Brandon Morse's 'Big Ear' installation

The only thing missing from Brandon Morse's 'Big Ear' installation--part of "Macricrocosm," a group show of eight artists exploring orders of scale at Area 405--is a self-serve psychotropics bar. (Courtesy of Area 405 / August 18, 2014)

Macricrocosm

At Area 405 through Aug. 24

The only thing missing from Brandon Morse’s ‘Big Ear’ installation is a self-serve psychotropics bar. The sound-and-video piece resides in Area 405’s large rear gallery space, and you hear it the moment you enter the building. Something is making a noise somewhere, an odd babel that bounces from purr to thrum and back, like a refrigerator either experiencing erotic bliss or discovering it can hum a tune. Following this curious burble leads to a home-theater dream scene: a letterboxed screen mounted on a wooden lattice that could devour an entire apartment wall. The apparatus rakes backward slightly, not quite as severe as Robert Crumb’s  ‘Keep on Truckin‘’ cool cat, but enough to give the screen a confidently relaxed vibe. Projected onto it is a video of spherical dots of light—air bubbles in a fluid? Subatomic particles in space? Galaxies in the cosmos?—that glitter around a dark void. Streaks of light occasionally cut diagonally across that darkness, like floodlights startling a pool at night. A pair of chairs encourages you to sit a spell and disappear into its hypnotic meditations. Hmm, what to pair with this peculiarly inviting mood—euphoriant or hallucinogen? 

This knocking on perception’s doors is both the strength and crutch of “Macricrocosm,” a group show of eight artists exploring orders of scale. The strongest work here enjoys toying with the comfortable arrogance that separates visual abstraction from enhanced/mediated observation, while the less-successful pieces merely harness familiar imagery in service of the facile. Curator Stewart Watson and Exhibition Designer Jeramie Bellmay commendably parse the work around the galleries so that spending time with the show doesn’t become a chore. But the standouts—Morse, Paul Jeanes, one of Dan Perkins’ paintings, Ginevra Shay’s silver gelatin prints—leave such an indelible impression that the other works feel slight, almost out of place. 

The divide between the aforementioned facile and abstraction/observation divide is established right inside the door. Five pieces by local curator and artist Shay run down one wall, alternating between a series of imperfect grids in ink on paper and the silver gelatin prints. For the grids Shay orders a simple image—a smiley face in one, a mark like a runic squibble in another—into a series of irregularly spaced rows and columns. The non-uniform spacing yields a wavy instead of rigid series of vertices, like graph paper via constructional apraxia. It’s a distortion of an understood reality: A grid customarily looks a certain way, these are merely slightly off, the decorative illustration of intentionally skewed.

Shay’s silver gelatin prints are a different matter entirely. For her two ‘Lesser Chains of Being’ pieces Shay has assembled a series of nine prints into a rectangle, three by three, each print a black(ish) and white(ish) series of repeating abstract designs, amoebiclike blobs in one, rectangular things in the other. The pieces read like a comic or scientific illustrations, left to right, top to bottom. They have the arresting starkness of X-ray or electronic microscopy images, whose images have a blurry sharpness to them. 

This allusion to the visual quality of scientific imaging techniques invests the pieces with a juicy tension: X-rays, space telescopes, etc., are ways to visualize what the naked eye can’t see. They’re technologically mediated evidence of reality in the absence of direct observation. Think of it this way: We’ve made machines to tell us what we’re looking for when a) it’s located somewhere we can’t see, b) something is too small or far away to be seen, or c) we’re not sure what we’re looking for. These machines spit out images that inform courses of action. Take a moment and image search “chest X-ray,” a fairly common request when diagnosing heart and lung problems. The fact that those images tell anybody anything is both cool and a little bit completely insane.

Yes, today such medical/scientific images are commonplace and marveling over them is a bit parochial, but their omnipresence is what makes them such provocative targets for artists’ appropriation: We think we know so much about things we can’t actually see. We know what the surface of Mars looks like as surely as we know what we can see out of a bedroom window. We know that if you look very, very, very, very closely at a fruit fly’s compound eye you’ll find microvilli that are about 1 micron in length—three times thinner than a strand of spider’s silk. What these things look like is sometimes bizarre, otherworldly, and abstract. 

“Macricrocosm’s” artists have fun playing those familiarly scientific abstractions that convey reality off the idea that visual abstraction is conventionally an abandonment of a representational vocabulary. Is Julia Pearson’s ‘Sea’—a light box featuring an inkjet print on transparency paper—a swirling purple design or some kind of cellular blood test or a topographical photo from an extreme elevation? Are Lisa Marie Jakab’s drawings medical illustrations of neural passageways or in-progress set-design ideas for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s latest attempt at tackling “Dune”? That it almost doesn’t matter which answer is correct is what makes these works only superficially enticing. They’re visually amusing, but little else.

Paul Jeanes’ two oil-and-alkyd-on-panel paintings, ‘The Clearing II’ and ‘The Clearing III,’ deliver richer terrain to consider. Each has a viscous matte white background that appears hastily and thickly applied, over which Jeanes has laid stripes of paint, black and dried-blood red in ‘The Clearing II,’ black and bruise purple in ‘The Clearing III.’ The paint has a Jasper Johns viscosity to it on the panel, almost as if it were mechanically smushed, smeared, and striated across the white background. Its appearance evokes two different kinds of distortions: that of a technological glitch, like moving an original document while the photocopying machine is in the copying process; and that of contact, like the paint transfer that results after two cars crash into each other. These paintings equate the visual results of those processes—one an error, the other a violent act—and do so with the stately complexity of landscape painting. ‘The Clearing’ paintings are refreshingly elusive, serene one moment, jarring the next.

And then there’s Morse’s ‘Big Ear,’ a wonderfully slippery artwork. The first response is to surrender to its custom cosmic ebb and flow. Like the final seven minutes of ‘Zabriskie Point,’ it’s far too easy to get passively drunk on its visual decadence and leave it at that. ‘Big Ear’s’ dancing lights dazzle. Its sounds create a womb of comforting numb. And its furniture size encourages the lobotomized consumption of the home theater tomb. But once the wonder wanes, the brain does start trying to make sense of what it’s seeing, an effort ‘Big Ear’ consistently resists. And as you sit there, so involved, you start to realize that sometimes simply trying to make sense of what the eyes believe they’re witnessing is what we spend large stretches of our lives trying to sort out.