by Julia Gray
“A screen, a bench, a table, a mirror, a vessel, a key, a flower,” artist and curator Michael Childress writes in his intriguingly abstract press release for “The Small Exceeds,” a thoughtfully sparse exhibit that took place at the appropriately minimal Chinatown hole-in-the-wall, New Release Gallery. These ambiguous motifs are traced throughout the show, compelling expanded consideration. Childress’ immersive installation rejects spectacle, thereby inviting a more careful observation, a refreshing break from a typical in-and-out exhibit. The title, “The Small Exceeds,” is drawn from Hexagram 62 of the I Ching, which commends a “preponderance of the small” and a consideration for detail in the pursuit of mindfulness. Childress along with the eight other artists in the exhibition present work that encourages shared meditation.
Entering the space feels like stepping into an artist-commissioned meditation center: burning incense waft from cushions surrounding an LCD screen-surfaced coffee table, through geometric wooden benches, mixed media shrines, minimalist modern artifacts and intricate ceramic pieces.
A shoji screen covers the gallery’s only window and sets up an enveloping atmosphere. “It’s a way to shut out the outside world and give attention to pieces that require focus,” Childress said. “Being able to relax in an exhibition totally affects the way that you’re viewing and allows for a prolonged engagement.” This rich and comfortable environment facilitates an intimate interaction with each work and fellow gallery-goers.
The linear features of Kate Casey’s “Offset Bench” resemble the lines of the hexagram. Childress pointed out the lines traced throughout the exhibit: in the screen’s framing and “even with the slats on the walls. Things weaved themselves together in a really wonderful way.”
At the front of the gallery, Katy Fischer’s “Shards 9″ preserves an abundance of ceramic and porcelain shapes in precise arrangements in a museum-like glass box. Likewise, A display of of Matthew J. Stone’s likewise minimalist sculptures lay atop specialized wooden casing, featuring a small set of keys, a carved wooden key, and circles punched with what look like enlarged keyholes. Childress ruminated, “The greatness of small things in large numbers has a lot of power.” This sentiment echoes Hexagram 62’s belief in the power of the small. I later noticed 13 found accordion keys on Matt Gliva’s “Valcalla.” A vertebrae bone and the assorted accordion bits sit atop shelf-like surface under white casted calla lilies, mounted on a refurbished windowpane; the keys and the flowers speak to the symbols mentioned in Childress’ press release. “Using plants as models of strength [portrays] this slow steady build and dominance in the world, but a modest one.” Furthermore, Hexagram 62 finds strength and enlightenment in the “smallest of life forms.”
Perhaps most central to the exhibit is Siebren Versteeg’s digital coffee table, positioned in the center of the room with a long curved stem-like structure hovering above it. An LCD screen acts as the tabletop and skull-shaped cinderblocks function as the legs. The table’s screened surface regenerates whatever is placed on it via a camera embedded in the stem structure. A phone is set down and the table produces a stream of phone-related imagery across the tabletop. Crossed hands and elbows are echoed and transformed into glitchy patterns. Versteeg dubbed this piece “Sunyata,” which translates from Sanskrit as “emptiness.” “The central space having this kind of vortex is where the idea of a feedback loop table came from,” Childress explained. “An idea of voidness is a big part of the show.” Forming a seating area around the table involves us with the piece — physically, socially, and psychologically — it suggests our shared human condition within this void.
Ten black ceramic vessels line a shelf beside “Sunyata,” each distinctive in its details. Aviva Rowley made this series for a cacao ceremony where Childress and guests sat around Versteeg’s table, drank from the special vessels, and engaged in group meditation. Childress wanted to “have people come together and focus on the present moment.” He continued, “and [“Sunyata”] uses the present moment, whatever is on it, as its source imagery. Having the cups on the table created this swirling image. Hexagram 62 is about modestly waiting for this guiding moment…thinking about small things. Having this ceremony was meant to bring on an inspirational moment.”
Leah Shirley’s “Personal is peripheral” includes an assemblage of gold-colored material mounted on the wall, offering a blurry reflection. A small circle consisting of Himalayan sea salt and cornflowers sits in front of the luminous painting. Childress’ “Black Channel Painting (Split Screen I)” and Lena Schmid’s “Return to Titty Mountain” also present altered “mirrors” with their almost-symmetrical dual images.
“A screen, a bench, a table, a mirror, a vessel, a key, a flower.” Childress links these seemingly arbitrary symbols under Hexagram 62 and its attention to the convergence of simple forms to build strength and meaning. “Thinking about rebellion versus meditation is particularly challenging in a time when resistance is so important,” Childress said. “[It’s important to] figure out ways to resist and view whats happening. There’s something really powerful about striving down instead of up, and by that I mean focusing on grassroots or demonstrations. The power of coming together.”