Tuesday, August 25, 2009

[updated] Deanna Sirlin at Whitespace

Review|Deanna Sirlin: Everything is Optional
Whitespace Gallery; April 17—May 16, 2009; ArtVoices, June 2009

Deanna Sirlin compares her work to the lecture style of Salman Rushdie, the current writer-in-residence at Emory University: Her circular brushstrokes are “like” Rushdie’s baffling circles of logic that, through a sublime intellectual sleight-of-hand, achieve clarity at the last possible moment. Of course, Sirlin’s paintings and Salman Rushdie have about as much in common … as horseshoe crabs and swine flu. Still, even if Sirlin’s very (and truly) harmless simile falls short, it raises the more interesting question of interpretation and translation.

Take for instance 33 1/3, a work Sirlin installed at the New Orleans Museum of Art in 2001. 33 1/3 is essentially an abstract painting, produced by hand and then digitally blown up and superimposed on an existing museum window. The product is a semitransparent floor-to-ceiling image; you can’t see through the window per se, but it permits the free passage of sunlight by day, or museum lights by night. 33 1/3’s numerical title refers to the revolutions of a spinning record, an association designed to pay homage to New Orleans’ music. As in her other public art projects, Sirlin attempts to match her “perception of the site buildings’ architecture” and the flavor of “the city in which they are a part.” So … is the work a successful translation of New Orleans culture?

Everything is Optional, Sirlin’s latest exhibition at Whitespace Gallery, is concerned with the process of translation. Less so in her large-scale abstractions (executed in the same style as her public art paintings, but without a digital intermediary), Sirlin’s installations are sculptural translations—from the language of two-dimensional drawing to that of metal. Each work began as a tiny drawing in Sharpie marker that, as before, is then blown up and programmed into a machine. The finished sculptures are irrevocably physical, metallic incarnations of abstract line: circles, ellipses, and, for lack of a better word, squiggles. The works are interesting, insofar as they both evade recognition while still recalling the sinuous strokes of the original Sharpie. But in this case, the virtue is also a vice: Sirlin’s “translations” seem little improved over the breakfast-table exercises they initially were. Further, her use of technology as a transformative medium fails to surpass the ingenuity of local artists half her age (see my comments on Kathryn Refi’s Color Recordings, ArtVoices, October, 2008, p. 44).

Of course, the comparison wouldn’t be necessary if Sirlin didn’t market herself as an artist of “digital media.” Although I’m generally not a fan of primary colors, her large traditional paintings show a confident command of asymmetry, a fact no doubt solidified by her 30 years’ experience in the medium.

And although her New Orleans installation, 33 1/3, is neither an interpretation nor a translation of the city in which it lives, the painting style at least incorporates the host building’s architecture. The work succeeds in signifying a bland and very tame modernism, an apolitical escapism of color, in which vanity exceeds substance.


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