Eric Wesley: ISOSCELES TRAPEZOID ARCH
Review II by Christina Schmid
Midway Contemporary Art
Sept 10–Oct 22, 2016
Eric Wesley’s ISOSCELES TRAPEZOID ARCH is the kind of show I have come to expect from Midway: at home in the white cube, cerebral and of a certain Spartan elegance; art that asks for a space apart, smart but aloof. To do more than look, to enter into what may amount to a meaningful conversation with the work (never without its fertile confusions) usually takes some effort. I do not object to such challenge but am wary of who can and cannot afford it. Midway’s library offers resources to learn the idiom of contemporary art, for those with the urge and, perhaps more importantly, the time. In theory, the language of conceptual art as a form of cultural production is open to anyone; in practice, the means to achieve fluency are not. This is the political dilemma of spaces like Midway: they offer the pleasure of art that tests the limits of ideas embodied in and arrived at through material making, but risk the cloistered insularity of art-as-expertise (the kind unconcerned with inviting others in), a cliquish exclusivity oblivious to the curious who still feel like they don’t belong, and the illusion of the gallery as a place-less place.
Eric Wesley’s work simultaneously does and does not fit this bill. Four glazed glass panes, titled Replacement Window #1 through #4, are mounted one on each wall. Two makeshift tables, made of coated glass panes resting on slender wooden sawhorses, sit in the gallery. Above each table hangs a lamp-sized bronze model of a fast-food franchise, titled respectively Campana (Establishment)—a nod in Italian to go with the iconic shape of a Pizza Hut–and La Belle for a Taco Bell, the very kind of structure Wesley has repurposed as an art space in Cahokia, IL. Scarce, marked by formal restraint, it’s a typical Midway show. Even the postcard’s design matches: a piece of white paper printed with all of the relevant information about the show paired, ever so elegantly, with a plastic transparency of isomorphic proportions that holds a diagram of an arch and a hued trapezoid. When stacked, the transparency’s shade condenses into deeper color.
The bronze models render each detail: a crack in the brick wall, a fake façade hiding ductwork, a satellite dish. Larger than the plastic models you may find at gift stores next to famous monuments, these faux-lamps (the models are hollow) resemble unwieldy souvenirs, awkward and, I imagine, heavy. They beg the question: why not commemorate the iconic architecture of fast food joints? Perhaps not one of America’s most esteemed attributes, but a defining feature nonetheless. You lean closer and discover that the table’s glass surface is both reflective and transparent. The effect is that when you look down, you see the geometry of pale wooden sawhorse legs, the cement floor, the hollow belly of the bronze model, the ceiling of the gallery—wooden beams, heavyduty metal rafters, ductwork—and your own face. This odd space in which objects and reflections join into a complex, layered composition changes with each shift in point of view; what you see has everything to do with how far you lean in.
The reflections effectively presence the gallery’s walls, floor, and ceiling. No longer a neutral background, the building’s architectural and ideological features enter into Wesley’s work. But the reflections also allow your body to look back at you, its mirrored contours contrast the clean, hard edges of pale blue and bronze trapezoids and arches, their forms gleaned from the fastfood-franchise architecture. Wesley’s work does not allow you to look in anonymity, sheltered by feeling invisible, inviolable. The spectator, too, is presenced, never granted retreat behind hued glass panes for privacy or the power of looking without being seen. Wesley’s materials point toward the impossibility of extricating who is looking from the act of looking: whoever ‘I’ happen to be, I am never unbiased, without my projections and reflections.
Such visibility conjures differing degrees of vulnerability for a white body, a black body, an able body, a gendered body. Complex intersectional subjectivity thus frays the unarguable precision of mathematics: isosceles, trapezoid, arch. But a yearning for pure form amid suspended function fails to obscure the many shapes re-placement routinely takes: obsolescence, gentrification, outsourcing, upgrading, displacement, relocation. Who takes whose place here? And why? Entangled with a pervasive logic of replacement, Wesley’s materials do not suggest permanence but a malleable makeshift constellation of objects, easily undone, precarious in arrangement and conceptual consequence: a former restaurant now sustains an artist’s work; a replacement glass panel serves as a table without chairs; tinted and glazed, windows offer only reflections, no views; heavy bronze sculptures masquerade as souvenir lamps that shed no light. In these reconfigurations, objects not only cede functionality but edge toward an oddity that infects the gallery, turning it into an admittedly strange place that holds even stranger things: objects withdraw, their standoffishness symptomatic of what eludes and exceeds a human grasp.
This is illustrated by two replacement windows that face each other to produce an infinite regression of reflections, trapezoid of arch, arch of trapezoid, each progressive mirror image a little darker. In theory, I know the reflections are endless. In reality, the capacity of my perceptive is limited. I adjust my point of view, standing to the side and thus making out a third, smaller arch inside the trapezoid–but knowing what must surely be there still does not let me see any farther. The thing looms beyond apprehension, aloof, right there yet out of reach. Wesley’s things conjure other objects, too: the specter of privileged privacy behind tinted one-way windows, or the fact that understanding, like empathy, is inevitably limited. Information does not equal insight. And power, even paired with the best of intentions, engenders a peculiar blindness. Suspended between endless reflections, a brief moment of vertigo: where am I, again? Re-placed.
Eight objects in a white-walled space later, mathematical precision has given way to messy multiplicity. Material histories cling to the objects (and the gallery as their temporary container), as do the traces of economic forces that outstrip comprehension and predictive models. The work never positions us in the place behind hued windows where power sees without being seen. Replacement, after all, is not limited to the substitution of objects whose functionality has been compromised or outpaced. And yet if we look closely, as Wesley invites us to do, we just might glimpse a different sort of space where, oddly, objects and beholders may enter altogether different relationships.