting for an exhibition than “Khôra”, an evocative three-person show continuing until December 7th at Mt. SAC Art Gallery. To reckon with the meaning of the title, beware: Wiki will promptly plunge you down a relentless rabbit hole of post-structural aesthetics that runs from Heidegger to Iragaray. At the start, khôra (more often anglicized as chora), was defined by the Greeks as the space just outside of the city (polis) and – in a rare case where one can justifiably brandish the word liminal – the transition region between the populated realm and the savagery of Nature. Plato found the word useful, assigning it as a receptacle for his philosophical Forms, a space or interval between the formation of an idea and its realization. Containing no definitive qualities – and yet potentially containing ALL qualities – Plato saw it as “the mother of all qualities without itself having any – except its capacity to take on, to nurture, to bring into existence any other kind of being.” Flash forward a few millennia and the word has continued to fascinate; in 1993, Derrida wrote “Khôra”, a short essay that extended Plato’s original concept (he even proposed it as a sieve-shaped outdoor sculpture in a collaboration with architect Peter Eisenman). The philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva summoned it most specifically starting in 1974 with a feminist twist on Lacan, designating khôra as a pre-semiotic “beginning before the beginning” in the womb, a state before phallocentric linguistic forces – and that inevitable “mirror stage” – spoils all the bliss.
Used in the context of an exhibition, the title offers up the tantalizing possibility of object-ideas in transit, or diverted by an interval of time, becoming and being and dissolving. The uncertainty principle inherent in khôra solves what might have been a curatorial dilemma for organizer Fatemeh Burnes: how to name a show without labeling and limiting its scope. By connoting a passage without designation, it formulates a “playground” for artists, a temporal zone where narratives can be tossed about, accepted or rejected –“Khôra”, the exhibition, is a playground that (with apologies to Diogenes) demonstrates “playgroundness”.
Viewers entering the main gallery are confronted by Rebecca Ripple’s 23-foot text “ABSOLUTELY”(2008). Painted directly on the wall, the word “fades up” from an almost invisible “A” to a darker value “Y” – the opposite direction of gradation one might expect. It acts as the perfectly ironic inauguration to an exhibition experience in which absolutes play no part. An investigation of text – often the power of one word – is integral (although not always obvious) in her work. A small graphite work on multiple layers of vellum called “Uage” (2008), depicts the letters forming amidst skeins of hatching and cell-shaped shapes. Clearly the word’s crucial “s” has slithered off, and Ripple has cleverly subverted the word “usage” to the point where this highly functional word is rendered meaningless. Ripple updates Morton Schamburg’s century-old assemblage “God” (2007) with her own kinky “soft” version, fabricating the three letters in black leather and velvet. Her hovering sculpture “Cork” (2016), suspended by wires from the ceiling, adds a charming bit of levity to the ambiance. However, “this is not a cork”. It is actually an enlarged replica of an unfurled wine capsule, made of aluminum and copper. Paradoxically, “Capsule” as a title/word would have made obvious sense for this floating object, but Ripple chooses to play on the time lapse between anticipation and consummation, as her “Cork” is the moment before the actual cork is revealed and removed.
John O’Brien’s work emerges from the elastic and notoriously unreliable source of autobiographical narrative, and he dips liberally into this remembered and fabricated bank, re-imagining sensations and images as miniature discursive formations in a rich variety of media and forms. Some of the results are intimate, like his series of small standing, roughly welded steel frames celebrating the senses: “Vista/sight” (2010), “Tatto/touch” (2010), etc. Each unit holds epoxy forms that relate to the title, and O’Brien intermingles the personal with echoes of art historical references like Jasper Johns, Bruce Nauman and even Hannah Wilke’s pinched labial applications. O’Brien’s double life as an expatriate in Italy figures strongly in the titles and the work, giving him an expansive “lingua d’artista” to enrich (and for English-only speakers, obfuscate) the work’s meaning. “Groviglio Ad Personam“ (2017) is a wall relief – part frame, part gestural forms, part shadow-play. Like most of the work in this exhibition, it straddles the graphic and the sculptural. Constructed solidly of steel, the work still feels ephemerally light; although abstract in plain sight, the forms beg to be deciphered (they include – although the viewer might never know – his initials and the Italian word for “I”).
Other more expansive works, like his “trame” series (2015), evince O’Brien’s fascination with mapping and creating enigmatic residue from dérive-like wanderings. Although “trame” means “cross-hatching” in printmaking, he mines the word for a multitude of metaphorical resonances. As a verb, it refers to plotting both vertical and horizontal aspects of space, and on a personal level it can connote the interweaving of relationships and time. Visually, they exist as framed stacks of poetic evidence, built up from translucent layers of drawing and photographic information topped by a laser-cut appendage that physically and figuratively pierces the picture plane. O’Brien’s other contributions to “Khôra” include “lo scarto (the remains)” (2010), where re-photographed scenes of abandoned archives and offices serve as a ground for (as the artist explained it) “pictorial elaborations related to my memories of growing up on military bases, where a large part of the pleasure of being a young person moving from place to place was to go into the abandoned sites.” [Curiously, O’Brien is the second artist reviewed in a month by this author who spent a transient childhood in a military family.]
Coleen Sterritt rounds out this impressive trio, with sculptures that apply most aptly to the original definition of khôra, as each work seems to reside in a space between man-made manufactured elements (polis) and aspects of Nature. On the outskirts of every urban center, humanity has designated zones for refuse – in our current era this consists mainly the non-biodegradable plastics we tend to wrap things in. In her show last summer, Constance Mallinson exhibited oil paintings of enormous dump heaps of detritus, painted from still-life arrangements of trash collected on walks around the neighborhood. In these works, Mallinson’s outrage plays partner to her craft, resulting in political works brought to life with considerable aesthetic skills. Sterritt’s oeuvre emerges from a similar place: her “Green Rondo á la Turk” (2015) looks like it was yanked whole from the depths of the Pacific Gyre (also known as “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, a 10 million square mile aquatic trash vortex.) While jazz aficionados will pick up on the Brubeck reference in the title, the viridian, seaweed-like plastic that forms the principal knot of material was originally the shrink-wrap used to protect luggage on the return trip Sterritt took from Istanbul. Having travelled so far, and served her so well, this banal clot of cellophane is dignified at the end with the aesthetic purpose of bonding the “Rondo” together, creating a ganglia of found wood, sponges, tape and (what appear to be) plastic bowling pins. Regarded in its entirety, this wall-hanging sculpture has an “organic” feeling although much of its content is man-made; the overall impression is of a flowing, potentially transitional form in the throes of becoming and/or unraveling. With found-object art, one is tempted to invoke Duchamp, but Sterritt’s works aren’t ready-mades. The “stuff” of her work tends to be enigmatic and any given element’s previous use isn’t apparent.
As an installation, organizer Fatemah Burnes wisely mixes all the work together to emphasize how the participant’s concerns overlap. “Khôra” is a great success because it allows three exceptional artists the opportunity to stretch out, coalescing into the most thoughtful group show of the season.