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World Art Feature 1997

The Ghost in the Machine

"Sabina Ott's installations combine decorative maps, and wax, and resin faces in fantasies of evasion. Charles Green performs the séance. Sabina Ott makes ravishingly beautiful paintings by the most grotesque means. She works with a kind of left field, post-medieval, Los Angeles bricolage, gathering paint peelings from her mutilated, dripped-on mahogany panels, and then suspending these scraps in wax and resin portrait casts. Her semi-transparent heads sit on thickly painted tabletops in a sickly inversion of up and down. Flickering video monitors and an increasingly complex, obsessional process of hoarding and gathering have become part of this painter's very specific version of installation.

The extreme physicality of Ott's pictures--along with the definitive signs of gifted free association--initially suggests that we look at them for their sheer alienated, troubling beauty. This, however, doesn't explain the way her paintings camouflage and mimic, and the way they deliriously enact all sorts of myths of formal painterliness. In her work, Edgar Allan Poe meets Ellsworth Kelly.

Ott's installations hover on the edge of becoming the work of a séance of ghostly painters, but in a sort of protective, productive, biomorphic envelope, these arrangements of highly worked objects generally emphasize their own internal textuality, as if Ott believed in a metaphoric, Yves Klein-like "death of the author." Such processes have been present in the work of other artists, who have generally worked in video or performance, and definitely not with painting. Ott's new installations are as uncanny as this account sounds, for it is hard to imagine one person making such heterogeneous constructions. All the cues--and the sense of an absolute, breathless authorial surplus--point to occult teamwork.

The artist is completely aware of the two important inquiries into authorship during the 1970's and early 80's--the structural/post-structural relativizations of the identity (and especially Barthes' famous, endlessly reified, totally recuperated "death of the author") and the New Historical contingencies of meaning, both of which had such impact upon artistic practice. Her work is evidence the two strands of thought were not completely incompatible. If the theories sometimes resulted in the adoption of a set of visual tropes in which stable authorial signature styles were demoted in favor of more heterodox stylistic allegiances, then it is doubtful whether there was ever any simple relationship between art and a dissolution of signature style. Confusing the two required a miscalculation of the difference between reading and creating a visual text, and this is precisely, and often naively, what happened.

In Ott's work, by contrast, the conflation was absolutely deliberate. She increasingly internalizes Gertrude Stein's way with words with the disparate, crazy piece-work possible by hyperactive, hyper-feminine phantoms. Her fin de siecle decorative maps, her uncanny, half-hidden wax and resin faces, and the self-destructive fantasy of her highly stressed encaustic surfaces have, therefore, something of the feel of playground games for adults gone terribly wrong, for their eroticism and tender abjection is completely convincing.

Since painting has come to be associated with abstract materiality and bohemian masculinity--or alternately has become contained, confined and exhausted by the economy of traditional framed boundaries--the medium can now embody the uncanny only with great difficulty. On the other hand, installations that incorporate painting--like Ott's--are not governed by any easily deduced criteria. Her works are therefore quite enigmatic, and her furniture is the site for deliberately contrived eruptions of the uncanny. Her painted maps look as if they have been traced or used by spirits (a new twist to the Situationist practice of psycho-geography) and the quilted colored fields resemble the channeled work of Hans Hofmann's ghost.

There's something else about Ott's installations and paintings: their light and her decreasing dependence on the grid. In common with a few other thoughtful but haunted painters of the 1980s--I'm thinking of Ross Bleckner and his pictures' "wet" surfaces so ably theorized by Thomas Crow--she exploited the difference between matte and gloss as unsettling metaphors for the aura of a work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Light was now intimately and irrevocably connected with photographic representation, and so the sheen of Ott's paintings and the milky luminosity of her casts were signs for liminal visual desire, even though there was no coherent constructed subject in sight. In itself, this identification was nothing new, but Ott's works dealt with the self-representation of a particular type of subject: the friendly ghost of a typology of abstraction and a few easily recognized icons, such as the trademark roses. Ott's twin installations Eyes a Surprise (Red Center Adventure) (1996) and Some Green Things (1996), during a recent residency in Melbourne, Australia, were a shadow theater of ideas and texts, incorporating odd painterly archaisms, positively weird twists of visual syntax (her textual cast heads) and highly unusual, complicated uses of writing and found objects.

In the end, Ott asks and answers a question that falls into the domain of cultural theory and philosophy more than into the conventional realm of art production: How can one look and move in phantom spaces, and what are the consequences of different ways of moving or inhabiting (or seeing) these spaces? In particular, she asks what categories of knowledge can be differentiated in visual experience? She answers these questions by subliminally taking a wide and fairly arbitrarily chosen range of models and influences, including abstract painting, poltergeists, internal anatomy, and the scribbled correspondences of her friends and acquaintances.

The phantasmic exists, for Ott, in public space, and she charts the experience of a postmodern flaneur lost in space. The installations defeat both reason and the senses: The paintings are a maze of skeins and fields, frustrating scopic comprehension. In the paintings, excavated and slightly overlapping shapes are cut away and then filled. Blurred outlines and ridges corrupt the legibility of each image, and her friends' messages are camouflaged by the pictures' odd semi-reflective texture. Ott's signs are engulfed by the white noise of the world, and so the only visuality that makes sense of things is inked to the second sight of clairvoyance, recognition and recurrence."

Charles Green
World Art Feature

The Ghost in the Machine by Charles Green