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Essay for the exhibition "to perceive the invisible in you" by Alison Fraunhar, curator

Sabina Ott
To Perceive the Invisible in You

Alison Fraunhar, PHD
Associate Professor of Art
Saint Xavier University Gallery
March 2012

Reason is always a region carved out of the irrational—not sheltered from the irrational at all, but traversed by it and only defined by a particular kind of relationship among irrational factors. Underneath all reason lies delirium, and drift.#

When my daughter was small, we both enjoyed a TV show called CatDog. It was a quirky cartoon whose protagonist was a conjoined creature melding the heads and torsos of a cat and a dog, two spirits inhabiting the same body, each facing the world at a 180° angle to the other.# As might be imagined, their drives and desires were frequently in opposition, yet their underlying mutual affection often motivated them to sacrifice self-interest and act in the interest of the other. These struggles, for and against, self and other, yielded funny, manic, often surreal and chaotic situations and plot lines that resonated with little girl and an academic.

Sabina Ott’s exhibition to perceive the invisible in you shares all these qualities. Profoundly oppositional, deeply sentimental, manic and chaotic, like CatDog it is permeated by a quality of in-between-ness it is neither cat nor dog, but both and more. Ott brings together different impulses, drives, desires, in harmonious, dissonant and ever-shifting configurations. However, unlike CatDog, Ott’s work is also piercingly beautiful and to reduce the network of materials, forms and engagements in this body of work to a simple binary would be to miss the point: that perception exceeds explanation, that experience exceeds comprehension, and that the heart of art is always greater than the sum of its parts. Hannah Arendt claimed that “alienation in the modern world consists in a "twofold flight from the earth into the universe and from the world into the self."# to perceive the invisible in you exemplifies both “flight…into the universe and…into the self” motivated not, I think, by the sense of alienation Arendt claimed as the pre-eminent condition of human consciousness in the modern era but instead by the desire to dissolve fixed boundaries of (among a myriad of binaries) inner/outer, visible/invisible, cooperation/contestation, harmony/dissonance, spirit/matter.

Informed by Gertrude Stein’s irreducible minimalism, Vedic traditions and practice and Deleuzian thought-image, Ott’s work makes manifest in subtle and grotesque ways the infinite play of perception. In keeping with these diverse sources of inspiration, the artwork, the spirit and its expression in material form exist in contingent and often precarious states that invite the viewer to reflect on the underlying commensurability of the sublime and the commonplace.

The material footprint of the exhibition consists of two and three-dimensional forms, painting, video and sound loops, and incorporates additional elements of text, light and living plants. Ott defamiliarizes the material world, deploying banal, domestic commodities including lamps, tables, and houseplants, slyly converting them into the raw materials out of which she constructs strange, uneasy re or de-purposed art objects that hint at yet resist intended usage. It is an important part of her strategy to use materials found in suburban art and craft supply stores in these works, creating a simultaneous attraction and repulsion, inviting us into this madcap world, while flaunting its transgressivity.

In to perceive the invisible in you, her formal and critical concerns are signaled materially. The ubiquitous material in to perceive the invisible in you is foam; chunky carved blocks of Styrofoam and puffy sprayed foam, materials that bear the ambivalent value of being cheap, ubiquitous, lightweight, easy to manipulate, fragile, strangely beautiful as well as toxic to humans and the environment. The Styrofoam emerges as both an art medium and its stand-in; it mimics (and at the same time, it is) a sculptural medium, Ott persists in thinking of it, and her work with it, as painterly. Ott “works” the Styrofoam with the techniques of sculpture-making, cutting, shaping, carving, but each surface is carefully considered in terms of paint; color, texture, surface and mode of application. Far more than being painted sculpture, then, the form and surface are integrated in a sleight-of-hand that oscillates.

The cheap, degraded materiality of the foam is also the negation of an art material: the fragility of the foam’s cellular composition guarantees its formal degradation, but its environmentally toxic formulation guarantees its endurance. Used as an art material, it is in-between permanence and ephemerality, bearing a kind of contingent duration. The exuberance of the sprayed foam looks like whipped cream, mimicking the organic and situating us in the inescapable landscape of artifice.

