Sarah Vanderlip at the Cincinnati Art Museum
Review by Emil Robinson
Sarah Vanderlip’s show at the Cincinnati Art Museum, September 29, 2012-December 9, 2012, entitled Drawings For Sculptures of Buildings, is the inaugural show for the new triennial competition, The Marjorie Schiele Prize. Marjorie Schiele was a Cincinnati artist who spent her life traveling between the US and Europe. She left a large endowment to the museum for the exhibition of contemporary painters and sculptors. The Museum’s website explains the vision for the competition:
The international juried competition was open to living artists who present a vision or model for transforming our present reality by stretching the limitations of painting and sculpture.
Sarah Vanderlip displays silver Mylar and pencil drawings on paper. Some of the works are small, just a couple feet tall, while others are huge at 7- 13 feet. All of the works are collaged versions of architectural drawings by the artist’s father. The works depict Vanderlip’s ideas for future sculptures. Vanderlip has been working in this mode since 2006. The works in this show are intelligent, cohesive, and mature in vision. In keeping with the mission of the competition, the show crosses boundaries between drawing, sculpture, and architecture. The work accomplishes this by questioning our expectations for each of these genres.
As drawings, the works on view are confounding in their lack of tactile sensation. The positive space is covered in reflective material, complicating our ability to see the wholeness of the form, especially when examined up close. The reflections also prevent us from enjoying the sense of touch in the work. The shapes depicted reject us as viewers because we cannot hold onto the clarity of what we are seeing. The reflection serves another purpose, which is to transport us into the work. The mylar presents us with a flickering reflection of our surroundings and ourselves. The works are at least experientially three-dimensional. They already invade and extend our space, but remain flat on the wall. The work’s connection to architecture is the most obvious, but still confused by Vanderlip’s refusal to occupy any one field. The collages are made from rearranging architectural drawings made by the artist’s father. In their original state, these drawings were plans for buildings. The language of architectural drawings is one of planning, “scheming” as in schematic. This type of work is rational and logical by definition. It is a clarification of vision, a step towards taking ideas into measurable space. Vanderlip’s drawings do not do this. The shapes in the drawings do not feel clear in their eventual sculptural space. Instead they refute and flirt with the logics of space. At times there is some minimal perspective although the largest works are completely flat shapes.
Sarah Vanderlip sits squarely within the contemporary art dialogue that favors uncategorizable work. This can be a real strength as it provides a platform for innovation and organic flux between forms that have much in common. The aesthetic voice of the artist can be lost in this emphasis on intellectual real estate. Great or even good art stands out in its ability to impact the viewer. If it is visual, then it must be judged on its visual impact, its “power” if you will. The guard for Vanderlip’s room at the museum said that “people usually spend a couple seconds looking in the door of the show and then they leave without looking around.”
Vanderlip’s work, so rich in contemporary art conversation, is also uninteresting to look at, or if not uninteresting, just not that interesting. The craft is so-so, the forms are clunky, and the overall effect is instantaneous and short lived. In many places it was clear that the adhesive mirrored mylar became a little squirrelly. Ripples feel like mistakes, not artistic urgency. The flatness of form and clarity of edge do not allow this kind of sloppiness in the work. The shapes Vanderlip arrives at are also too easy in their clarity. Their brutalist proportions feel accepted instead of found. They have little of the grace or design to be found in Sol Lewitt or Ellsworth Kelly. Clunkiness can have its own virtue when combined with other visual elements like a sense of the artist’s hand in the marks or a gentle figuration. Vanderlip’s materials leave little breathing room for this type of shape-making. The mirrored Mylar, such a good choice for its conceptual effects, falls short in the way it pushes the viewer away. The Mylar brings to mind shiny industrial structures, in which we can also see our reflection. Vanderlip is a smart, engaged theorist working hard to fulfill the requirements of her ideas. In the show at the art museum she presents collaged drawings. They do not engage the viewer. Vanderlip needs to put in the time developing the aesthetics of her work to match the level of her ideas.