Alexa Horochowski: Vortex Drawings

Review by Mary L. Coyne

Highpoint Center for Printmaking
Feb 3–Mar 25, 2017

Vortex Drawings, an exhibition resulting from Alexa Horochowski’s year-long residency at Highpoint Printmaking, presents a single channel video installation and nine works on paper. Polished and powerful, the drawings are the indeterminate results of a controlled environment, speaking to the encounter of what the artist calls “naturalized garbage,” the floating plastic bags, beverage containers, and largely harmful residue of commercial, industrialized packing. Vortex Drawings fulfills only the broadest definition of drawing—works on paper—yet even in this, Horochowski undermines the medium as nearly half employ Tyvek (a synthetic polyethylene material often used as temporary construction insulation and packing material) as a ground. The nine large-scale 9’x10’ and 8’x8’ drawings, imbue a drama that would be heightened in a larger exhibition space, yet in spite of the confines of the gallery, the work maintains a drama and beauty. This elegance belies the materials from which the work was made— no-name icons of commercial production: white Styrofoam coffee cups, packing peanuts and tin cans. Objects that are intended for a short-term use and, ironically have half-lives of decades.

The drawings are produced entirely by the chance movements of these man-made refuse materials that the artist has coated in pigment substances (graphite, ink, and oils). Instead of wind, the objects were spun into an eddy by the artificial air currents produced by eight commercial grade circular fans on an empty floor in the Soap Factory (itself a former site of industrial manufacturing). Centralized galaxies of etchings, lines and dots, or, in the case of the pieces made from the movement of the packing peanuts, a soft mist of graphite, the drawings themselves hold as autonomous compositions. The works on paper on which the tin cans rolled perhaps show the most direct relationship to the forms of production, curved lines imprinted intentionally on the comparably fragile paper. The drawings produced by the fan induced wind-vortex are more complete than most finished drawings produced directly from an artist’s hand.

Although formally analogous to works such as Trisha Brown’s It’s a Draw (2002), Horochowski’s Vortex Drawings occupy a more tenuous relationship to the means of their production, which is what gives them gravity beyond an initial rhythmic beauty. There’s a mystery to how the marks on the paper were made that is most interesting—at initial glance the drawings are beautiful, but it is only with the knowledge of how they are made that they become poignant, even political. Apart from establishing the arena in which the cans and packing peanuts enact their acrobatics, Horochowski had little control over the types of marks made.

Vortex Drawing #1 is the best example of this abstraction from the mechanical form of production. The packing peanuts have produced a monumental dust cloud, which seems to metaphorically obscure the refuse that produced it. Cropped from a larger composition, Horochowski has successfully completed an act of transformation, from mundane to sublime. The very materials used suggest there is more to unpack here than the residue of an action. If the result of a performance, this is one that occurs on construction sites, backlots, and trash heaps across America.

Horochowski’s drawings at times reveal the near pathetic efforts of humans to replicate nature. In order to reproduce the air flow of a light breeze, the artist needed a laundry list of items and conditions: a large flat surface area, eight commercial grade fans, each using significant electricity. In a video, the violent sound of the fans used to stir pigment-coated packing peanuts is nearly assaulting; the process denies the fluidity of watching like objects tossed in a natural wind. The immensity of resources required to keep lights on, air at comfortable temperatures, and water supporting urban and landlocked communities is almost humorous if not ecologically disturbing. Horochowski’s work comments on the inevitable failure of humankind to replicate nature, but creates the poetry and serendipitous relationships possible when these two worlds, that should seamlessly co-exist, abruptly intermingle. Her use of chance underscores the role of the human hand, similar to John Cage’s series of works on paper depicting stones in the garden at the Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto, Japan (1983-1991). The drawings’ beauty, for both Horochowski and Cage relies, in part on this tension between nature, the presence of the manmade in landscape, and the chance operations that result in their production.

Vortex, the video projection that opens the exhibition allows a closer read. A circle of smaller household fans visibly kept offscreen blow a quartet, trio, duo and a single Styrofoam coffee cup into a balletic dance. Twirling, circling, bumping up against and slipping across one another, the cups appear to move by an animate force in the eight-minute long video. If set to music, the cups’ movements could indeed take on a dance, as is, with the only audio being that of their quiet direct falls, crashes and rolls, they take on an elegant presence, their autonomous “thingness” is direct and unadorned while transcending their typical use, and refuse function. Do these man-made objects have autonomy? Lives of their own, that may even extend beyond human life? Have we created millions of white foam Frankensteins? Or are they as harmless as leaves?

Horochowski raises but doesn’t answer these questions. Instead she holds a balance of finding a beauty in debris to open up a reality we maintain daily but rarely confront. As opposed to making a moral judgement about the existence of litter and damage to our ecosystem, Horochowski seeks to elevate these moments of quiet banality. The balance of normative materials and occurrences and the fact that these storms of debris are so familiar gives the exhibition an approachability. Horochowski could have easily erred on the preachy, but instead managed to blend humor and a Zen-like activism to the work. Even as she underscores the quiet elegance and rhythm of a plastic bag being blown among the leaves, our environmental consciousness is activated by the scene. If Vortex alludes to the production process of the drawings, it doesn’t reveal her hand, instead expecting the viewer to respond and consider the role of consumerism, mass production, humanmade materials and natural elements, and how these conflicting forces brush up against and get tangled in each other across our shared landscape.