Mode Shifting: Elizabeth Riley at SL Gallery
Elizabeth Riley: Ribbons Become Space, at SL Gallery
June 12 to August 9, 2019
335 West 38th Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues
New York City, https://www.sl.gallery/
Elizabeth Riley’s exhibition at SL Gallery is full of transmutations: from digital to material reality, from video to sculptural form, and from the concrete to the imaginal. Rather than a conceptual conundrum, this artist gives us intriguing visual and kinetic stimulation that impels us to consider who we are in relation to a variety of mediated experiences.
Riley presents an installation, along with the video it was derived from, as well as two sculptures which also involve the progressive generation of visual content. The short but compelling video, made while she was at a residency in Reykjavik, is a raucous affair comprised of quickly edited glimpses of the observable world, transformed into a fragmented, psychedelically colored flow.
Early in the video, curves of colored paper and mesh spin and lurch chaotically. Attention is focused on a number of small avatar-like forms, particularly an arced pattern that skitters across floorboards and through vivid, polarized interior spaces, accompanied by a clattering ambient soundtrack. The animated form, while moving constantly, is not a free agent; instead, puppet-like, it is manipulated by a silhouetted hand or controlled by means of a long, curving wire, like a cat toy.
The video is constantly changing with abstracted forms interrupting this mise-en-scène, which then quickly gives way to a new setting. Later in the video, we see a production line where balls of yarn are being processed, reinforcing the sense of social control, specifically suggesting the constraints on the roles of women. The video concludes with a kind of apotheosis, with the flat avatar shivering in hyped-up color, as it evolves into a pair of white wings that hover over a roaring waterfall.
The video, deconstructed and rendered three-dimensionally, is the source material for The Dragons of Iceland Installation (2019), a large techno-funk assemblage. This free-standing sculpture includes six small video monitors playing excerpts from the original video (at times in monochrome), three upended old-fashioned looking tables, and draped strips of tiny video stills that resemble densely pattered fabric. The whole piece sits before a wall with an angled array of enlarged images culled from the video.
The effect of this installation is to wake us from the video’s immersive clangor into a multi-media theater set, with the audience circling and re-experiencing elements of the dream-like, filmic world. We are reminded by this work that the origin of virtual wonders lies in our own space and our own bodily encounters.
Some of the same kind of mode-shifting obtains in two large wall reliefs that Riley has constructed from inkjet prints of highly processed video stills. In Structure of Light (2019), which is nearly twelve feet in width, long narrow strips of paper are affixed flat to the wall, and then allowed to undulate in rolling, dimensional curves. The paper is printed on both sides with softly modulated lines of orange, yellow, mauve, tan, and sea green, occasionally interrupted by small inset lattices of intense color.
The second wall piece, Configuring Video (2019), shares with the previous work the same sculptural approach of moving from flat to bulging forms, again secured by small pins whose heads in bright hues serve as a visual counterpoint to the printed, linear expanses. In this work there is a layered, ovular focal point, like a test pattern, that stands in contrast to the rest of the visually mobile surface. Both works delight in the interaction of shape and pattern – a playful formalism that constructs space out of sheets of color.
In the two sculptural reliefs, in the video, and in the installation, there is something distinctly contemporary in the ease with which Riley uses technology as an expressive medium, allowing the human spirit to speak through it. Her works posit the idea that the virtual and the physical are fungible categories, and they model for us a way of being in the world. There is a willingness to exploring the new with admirable curiosity, rather than just adopting either an automatic allegiance or a fear of its dominating effect. In this sense Riley harks back to an early hope of abstract art, to make of our world a place of promise, where the modern spirit of discovery and agency would inform emergent technologies to a bracing, liberating effect.