Art(ists) on the Verge at the Soap Factory

Now through April, the sprawling, rough-and-tumble brick spaces of Minneapolis’ Soap Factory are filled with installation projects by five artists—the Art(ists) on the Verge, as it were. It is not quite fair to consider Art(ists) on the Verge as a single exhibition, as there is no curatorial or artistic conceit to cement the various projects into a cohesive entity. The works on view are the result of a yearlong mentorship project that pairs young Minnesota media artists with mentors for feedback and critique. Art(ists) on the Verge presents these five installations as evidence of a process that aims to encourage work at the intersection of art and technology, and the five artists take very different approaches. From analogies between the physical and digital delivery of messages, to the astrological landscape at the birth of Christ, each of the projects takes on a subject and expounds on it in a physically expansive way. While not all of the projects seem to have reached their final states (some could use a push further in their current direction, and others a tug back), the intensity of their interaction with research, process, and materials is evident.

Alison Hiltner, Survival Tactics, 2014; mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy The Soap Factory. Photo by Aaron Dysart.

Alison Hiltner. Survival Tactics, 2014; mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Soap Factory. Photo by Aaron Dysart.

Perhaps the most inviting installation is Alison Hiltner’s dangling Survival Tactics (2014). Hung in clumps from the Soap Factory’s high ceilings, Hiltner’s semi-translucent vines drape toward the ground. Coated in fleshy silicone, these electrified vines buzz and move very slightly. Visitors are able to feel the subtle mechanical drone through their fingers and hands as they make their way through the vines. Experientially enthralling (viewers at the exhibition’s opening seemed to gravitate toward these charged tentacles), Hiltner’s installation conveys her interest in botanical communication—the fact that plants “speak” with one another through ultrasonic vibrations and other means. Through electrifying these silicone filaments, Hiltner successfully anthropomorphizes them, creating a slightly eerie but enticing ambiance. Though it’s currently hung in distinct clumps in the Soap Factory’s space, it is easy to imagine this project having an even greater impact when installed in a smaller space, capitalizing on density to create a more charged milieu.

Peter Sowinski, Autonomous, 2014; mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy The Soap Factory. Photo by Seth Dahlseid.

Peter Sowinski. Autonomous, 2014; mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Soap Factory. Photo by Seth Dahlseid.

Peter Sowinski’s project, Autonomous (2014), does have the benefit of a more closed-in environment. Set in the rear of the gallery’s space, Sowinski’s installation consists of a shelving system filled with objects set behind a (sometimes) empty white pedestal. Across the room from these elements, a projected image appears—sometimes clearly and sometimes not. The objects on the shelves are beautifully hewn shapes in wood, metal, and glass, and are meant to be handled. Viewers are encouraged to use these objects to form their own “still life” compositions on the empty white pedestal. After all, what is a pedestal for if not for displaying objects? While Sowinski’s setup itself is immaculate, and his interest in individual aesthetic choices is interesting, the element of interaction here is somehow off. While viewers seem eager to engage with the work, it is unclear how (hence the middle-aged gallery goer that I saw posing supine on the pedestal); the impact of the interaction is too subtle to be easily “read” by the audience—at least not those members who refuse to read the wall text.

Katie Hargrave, In Poor Tastes Good, 2014; mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy The Soap Factory. Photo by Lillian Egner.

Katie Hargrave. In Poor Tastes Good, 2014; mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Soap Factory. Photo by Lillian Egner.

Katie Hargrave’s installation, In Poor Tastes Good (2014), takes sugar as its launching point and sometimes as its material. Hargrave’s neon work scrawls the title phrase on one wall, lending a pink glow to the entirety of the installation. Within this pinkish place, Hargrave’s many elements act as islands of experience in an overall narrative of the history and cultural significance of beet sugar. As gleaned from the explanatory text, beet sugar has been both a regional commodity and a political tool since the time of slavery. In Hargrave’s installation, she follows this initial thread of interest to several different conclusions. In the center of the space, a domestic-scaled table is meant to evoke consumption of sugar, while glowing movie clips loop through images of violent outbursts. (Sugar glass has often been used as a prop on movie sets.) On the wall facing the neon work, glittering records—made of sugar, not vinyl—are meant to call forth the many political discussions about sugar, as well as our obsession with it. Some of Hargrave’s records are backed by lyrics and texts, reminding viewers of the conflation of gustatory sweetness with romance through the Archies’ 1969 hit song “Sugar, Sugar,” for instance. Set atop pink pedestals, two of these records play, spinning not the familiar pop song, but instead an enthralling static. Like vinyl records do over time, Hargrave’s sugar recordings degrade—though hers do so much more quickly. In Poor Tastes Good certainly piques interest—with its incorporation of sound and its stance toward a complex political history—yet it seems to be a project that will and should be (pardon the pun) further refined.

Art(ists) on the Verge is on view at the Soap Factory in Minneapolis through April 20, 2014.