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ROCKFORD ART MUSEUM 

KEEPING IT REAL

by Lisa Wainwright

 

Anti-art materials have served as a strange staple of modern and contemporary art since the early 20th century. Through their radical and unruly nature as detritus turned art, found object art has offered up some of the most poignant critiques of our industrial and post-industrial age. Sarah Krepp steps onto this stage with a cast of objects and images drawn from her repertoire of accumulated junk with paint, and it is a tour de force. Krepp’s soulful rejoinders about the information age, rationalism, semiotics, excess, and abstraction coalesce in major works. Melodic entanglements, are made wonderfully unfamiliar. Order and chaos, reason and madness, the will to know versus surrendering to that which is unknowable: Krepp has done it again. 

Krepp hangs the huge Ur material of her practice on expansive walls. RIP CURRENTS (7’ x 10’), an assemblage of asymmetrical planks, carries Krepp’s characteristic flayed rubber tires, recuperated from highway junk, and are teased into dancing abstractions. Accompanying the road rubbish are measuring devices, tools and game pieces: rulers, clamps, dominoes, and scrabble tiles. In dominant red and black paint the color heeds warning, and yet, in these whimsical meditations that soap the gallery wall, caution has been thrown to the wind. Neither nature nor culture, rather hovering in the gap (to riff off Robert Rauschenberg’s famous quote), RIP CURRENTS, in title and form, hints at the great lake that has always inspired Krepp growing up in Chicago. But again, hers is a contemporary sublime where the vastness of the water and the power of the tides, is met by the immensity of those systems humans have wrought to manage their world. A tug between organization and release ensues, as in so much of Krepp’s work.

A gesture — a gesture made of tire blow-out retreads and paint coax this otherwise brutal material into an artistic medium, a practice she has worked since 1985, is a feat of imagination and verve. In this one gestural abstraction BLOW-OUT: II — in some ways a three dimensional version of abstract expressionism — Franz Kline or Adolph Gottlieb come to mind — the expressive humanness of Krepp’s endeavor is underscored. For only in the hands of the artist can refuse sing. Gestural abstraction in painting has always been like one’s gait, one’s breath, or one’s gesticulating hand. Krepp was weaned on the New York School as a student at Skidmore in New York in the 60s, and Ab. Ex.’s emphasis on existential being, played out as the bold assertion of self through individual marks on a canvas, stayed with her. Only in Krepp’s case the marks were not only painted but made from the scraps of found materials holding personal meaning for the artist. (Krepp witnessed a major accident on the road years ago involving her son, and while the highway material has served as a kind of fetishistic tokenism ever since, this back-story quickly gave way to a much larger viewpoint).

In WHITE NOISE: Interference I and II,  two large pale fields holding gestural “clouds” of tire retreads, more measuring devices, and thick horizontal stitching which punctuate the canvas weave. Krepp’s grandmother was a seamstress and so the artist’s “feminist” handicraft set within these larger post-modern structures become both an homage to grandmom and a poke at the masculinized tradition of abstract expressionism which Krepp (and many artists of her generation) often take on. Undergirding all of the pictorial incidents are canvases that bear the marks of a basically nonsensical script. Krepp writes on the canvas and asks others to write, with the words forming a visual pattern, a rich ground for the three dimensional forms above and the stitching throughout. The text is a kind of stream of consciousness drawn from Krepp listening to NPR and catching bits of the global news cycle. Content is murky with the occasional hint of intelligibility if one peers close to read. It is rather white noise, a sheen of contemporary events that is the unrelenting backdrop of our daily life.

Two beautifully stripped down works are PARALLEL THOUGHTS: Head On and RESIDUE. PARALLEL THOUGHTS’ raw innards, the bracing core of the steel-belted tire and its flailing vestiges of mutilated rubber showcases the bizarre formal wonder hidden in this unassisted readymade (Marcel Duchamp’s term for his mass produced objects turned art). Krepp underscores the fact of its simply being found, by echoing the circular form in an adjacent hand-painted ring of thick black paint rendered directly on the wall. Again we find opposing dynamics, this time of the found and the made, and their curious visual congruence in art. More stripped down versions of Krepp’s material follows in RESIDUE (7’ x 7’) with its section of small vignettes. The artist lays out a taxonomy of curlicues and arabesques, the little characters that populate her entire oeuvre often bundled with other things or buried beneath paint. But in RESIDUE they only coyly assert their independence as found follies, performing with the shadows they make on the wall behind. 

