A solo-exhibition at Chicago Artists Coalition, held in conjunction with the yearlong BOLT Residency.
The gallery was furnished to function as a grow room, sustaining a group of potted palm plants with UV grow lights, reflective mylar and controlled heat and humidity.
The large mirrors hung around the space have been treated with resin to appear fogged by steam and recently gestured on by a human hand.
“The phrase ‘out of the ordinary’ represents a deep commitment to an ethos in which art is not removed from life, but intersects with it. For Gober, what goes on in the studio germinates from and pertains to what he finds important beyond it. At the same time, the level of thought and attention within the studio points back outward to daily life. Human care given to making can imply a care given to emotional and moral decisions; it can speak to a care for the way in which one chooses to inhabit this world. One need not draw a connection between such things, of course, but Gober’s art invites us to do so.”
-- Ann Temkin, in her essay “Robert Gober: An Invitation”1
Arrayed in a deliberate configuration throughout the center of the space, carefully tended plants dare us to question whether they belong. This space is for them, we see. An assiduous steward has furnished light, water, and humidity to address their needs; such is their authority that it feels likely we’ve wandered in on accident. A startling alternate to the way a space devoted to the exhibition of art is typically leveraged, Jeffrey Michael Austin’s installation signals a moral dimension -- one that appears to reject art’s alignment with luxury commodity and embrace instead a utilitarian, even survivalist functionality. An initial take on the ostensible “grow operation” commandeering the Chicago Artists Coalition's project space asks “What else can an exhibition venue be?” Or even, accusingly, “How did we come to devote this space to objects that operate as sites of contemplation and as luxury commodities when the current state of world affairs indicates a relentlessly growing crisis?!”
Yet further consideration of the components that combine to create the experience of Stay alive reveal the artistic voice has only apparently been subsumed into the survivalist imperative. As in the work of Robert Gober, “functionality” is complicated by sly evidence of Austin’s touch. Mirrors situated along three of the gallery’s four walls simultaneously offer viewers their own reflections and withhold them; to look for yourself is to contend with a gesture made by a hand before. Time is foregrounded and “Art” becomes a verb: a sequence of actions inviting viewers’ collaboration if not outright collusion.
The way it stands, here, is the way art has always stood: in defiance of time. Drawings and words in condensation on the mirrors -- typically momentary, futile gestures -- become permanent through Austin's deft material manipulation. The plants themselves, operating on their organic temporal registers, display solid consecutive months of care. Further complicating a willfully functional first impression is the fact that there is an artifice apparent in this nature. These plants are not from here. The careful tending to their presence gives sign to an implicit actor, re-attuning our concerns.
Toward what imagined objective do these efforts conspire? If we hypothesize that the creation of an environment in which the plants can continue to thrive is (an) objective (among other, more suspect objectives), to what extent does that end goal appear to be achievable? How many weeks is this exhibition? In what state do we see the life herein? Never better than today? Steadily worse through the failed contrivance of its/their inclusion in this display space? Or, more hopefully, protected, nourished, supported: Better Tomorrow?
For that matter, regarding ourselves in the misted mirrors furnished for the amplification of both light and self, in what state do we capture our own reflected images? Hilariously, alarmingly: which do we concern ourselves with more?
- Paola Cabal
1 Ann Temkin, “Robert Gober: An Invitation,” in Robert Gober: The Heart is Not a Metaphor, ed. Ann Temkin (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2014), 11.