SITE Santa Fe described its 2009 summer offering, slyly, as a “suite of three one-person exhibitions” presenting “whimsical” yet “simultaneously challenging experiences.” In point of fact, visitors were not so much challenged as visibly unnerved, at times, by a bevy of works seemingly intended to bring to life divers inchoate terrors—fears of suffocation, being blindfolded and things that go bump in the night.
If ever a body of work made manifest Freud’s “aesthetics of anxiety”—as opposed to the workaday esthetics of beauty—it is the faux naive ceramic sculpture of Czech artist Klara Kristalova. These last 15 years, working in rural Sweden, Kristalova has been turning out intensely personal, oneiric objects that might easily have sprung from the imagination of Edgar Allan Poe or the gothic tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann. One evocation of the uncanny is the 2007 work Days and Nights, a seductively glazed, over-life-size head of a hapless female beset by a dense, suffocating swarm of furry moths. The installation Where the Owls Spend Their Day (2009) brought together a disparate group of surreal protagonists—animal, vegetable, mineral or all things at once—arrayed in a towering armoire, a cabinet of curiosities part museological, part Caligari.
In its own terms—tectonic, transgressive, convulsive—the commissioned work by L.A. artist Ruben Ochoa also may have left some people a tad unstrung, since, on rounding a corner, one got the impression that an earthquake had violently ruptured the fabric of SITE’s building. Continuing his preoccupation with conflicts between natural and built environments—notably his well-known Fwy Wall Extraction of 2007, for which he covered substantial sections of the concrete retaining walls along L.A.’s Interstate 10 with illusionistic photomurals that depicted the land- and cityscapes they were blocking—Ochoa created towering creatures from gargantuan chunks of concrete and rebar taken from the gallery’s very floors.
By far the most benign work in this show—though no less compelling, for all its whimsicality—was the Pennsylvania artist Brent Green’s multipart commission Watts and Volts Across a Field, an arguably Rube Goldbergian ensembleincorporating life-size, cutout plywood figures engaged in a feigned conflict with menacing wooden birds and motorized, droning dirigibles that circled overhead. This piece, which took up much of a vast gallery, was accompanied by the premiere of the self-taught artist’s new animated film about the life of Thomas Edison, “Tinkerer” Used to be a Trade, and several earlier stop-motion animations peopled with similar life-size wooden figures, shot in his trademark, endearingly eerie style.
Photo: View of Ruben Ochoa’s exhibition “Crooked Under the Weight,” 2009, concrete slabs, rebar and dirt; at SITE Santa Fe.