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On Jennefer Hoffmann, Tess Michalik and Malcolm Mobutu Smith, by Paula Katz

The artwork currently on view at 411 Gallery could be described in the pithy explanation as being “decorative objects”, if one were being exceptionally simple. In contemporary art terms that one word – decorative – has come to stand for something that elucidates a particular reaction; it is a polite way of indicating that while something may on the surface be aesthetically interesting or beautiful, it lacks a deeper emotional or philosophical essence. That is hardly the case of the compact exhibitions by Jennefer Hoffmann, Tess Michalik, and Malcolm Mobutu Smith. To steal a phrase used to describe Hoffmann’s work on Volume Gallery’s website, each of these artists makes “objects for contemplation”. Beauty on the surface is secondary to the more theoretical and emotional substance of the artwork in question.

Selected by Kathryn Armstrong, the work of these three artists together is an intriguing combination. When one puts objects in proximity to each other, they have a conversation. This is undeniable. It is impossible not to begin to connect and contrast underlying ideas, materials, and modes of installation. Emotional improvisation are the words that come to mind to immediately connect the material expressions of Hoffmann, Michalik, and Smith. However, each of the three shows at 411 Gallery stands on its own: distinct, with a singular voice.

Installation view of "number of pieces" (L–R: "Wednesday, February 14, 2018"; "Untitled"; "Many of them"

Hoffmann‘s work, in particular, is absolutely disarming when you first encounter it. Or perhaps alarming is the better expression. It appears that perhaps the gallery or artist might have paused mid-installation, forgetting to remove materials and tidy up. Raw canvas covers two of the pedestals upon which a variety of ceramic items rest. On the wall behind the tableaux of pedestals, more raw canvas is suspended with a mustard yellow sheet peeking out like a makeshift theater curtain. However, it is not the abundance of draped and hung fabric which causes one to come to the initial conclusion that the installation is unfinished. It is the crumpled lavender sheet cradling two rolls of tape and lying rather haphazard on the floor. It creates the uncanny feeling of an exact moment in time when someone departed the space. There is an awareness that a perfectly installed white cube space would never command the viewer’s contemplation in this way.

There is a sense of fragility to the installation that comprises number of pieces, Hoffmann’s curiously titled exhibition at 411 Gallery. Some potential for functionality permeates some individual works; others not so much. It is as if the entire installation has been caught in a moment in time where decay has already set in. Perhaps there was a flood, as there is an aquatic feel to some works. All this is to say that experiencing Hoffmann’s work is a little like feeling trapped in a place where you can’t help but consider what was there before, while knowing you are only left with the after. This impression of incompleteness adds a sense of melancholy and, of course, gives rise to ceaseless questions.

The “why” of Hoffmann’s work may haunt you if you are the type of person who thrives on artwork that is easy to unpack. It is not tidy, and you cannot read a neat label with well-crafted, curatorial words to lend a straightforward reading of the artwork. There is no “on to the next” when having a gallery experience with Hoffmann’s work. She is intentionally vague, allowing viewers to complete a narrative and own their response to the work, in essence fully supporting Roland Barthes’s concept of the death of the author.

While Hoffmann’s work is quite challenging, that is not to say the other artists presented in tandem at 411 Gallery are “easy”. Malcolm Mobutu Smith’s vessels, on view in his exhibition Felsic Morphology, consist of archetypal forms abstracted through the lens of earthly whimsy. Smith himself cites numerous visual and musical influences including graffiti art, comic books, jazz, and hip hop, which merge into something “strange and new”. Absorbing this plethora of influences, the resulting works, like those of his compatriots sharing the 411 Gallery space, are not about seeking perfection, but rather about an individualistic expression to provoke visual and contemplative interest.

Each of Smith’s stoneware pieces displays a variety of mark making, some vessels showing more evidence of the hand than others, and most with multiple textures transitioning between hand-built and wheel-thrown elements. From a distance, one can generally intuit the utilitarian function each form suggests. On a closer approach it is evident that despite the fact that maybe these items could perform a particular task, you would not attempt it. These are objects meant to be enjoyed through an aesthetic and not operational perspective. And it is for this reason – that an adept ceramic artist would make items that hint at functionality, while denying it – that they provoke such strong curiosity.

It is the display of colorful MDF behind several of the ceramic forms that is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the entire exhibition. Similar to the lavender sheet on the floor in Hoffmann’ exhibition, the MDF serves to disrupt viewers’ expectation of a “normal” white cube gallery installation. Smith could have easily chosen to exhibit the stoneware pieces in a traditional display of pristine white shelves or pedestals. Instead, the large swatches of colorful MDF serve to present the more neutral toned pottery pieces as if they were on a stage. It is easy to see how these bold splotches also allude to Smith’s interest in graffiti. Lastly, and perhaps most intriguingly, despite the precision with which this MDF forms are made, they add another element of the hand in the work. Atop their sleek exterior, they are mounted to the wall with visible drywall screws. Whether this is Smith’s quirky take on acknowledging the lack of perfection or simply the best way to install them, it is an aspect of the work that cannot be denied. It is an unexpected touch that leads to a more contemplative experience for the viewer.

Tess Michalik’s scrumptious impasto paintings are the media outlier of the three exhibitions at 411 Gallery, but no less demanding of evocative and individual reflection. The floral paintings which comprise the exhibition Frosted Flakes are palpably laden with emotion. Even if one did not have any particular knowledge on the artist’s intention, the heavy and viscous brushstrokes speak to an unmistakably dynamic application. And, of course, flowers bring about a number of connotations and have been used symbolically in art for centuries.

From works that capture a single bloom to others which suggest an unending vista of blossoms, Michalik’s small-scale paintings stand on their own as individual artworks, but also feel like fragments that could have been originally part of sizeable compositions. This sense may be due to the influence of 17th and 18th century European textile design in this body of work, where patterns would have been multiplied and repeated. Or perhaps this reaction to the scale is that unlike classic vanitas images, which capture blooms at various points in their life cycle in a single painting, Michalik’s fresh flowers display a fresh uniformity. The works are of course not vanitas artworks which present items that allude to life’s transience by using symbols of impermanence. Yet, to compare the works on view in Frosted Flakes to superficially beautiful still-life paintings would also devalue their emotional intention.

These paintings were created during the past year of quarantine, a period that has not been without challenges for all people. Michalik channeled her emotions, and the resulting paintings are beautiful. That is not to suggest that all the emotions she felt when painting them were beautiful. But aren’t all emotions beautiful? Isn’t that the essence of our humanity? That you’ll never understand your highs if you don’t suffer the lows. That with joy can also come anxiety. For many the past year has taught us to discover the pleasure in small things, to become better in touch with ourselves, learning how to bloom again. What could signify this better than a flower? And to this end, the flower functions perfectly as a vehicle to convey emotions that are universally relatable. The exhibition title, Frosted Flakes, alludes to a familiar cereal, sugary sweetness covers something much more ordinary and bland. But there is nothing average or unremarkable about these paintings. There is a sweetness, however, that compels the viewer to approach Frosted Flakes with poignant consideration.

An exhibition is typically entered first with one’s eyes. Other senses may open. A deeper cerebral connection does not always follow. Sometimes a visual feast is simply that. And there is nothing wrong with simple beauty as a raison d'être in art. But that is just not the case for the exhibitions of Hoffmann, Smith, and Michalik on view at Gallery 411. If one needs proof that a decorative object can be a contemplative object, look no further.

All images by Tony Vasquez.


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