Another one of Krepp’s massive machines in red and black is SWITCHBACK, a stacked two-panel piece, which features more of the textured writing — now white letters on a black field. Some of the text is in Korean, an exquisite addition to an already universalizing aesthetic of accessible forms (abstraction is global and timeless). The central red form, begun by pouring paint onto canvas laid on the floor is again gestural and of the body, in contradistinction to the more analytical text that supports it. This celestial, drippy orb with its long tendrils of twisting lines and choppy blunt strokes of orange, red, yellow and blue, seems to hover and glide across the field as do many of Krepp’s images.

Krepp, lightening the installation schema, places a series of smaller “drawings” into a grid.WHITE NOISE: Counter Point is a collection of drawing and stitching on musical scores. Again, the ruled lines and notes are a system or code to be followed, like the text or the measuring devices, which Krepp then disrupts with er disobedient hairy forms. Or maybe the stitching’s extemporaneous quality enhances the feelings that music evokes. Krepp chose complex scores, and responded to the notes with inked and embroidered arrays. There is a kind of synesthesia at play, where the abstract quality of music seems to emanate from the rich black marks. This is made even more evident in two massive scores. SILENT RHYTHM I and SILENT RHYTHM II  are 10 foot musical staves painted on the wall, are arranged with Krepp’s coiling tire shreds and trip across the lines in place of notes — synthetic bliss.

An enormous wall holds another huge installation work called BLOW-OUT: Full Force (32’) and the title says it all. Like a flock of ominous birds taking flight, Krepp’s tire blow-outs move across the wall, seemingly air-born despite the weight of their steel and rubber bodies. Adjacent to this wall are a series of free standing steel rods that impale baroque configurations of more found tire debris. Like so many sentinels, their literal placement in the viewer’s space, off the wall, is an ominous reminder of the first incarnation of these objects as part of functional machines. The road, to which the yellow stripe, no passing zone sign behind on the wall refers, is a place of fast moving danger — make no mistake. Krepp’s abstraction of this peril renders it more primal, more preternaturally base.

Two large white panels act as a counter poise to the darkness of BLOW-OUT. COLOR OF SILENCE I and II (@6’ x 4.5’) are soft complex mosaics holding text, stitching, small wrapped elements—newspaper and dictionary pages rolled tight and sewn in place, measuring devices, electrical conduits, game pieces, and a stunning display of white and tan, pale orange, and yellow gooey globs of viscous paint. Here is a palimpsest of a civilization in decay — or perhaps one inchoate? There are secrets and codes that stay locked away, taunting in their capacity to reveal but ultimately subsumed by a sea of paint laid out in horizontal strokes. Perhaps they hold more references to the shimmering lake that informed the young artist — now a memory subsumed by the residue of culture.

BLOW OUT: Fly is another assemblage of pure tire retreads with some hints of red paint and a lonely clamp the upper left. The clamp jars the piece back into the realm of making, for BLOW-OUT, with its gorgeous inverted triangle of cascading shreds falling from the husks of horizontal pieces, again beautifully confuses our sense or reality and artifice. The Berlin Dadaist, Richard Huelsenbeck, in a 1918 manifesto, described the Dada art movement, as:

“a new reality comes into its own. Life appears as a simultaneous whirl of noises, colors, and spiritual rhythms, which Dada takes unflinchingly into its art, with all the spectacular screams and fevers of its feisty pragmatic attitude and with all its brutal reality.”

Sarah Krepp, like the Dadaists almost a hundred years earlier, again engages the brutality of life with all its noise and color and rhythm. That moment between two world wars when Dada emerged to face an unspeakable horror, which they saw as the result of blind rationalism and technological power, has sadly not slowed up. Krepp turns to our contemporary systems, codes, and industrial bounty, this place of information overload, spacious glut, and unchecked technological speed, and comments using some of the same trapping of Dada. Krepp wrestles with the relics of our industrial age and makes her anti-art beauties ask the hard questions: who have we become and how might we navigate through this chaotic world order? Krepp’s art offers points of transcendent experience, of pure sensation, where reason, logic, uniformity, and regularity are checked by that which is irrational, illogical, and idiosyncratic. Beauty is in sweet balance with terror. Sarah Krepp is keeping it real.

-Lisa Wainwright

Dean of Faculty, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago