Surface Tension

Friday December 11th, 2020

Curated by Pia Singh 

With work by: Yani Aviles, Ashley GillandersRosemary Holliday Hall, SaraNoa MarkGalen-Odell Smedley 

Click here for the Surface Tension Virtual Artists Talk 

The evolution of natural forms and the evolution of human perception have coincided to produce the phenomenon of a potential recognition: what is and what we can see sometimes meet at a point of affirmation. This point, this affirmation, is two-faced: what has been seen is recognized and affirmed, and at the same time the seer is affirmed by what he sees. 

John Berger, 2016

It’s hard to determine where it begins. A flight of planes in a room, or the formations in fluid or is from petrified earth? Surface Tension is an invitation to experience an archive of internal landscapes at a time when access to our external world is in refrain. These landscapes, expressed by Ashley Gillanders, Rosemary Holliday Hall, Yani Aviles, SaraNoa Mark, and Galen Odell-Smedley, are composed of organic continuity: of fractured sound that build in harmonic intervals, of rocks carved by whispers at the edge of a lake, of lyrics from a song that congeal into generations of oppressive horror, and of light that bends and liquifies technologies of perceived time. Each of the site specific works hold a surface that stretches across the expanse of the gallery. It is a composition that is able to transcend the world in which we, to some degree, find ourselves trapped. It is within this sticky cohesiveness, an entanglement between material and conceptual elements, that five artists bracket and hold each other while inviting us to embrace a future that can transcend our bodily relation to the world around us.

Galen Odell-Smedley’s ‘en-’ is a result of his research on containers built for ephemeral experiences over the last two years. Odell-Smedley leads the eye through the ear, presenting a series of fractured ceramic containers encased in their skins. Once cast to hold a constellation of musical pitches, they are released from their former lives, emitting notes that spatialize information once held within, into a multitude of additional directions. Each note, pitch and timbre moves the observer (who is also the listener) as a point between sources. Non language communication moves the viewer within the installation. The sounds emitted from each sculpture resemble an instrumentation, a granular synthesis of visual and auditory cues that decompose in the totality of the whole. The ecology of knowledge and interconnection between human and non-human or material and immaterial worlds meet in ‘en-’. An added element of tonal positioning in the installation opens up new possibilities how we perceive formal sculpture while the gallery becomes endowed with an additional parameter for thinking about installation and composition, in relation to exhibition making.

‘Carved Conversations’ by SaraNoa Mark, is a multitude of interior landscapes carved into an enigmatic sculptural piece. Words from conversations between friends and community members move the artists hand through stone and pieces of asphalt found by the artist at Chicago’s Promontory Point. It is a collaborative piece between the community, the artist and the lake. Inscribed rocks shaped by the churning and turning of the lake listen, speak and read parts of an oral history project built by Hyde Park native, DD Klionsky, who befriended Mark by the south side of the Point. Mark’s interest in stone carving as one of the first forms of communication and means of marking place traveled the artist to Turkey on a Fulbright fellowship. At the beginning of the pandemic, their travels were cut short, but not before they had the opportunity to study the living rock monuments in Anatolia. Returning to Chicago, Mark was drawn to creating place-based, collaborative and locally specific work. While centering themselves in the midst of the pandemic through the act of swimming, they formed a small but strong community of swimmers from varying walks of life. Their conversations as a community grew, interspersed by Mark collecting and individually transporting each rock and fragment, replete with detail, back in their studio. Like talismans for the artist's psyche, the artist carved each rock through the process of deep listening, conversing and collecting stories in oft unspoken words. Conversational mannerisms, ‘umm’s’, ‘ah’s’ and sudden pauses reified within the piece, juxtaposing motifs of empathy, practical living, and survival. Two years since their carved paper clay series shown at Chicago Artists Coalition, Mark is interested in the synchronicity between historical, land based, collaborative, community-driven and place sensitive work, and the work of the contemporary artist. 

Systems of colonization, patriarchy, and structures of the nation state are questioned in Yani Aviles’s ‘Acknowledgements, 2020’. Aviles’s research on the hegemonic construction of personal history in relation to the narratives of nation-building, point to the cycles of time and how they continue to propagate cycles of trauma and pain. The piece ‘Loophole’ extends the membrane of the exhibition into the digital realm, where Aviles uses a zero-timeline and audio piece to convey intergenerational discord in relation to the history of systemic violence that led to the creation of the idea of freedom in America. The historic, blatant disregard for Indigenous knowledge and practice forces us to beg the question - What does freedom truly mean in the land of the unfree? The artist strives to connect history to the remembrance of ancestors underlining contesting histories from contesting standpoints that ‘cancel’ each other out. 


Acknowledging their mixed race Caribbean heritage, Aviles explores the political and social responsibility of being an artist. Sound operates as gesture in this work, just as solidified poured wax serves as a transitional state to free the body from its own realization of what place freedom holds in their relationship to space. In ‘For once they intuited that the human will was long intent on capture, they all conspired to rest their Truth everywhere- M. Jacqui Alexander’ Aviles builds poured wax in corners of the the room to consider how knowledge that functions at the margins or interstices; such as plant medicine and energy healing practices, has the ability to introduce non-western, maybe even spiritual, epistemologies in parallel to what is ‘known’ to us today. By setting an intention for the now, she invites us to process our inner worlds and confront the shadow self,  in order to collectively move toward a new paradigm. ‘Phoenix’ rises (and slips) from the ashes of the authoritarian regime of Trump. 45’s administration and destabilizing politics are exorcised in the image of an eagle on the wall. As a symbol of American democracy and freedom, the eagle also symbolizes a space where the mythic meets the living, speaking to the histories and cultures of Indigenous people who have been repressed, persecuted and killed in the name of nationhood. ‘Phoenix’ is a sign that doubles as a signal of a place where Western political ideals meet non-western spiritual ancestors. Aviles continues her invocations through the ritual cleansing of the space. The work exists through the experience of it. To Aviles, material concerns defy hierarchy.  

‘Vampire Disco’ by Ashley Gillanders uses the ‘eye’ of the 3D modeling software Maya, to re-access, remember and reconstruct the gallery space from her home in Texas. The indefinite nature of the pandemic led to an extended timeline for building this exhibit, separating Gillanders to ‘just the right degree’. The artist's distance from Chicago, Heaven Gallery and her own memories of place, forced her to be solely reliant on verbal cues, subjective descriptions and documentary style iPhone images that transmitted partial information. Supplementing this, Gillanders began to piece together images of the space on a virtual grid. Inhabiting the space through algorithms, interfaces and textural cues, Gillanders creates a 3D mirrored space where the all seeing ‘eye’ of the virtual camera picks up on every form and surface - except an image of itself. Regardless of angle or axis, the virtual camera never sees itself - like a vampire unable to see it’s own reflection. Gillanders interest in mirroring architectural space and detail comes into contact with the abstraction of space of our current reality within a pandemic. As interpersonal relationships and communication move through Google docs, Zoom ‘rooms’ and Skype, the work illuminates our enmeshment with technology. Prints on mirror position the viewer within the work, or are they visual traps that alter what we perceive to be ‘real’ in time and space?

Surface tension is a condition that is created by an entanglement of electrons. Electrons that are sensitive to the presence of magnetic fields. They entangle, enmesh, proliferate one another, combining and recombining to create different conditions to achieve different states. What state are you in while viewing this exhibit? What state are we in, collectively, in relation to history?

Rosemary Holliday Hall’s site specific installation ‘Adhesion’ is an assemblage of the artists interest in nature, forms, and patterns, and how humanity interacts with these elements (specifically in conditions of the crisis). Hailing from Los Angeles, Hall spent the initial months of 2020 relocating from Chicago to the West coast. Traversing the country at the beginning of summer, she spent weeks physically immersing herself, bodily processing ‘poesis’ with the earth. According to Heidegger, ‘poesis’ can be found in the blooming of a blossom, or the coming-out of a butterfly from its cocoon. This threshold, the moment ecstasis, is where Hall positions her inquiry. Reflecting on how experience and perception are conditioned by time and repetition, the artist melds the moment of the ‘event’ with a memory of it, while drawing up a conjuring or dream of the same. ‘Permeable Permutations’ captures autumn colored leaves with natural spore variations or bacterial discolorations, arranged as sheet music. What can be heard in a display of warning signs? Could this be read as a tune or is it nature's silent scream, a sort of self-cannibalism in protest of the climate crisis we’re currently experiencing? Hall arranges spotted yellowing leaves as sheet music for the viewer, who is also the player, inviting them to take part in the process of dying. Looking closely at nature during a global pandemic, a civil uprising and a US election year, Hall and her peers' works speak to a variety of concerns. To sit with the experience of non-locality (the basic connectivity of everything in nature), each of us become the determiner of what we choose to see (and be). The observer as the observed. The participant, as maker. The thinker, as doer.

Click here to see Acknowledgements, 2020 by Yani Aviles


[Coda: There’s been a lot going on, and it’s been a lot for everyone to think about and deal with. If you’ve been productive or not productive at all, whether in your work or personal life, you deserve a pat on the back. And a hug. We’ve made it here. Now lets nourish each other.]

-Pia Singh, December 2020