Jamie Hilder
Shelfed Gallery

Abbas Akhavan
Elizabeth Zvonar
Colleen Brown
Steven Brekelmans
Gabi Dao
Marina Roy

 

There are things that I do not know that I guard. The feeling of heartburn, for example. I can’t say I’ve never felt what most people understand as heartburn, but I have never experienced it. I don’t know the feeling well enough to identify it as heartburn. When I tell people this they will often attempt to fill me in, and I stop them. I imagine their impulse is a caring one. If they think that I might suffer from heartburn without recourse, without understanding what TUMS are for, then explaining how to recognize, treat, and avoid an ailment seems altruistic. But while it is likely that I have experienced the esophageal discomfort that heartburn refers to (at least as far as I know), I am certain that I have never suffered from heartburn. Another way to put this is that I have never suffered from knowing what heartburn feels like.

My favorite ignorances are not necessarily those that prevent suffering. There is a building visible from a highway I regularly travel on in a city I regularly visit. It is in a neighborhood I have yet to explore, perched on a hill, and from what I can tell is made entirely of concrete. At different times I have wondered if it is a fire station, a utility building, a museum or gallery, a high-school for the performing arts, a bunker, and a Rachel Whiteread sculpture. For years I would see this building, often while crawling along in traffic, and tell myself to search for it on Google Maps when I got the chance, or I would consider taking the closest exit to try to find it on my own. But at some point I realized I didn’t want to do either, and that I liked the curiosity the building spurred. It stopped being a surprise and started being something I looked forward to: a building I both knew and understood without knowing or understanding it.

It is a similar confounding I feel when I look at Steven Brekelman’s sculpture. The work presents as a ceramic cylinder placed upside-down over a kitschy wooden sculpture of a fisherman returning with his catch, with a potentially kitschy cardboard composition affixed to the bottom – or top? – of the ceramic pot. The way it is installed makes it difficult to see the back, but from what is visible it appears that the pot has an eel or prehistoric fish painted on it, wrapping around to meet itself as a kind of pelagic ouroboros.

Dragon Ouroboros

The eel’s orientation on the cylinder seems right-side-up, making the pot in the sculpture upside-down. The white glaze at the opening of the pot, if it reads as surface or sea-foam, or light filtering through the water’s surface (the surface of an ocean, or a sea, or an aquarium, or a fishmonger’s tank), is a sort of bottom for the eel, a place, like the air breather’s sky, that you can always see but never access. But then eels and other fish have another bottom, too, the one that a gentler force of gravity pulls them toward when they stop swimming, on which they can rest. What must it be like to have two bottoms, two limits, to not have so much of an up and down?

But fluidity isn’t the right term to apply to Brekelman’s work. The unglazed clay is dried earth. The paper and wood that surround it are common ingredients for fire. And each of the sections have their rigidities. The hard edges of the carved figure are proud of the knife that created them. The hardness of the glaze and the spiralling line travelling up – or down – the cylinder are straight and mechanical. And the concretist cardboard composition revels in the intersection of planes, embracing geometry as form in spite of its frayed edges and intentionally sloppy paint. I guess that makes it less concretist? Or is its roughness a valorization of the “plan,” the maquette, over the end product, a celebration of the initial exploration over the process of a more rigid, professionalized fabrication?

What must this eel-fish be feeling? It encircles the fisherman like a constrictor. It is upside-down – if that’s possible for an eel – and seems to be half-smiling, or perhaps just looks goofy because of its comically represented fangs. Is it chasing its tail the way a dog would, as both play and instinct, aware of its own absurdity but committed it to it nevertheless?

Dog Chasing Tail

Maybe the ceramic cylinder is less a receptacle for liquid than it is a sort of candle snuffer, but instead of fire it extinguishes the expressive capacity of the torso and face of a statuette. In this case the violence of the cylinder borders on the cartoonish, as if it were a barrel or bucket over the head and body of Elmer Fudd or Wile E. Coyote, and Bugs Bunny or the Road Runner is about to smack it with a 2x4. The fisherman’s arms are rigid against his sides, probably a formal decision made for commercial purposes: travelling in tourists’ baggage from the store to their homes, the sculpture is more likely to break if it has extruding limbs. That rigidity makes it funny, makes it seem as if it were the cylinder that is constricting it, as if it were playing along to entertain children by walking blind, asking “who turned out the lights?” in a muffled voice.

And then there’s a cardboard structure somebody placed on top (of the bottom) of the cylinder while the figure was walking around blindly. But where did they find it, and why was it made? It seems incongruous, but that incongruity is also funny. There is a joy to the slightly off-centre, off-kilter planes, and to the bright colors that smudge and fail to cover the surfaces completely. There is a joy to the rough, porous edges.

Pronoun Table

Gertrude Stein often professed her love for pronouns, as they carried much more possibility than proper nouns and their stubborn clarity. She claimed that, as you come to love someone, you eventually stop using their name to address them. Names become insufficient. Nouns are the collected residue of thinking habits, of experiences ossified across time. Pronouns are more exciting, pointing in several directions at once, and invite the play that comes with familiarity and intimacy. This sculpture, then, seems to take nouns and disrupt them. It attempts to turn ideas away from themselves.

Michel Foucault points to a similar space in between categories in his analysis of Velasquez’s Las Meninas in The Order of Things: “It is not that words are imperfect, or that, when confronted by the visible, they prove insuperably inadequate. Neither can be reduced to the other’s terms: it is in vain that we say what we see; what we see never resides in what we say.” Maybe that inadequacy of language is what is provoked by Brekelman’s sculpture. And maybe the “maybes” that come at the beginning of so many sentences in this text, the verbal equivalent of a shrug, or a furrowed brow, or slack-jawed vocalization – “uhhhhhh” – is the good work of the piece: confounding, confusing, conjectural.