The Siragusa Gallery, nestled on the 16th floor of 162 N. State Street, is one of those rare "diamonds in the rough", often overlooked by critics and artists alike. True it is inside a dormitory for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and an outsider attempting to access a new show runs into miles of red tape, but this white-walled gallery has played host to skilled and refreshing student work; work that was conceived without the pressure and hypocrisy of a gallerist or a collector. In many ways the art works found here convey a sense of honesty, which has been decidedly lacking in some of the more well known venues around the "Second City".
This most recent installation, by fibers student Andrea Alonge, embodies this honesty to a tee. Her show manages to be bright, accessible on a variety of levels, and address the universal symptoms of the "human condition" without waxing crass or pretentious.
At first glance Alonge's work appears deceptively simple. Viewers are greeted by an over sized cassette tape, overshadowed by a large inflatable boombox. Snippets of recognizable melodies emerge from a background soundscape layered with dreamlike distortion. The tape, made of cardboard and paint, is easily the size of a larger flat screen T.V.; Its ribbon unravels across the floor, turning into a road which weaves through two quilted islands which make up two halves of a broken heart. The commonality of the materials (cardboard, ribbon, plastic, fabric, and tape) and the deliberate shifting of scale immediately forces the association of childhood, drudging up memories of endless summers filled with carefree imagination, where the simple cardboard box became the projector for a world of self-created fantasy. Alonge invites the viewer to hover over her own plush fantasy landscape, and view it objectively, allowing them the rare glance at an entire symbolic relationship, something that people often don't take the time to consider; a definite "can't see the forest for the trees" sort of issue. Themes of relationship, finding a companion, and dealing with that loss have become the commonplace vernacular of the contemporary generation of artists, who wield these universal themes the same way the old masters wielded religious fables.
The halves of the broken heart, one colorful and carefree, and the other earth-toned and desolate, mirror the duality of a failed relationship. In studying them one begins to piece together a story: The partner leaves to answer the tempting call from a slightly better opportunity, leaving the other to cope with their own stark, brown reality and a library of music that conjures up sour memories. It is refreshing to see a view that doesn't lash out in a blind rage or hopeless melancholy, but gives an overall treatment of pragmatic hindsight. The tone is self critical, sincere, and yet somehow optimistic.
The theme of implied impermanence echos throughout. From the references to analog music technology, the inflated "puffed up" aesthetic, or the cardboard construction, there is a subtle undertow of a "fleeting existence". I'm reminded of a an exchange described to me by a former professor of an old man who was being pestered by his grandson:
"What if you could always be happy all the time?" asked the little boy. "I'd hate it!" the old man crassly replied, "Because happiness has no meaning. We cannot hope to define happiness except in it's contrast to sadness. It would be like having birthday cake every day, how many days could you stand it before the frosting and candles started to lose all meaning?"
Even though he probably completely confused his grandson, the old man had a point: It is in the sorrows of relationships that we rationalize ourselves as human beings, quantifying the fleeting moments of ecstatic, carefree joy, with the moments of despair to ultimately figure out who we are. The catalyst to stop and consider these moments can be as obvious as a grandfather's wisdom, or as subtle as a painted ribbon, weaving its way through a patchwork landscape.
Alonge's work has found a chink in the armor of adulthood and takes full advantage of that vulnerability to encourage the viewer to dust off their imaginations and play in the landscape of memory.
The show is up until the 15th of February and is well worth investigating.