Nora Schultz works in a loose, intuitive way. One set of ideas flows into another, past projects blur into new ones, scavenged objects are decontextualized then recontextualized, and words both intervene and provide meaning.
"Parottree—Building for Bigger than Real" was the Berlin-based artist's first solo museum exhibition in the United States and the first show organized by the Renaissance Society's new executive director and chief curator, Solveig Øvstebø. Here Schultz showed herself moving in a new direction. Instead of the machines that have dominated her recent work, she focused on a creature, the Monk Parakeet (a species of parrot), never actually depicted in the show, but adopted here as both a muse and an imaginary artistic partner. For more than 40 years, a colony of the birds, which are in no way indigenous to Illinois, has managed to survive in the museum's surrounding Hyde Park neighborhood. In the exhibition, Monk Parakeets exerted a ubiquitous presence, including through an electronic soundtrack that broadcast their calls.
Visitors were greeted by what at first appeared to be an empty room. It turned out that the bulk of the show was overhead, in nearly 40 elements attached to a steel truss-work grid 10 feet up that is usually used to hang lights and brace partitions. Further disorienting was the seemingly random arrangement of parts, composed of ordinary industrial materials. These included metal pipe, heavy-duty plastic mesh and colored plastic, with nearly everything held together in a rickety-looking fashion with C-clamps.
Schultz's installation (2014) had a compelling conceptual logic and formal vocabulary. One began to notice recurring categories, such as speech bubbles (framed sheets of colored plastic displayed horizontally) and prints (stenciled words, most 6 to 10 feet in height). The entirety could be seen as an arboreal canopy, with some pieces, such as Tripod with Moonboot 2, stretching out treelike some 20 feet from the floor. This leaning assemblage was composed of four C-clamped sections of thin metal pipe—essentially a pole-topped with a scrunched mass of heavy-duty foil in the loose shape of an astronaut's "moonboot."
Not everything fit snugly into the parrot-inspired conceptual framework, which was clearly the artist's intent. In Schultz's free-flowing way, her ongoing fascination with machines and artificial intelligence inserted itself in works such as Mind Machine, a 10-foot-high print boldly if crudely stenciled with its titular words. And Schultz's sense of humor delivered added appeal. A standing piece topped with heavy wire bent to look like an antenna was titled E.T.—Parrot, while Schultz called a hanging mesh rectangle dotted with splotches of gray and black Parrot, Holy Shit. In addition, she playfully used a C-clamp to supply the "C" in the word "encoding" as part of a sentence written in black marker along a section of metal channel, in Parrot Most Intelligent Being on Earth: "Perceiving, encoding, memorizing, repeating all knowledge even the forgotten one."
Whatever else can be said about "Parrottree," it was emphatically site-specific, with Schultz tailoring the installation to the institution's idiosyncratic 40-by-80-foot fourth-floor gallery with its vaulted 30-foot ceiling. She seems to have reveled in the ramshackle, decidedly impermanent quality of every aspect of this show, including its lack of special lighting: just the overheard fluorescents and the room's natural illumination.
This was a transitory work, the latest step in Schultz's ever-evolving project to investigate and decipher the world around her. This time, she was aided by a fugitive parrot.