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      Out of Our Element
    Power base

    "Out of Our Element" explores the borders of our control over the elements in the face of base and debasing power.


    Curators Bettina Smith and Christina Warner's "Out of our Element" pokes around at one of your broader big-bucket themes: this is a show about how humans lust to control air, fire, water, and weather, those old friends and necessary conditions for human life. And when existence depends on such basics, there's an inevitable element of terror about the possibility of their being withheld or raging out of control. Therein lies our persistent, if slightly perverse, fascination with Smith and Warner's theme.

    Exhibition: Out of Our Element.
    Paintings, photographs, sculpture, video by: Al Braithwaite, Ivan Cortazar, Melissa Dadourian, Leonora Hamill, Henry Hemming, Matt Magee, Ryan Oakes, Trevor Oakes, Alix Smith, Stephen Stapleton, Dave Symmonds and Foster Witt. .
    December 9, 2004 - January 15, 2005

    Gallery: Chamber
    95 Canal St.
    New York NY
    Hours: Wed.-Sun.12-7

    This topic is so contemporary it's visceral, and to examine it feels appropriate. As Bruce Sterling writes in the December, 2004 issue of Artforum, "No...swift recovery happens from climate change. Climate change is a roaring combustion engine for slaughtering stable ecosystems and replacing them with weeds." Later in the piece, Sterling predicts that in the future, "Everyone will live in exile; adults will not recognize the places of their birth."

    'The elements' can't be controlled, and that's why they're scary. But control is power, and the exhibition of mastery over the unmasterable is a predictable current running through much of the work in Out of our Element. Alix Smith's two "Control Photos" very literally depict a desire to control nature. One shows a woman contemplatively levitating an orange and a creamer from a kitchen table, while in the other, the same woman plays with fire quite literally; a flame taken from a nearby candle dances fitfully in her fingers. Unfortunately, the curatorial thrust reduces Smith's photos to one-dimensionality, and their strength as elucidations of tedium and domestic entrapment doesn't really register. Both Dave Symmonds' and Ryan Oakes' decorative work is pleasant, but doesn't necessarily transcend decoration.

      Henry Hemming in Out of Our Element
      Henry Hemming
    Refreshingly, Melissa Dadourian flips the concept of nature in terms none of the other artists did — sex and desire. Her installation consists of four paintings depicting fetching naked women and scattered twigs, birds painted on the wall, and red string wound around a nexus of pins stuck in the wall. This forms the same topless woman in her paintings, here teasing the viewer with an impression of Tyra Branks' famous about-to-lose-the-underwear pose. Ultimately though, several pieces suffer from over-literalizing the curatorial premise, visualizing an elementary fetish, fear, or phenomenon, without drilling further into the psychological complexity of the reason behind our fascination the elements, like Dadourian's installation does.

    The exhibition of mastery over the unmasterable is a predictable current running through much of the work in "Out of our Element."  

    There are a few exceptions. Foster Witt's photo, showing a group of figures cowering in the foreground, apparently from a beautiful yet unnatural crimson saturating the print, nails a sentiment that is surprisingly dormant in "Out of our Element" — the falsified environment, or a Baudrillardian simulacra of what is natural. Trevor Oakes' sculpture of matches simulating the pattern of a coral reef is all decorative beauty cloaked in disaster potential — a ticking time bomb. Works by Al Braithwaite, Henry Hemming, and Stephen Stapleton probe Iraq and Iran as a theme, but, curiously, without explicitly touching on oil, which may as well be up for nomination to join the list of elements that act as life's batteries. The US is not only waging a War on Terror which is actually a transparent bid to dominate the world's oil spigots for at least the next 50 years, it also refuses to join the Kyoto Accord and thus join the international community in limiting the harmful greenhouse gases it attacks the environment with. And so the SUV era marches on. We can't really control nature, but much, much more can be done to prevent its devastation, and the failure to probe these issues in a show that centers its dialogue around nature, environment, and elementary concerns seems like a missed opportunity.

    DECEMBER 27, 2004

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