In one piece, the foam is sprayed on a pierced, flat grid that slumps against the wall, in-between two and three-dimensional. The sprayed foam is used as ground to be further manipulated, and as thing-in-itself. It is left in its “natural”, white state; “pure”, minimal, cloud-like, but also a blank “canvas” to be painted and even gold leafed. Ott uses a painterly palette of exuberant color—acid yellows, greens and pinks applied by brush and sprayer.

The silk roses that sprout, seemingly at random, from several pieces recall Ott’s career-long interest in the rose as both a poetic and a rhizomatic unit; the symbol of romantic love, the word ‘rose’ was a crucial element in Gertrude Stein’s decoupling of signifier/signified. Stein’s rigorous formalism, her pioneering work in liberating language from narrative, or rather freeing language from a fixed relation to narrative provides the template for Ott’s use of roses. Painted, carved, photographed, projected and silk, Ott draws upon Stein’s defamiliarization of language and defamiliarizes the iconic sign rather than the abstract alphabetic one: roses pop up throughout Ott’s work as provocative signs of love, beauty and even women’s art history. Eyes, too, have long figured in Ott’s work; in recent years distorted photographs of eyes, cropped and stretched into drooping ovals, hover on painted fields and, affixed to wires, sprout from three dimensional pieces like the silk roses. The eyes watch us, asking us to reflect on our own consciousness, to “see”, and ask us in considering the treachery of vision, to “perceive the invisible”. Eyes also refer to Hindu visual codes, in which stylized eyes serve as avatars for the deity who sees all. The immanence of the invisible is expressed by the audio loop that samples kirtan, resonant Indian devotional music connecting breath, sound and vibration.

The interaction of disparate media strives to create new contingencies of space and time: one piece combines lines of poetry projected in elliptical arcs of light looping across dark gallery corner walls covered by round convex mirrors that suggests the interplanetary travel of love across the galaxy. Coming of age in 1970s California, Ott was steeped in an artistic culture that ricocheted between surface and depth, banal and exalted, and often rejected the conventional professional routes of the established gallery and museum in favor of artist-run exhibition spaces and improvisational modalities. These themes and histories weave through Ott’s work throughout her career, combining and recombining in different expressive and formal materials, methods, critical and spiritual systems. In Ott’s artistic epistemology, art is play, art is life, art is love, bringing forth profound structures of feeling. Ott’s commitment to play authorizes her joyful embrace of myriad media and techniques and frees her from the foreclosure of closed systems. She incorporates life into her work quite literally in the use of living plants, and also in her commitment to exhibition strategies involving food and social networks that further blur the boundaries separating art from the rest of life. Provocatively, Ott insists that the practice that she calls “hospitality”, social events in which both food and art are “produced” and “consumed” are not, in themselves, art, going against the grain of relational aesthetics, with its hyper- self-reflexive approach to the commingling of art and life. Love is the foundation of Ott’s belief system, inspiring both her attraction to the poetic language of love and the underlying ethos the spiritual paths she travels; art (and hospitality) is the language she deploys in service to love.

The epigraph that opens this essay is taken from Gilles Deleuze, who sought to define an epistemology in which thought is inherently unstable and defies representation in image; according to Deleuze, thought is the process of dealing with problems, questions of identity and difference, but thought cannot deliver consistent and eternal truths. Deleuze frames the rational not as the underlying principle of human experience, but by emphasizing the relational, he locates reason within the larger field of the irrational, governed by “delirium and drift.” In to perceive the invisible in you, the pulsating universe of perception and sensation, becoming (not being) is the dominant state of affairs; everything is precarious, contingent, on the verge of spinning out of control, and when it does, it reconfigures itself into new arrangements no less compelling than those that out of which it emerged.

To Perceive the Invisible in You by Alison Fraunhar for the exhibition of the same name at St. Xavier University, 2012