On Plasticity and Plate Tectonics: An Essay by Roksana Filipowska on the Digital Soft Exhibit at Grizzly Grizzly

On Plasticity and Plate Tectonics was written by Roksana Filipowska, in response to the recent four person show, Digital ≈ Soft, including work by Tim Cross, Cable Griffith, Rob Rhee, Susan Robb. Hailing from Seattle, the four Digital ≈ Soft artists demonstrate a way of working that is conceptually informed by contemporary digital realities and strongly rooted to the Pacific Northwest, but that is manifested through the use of materials and process that are employed with a reverence for nature, craft, tactility, process and relational constructs.

On Plasticity and Plate Tectonics: by Roksana Filipowska

Seattle sits at the fringe of physical and imaginary borders. A seaport city situated on an isthmus between the saltwater Puget Sound and Lake Washington, it developed within the confines of the Pacific coastline, several mountain ranges and vast forests. In the nineteenth century, Seattle’s proximity to the Canada-United States border made it the last frontier of manifest destiny and a gateway to Alaska during the fever pitch of the Klondike Gold Rush. The city’s cultural history reads as a series of dynamic growth spurts despite its relative isolation from such centers as Los Angeles and New York City. During the early twentieth century, Seattle became a cradle of jazz, its cityscape peppered with night clubs where the likes of Ray Charles and Quincy Jones jumpstarted their careers. Towards the end of the century, grunge drowned out the slick spectacle of 80s glam rock with the roar of the distorted electric guitars and feedback effects. Simultaneously, a less nihilistic force claimed Seattle as its hub—namely the tech industry, with Microsoft appearing during the 1980s and Amazon laying claim to innovation in 1994. All the while, two tectonic plates, whose boundary constitutes Seattle’s very ground, operate on an unknown timescale.[1] Their imperceptible subduction renders the city’s existence ever more precarious.

Seattle’s varied topology and cultural scenes, along with its enduring identity as a locus of the myth of progress—here, geographic expansion is transmuted into the dream of endless profit and technological transcendence—inspires questions regarding how the collision of different timescales impacts living and art making in the 21st Century. At a time when environmental catastrophe and divisive politics coexist with unprecedented digital connection, it is the artist who can posit how materials and landscape continue to condition humans, whose sense of selves are increasingly more multifaceted and malleable within virtual realms. Curated by Ephraim Russell, Digital ≈ Soft is an exhibit featuring the work of Seattle-based artists Tim Cross, Cable Griffith, Rob Rhee, and Susan Robb. Working in media ranging from vegetables to LED lights, the artists introduce spatial practices that explore the generative limitations of plasticity, or the propensity for change, within a geographic location where the time frame of human and technological development may coincide with a major geologic cycle.

Rob Rhee is a sculptor who rarely sculpts. Instead, Rhee engages in bricolage; he gathers disparate materials, rearranges them, and coordinates the conditions that make their transformation possible. In his ongoing series Occupations of Uninhabited Space, Rhee creates a sculptural assemblage comprising a steel frame and a vegetable. Two constituents from the series appear in Digital ≈ Soft. Placed on a white platform, two Martin gourds are warped by their brass-plated steel cages into nearly unrecognizable bulbous shapes. The steel constrains the gourds; its frame delineates the vegetable, offering a visual trace where the structure exerted pressure on growth. Yet the gourd also appears to burst from its steel prison: the pressure from the steel frames redirects the natural potential for growth into new directions. Rather than merely juxtaposing gourd with steel, the two are entirely reliant upon each other: the gourd seems to expand in space like animated putty precisely because the rigid cage demarcates spatial boundaries. In the final hybrid iteration, neither steel nor vegetable can estrange from the other. Bricolage crop-cum-artwork introduces a slippage between the terms “make” and “grow,” repositioning the artist as a harvester and collaborator with nature, rather than a solitary creator of a work of art.

Rob Rhee. Back: Occupations of Uninhabited Space (OHHOHH), Martin gourd, Brass-plated Steel, 2016 Front: Occupations of Uninhabited Space (BOINK), Martin gourd, Brass-plated Steel, 2016

Rhee’s sculpted cages are as much about liberation as binding. The steel frames cause the gourds to appear differentiated and perhaps even anthropomorphic, which inspires a range of affective engagement with the series. When viewing the gourds as a set of photographs on the artist’s website, the mass of warped vegetables takes on a pornographic quality—the violent repetition of disfigured bodies and steel cages is exacerbated by the impersonal structure of the grid display on screen. Yet Digital ≈ Soft offers a different experience: encountering a pair of gourds with ample space between each constituent allows the viewer to lean in and observe the sculptures in the round. This mode of display offers a sense of intimacy that Rhee describes as a “visual listening,”[2] The gourds bear the parenthetical titles of “OHHOHH” and “BOINK,” an onomatopoeia inspired by Carl and Hobbs comics lending a sonic punctuation to their presence.

The sculptures offer one visual model of imagining plasticity, or the propensity for transformation while retaining equilibrium between the giving and receiving of form. Favorable growing conditions and a genetic predisposition for thicker skin allow the gourds to withstand more pressure; allowing for an elastic skin that stretches under—and beyond—the pressures of the steel cages into new configurations. The vegetable becomes a new constellation of matter that its ancestors could not anticipate. Gourds with thinner skin, meanwhile, rupture under the pressure from the cages. Significantly, the Occupation of Uninhabited Space series illustrate that plasticity has a temporal and spatial end point: the dry, hallow husks exist as reminders of a growth that has reached its potential.

Sometimes, exhibitions can act as containers that shape the form of the work they feature. In the case of Digital ≈ Soft, the title proposes a relationship of similitude between the term “digital” and the word “soft.” Digital’s evocation of binary codes and voltage may not appear to have much in common with the quality of softness, but their pairing inspires poetic connotation of software as a mode of malleability within the otherwise rigid and material hardware. Perhaps it is tactility and haptic experience that offers continuity between digitality and softness: after all, the etymology of the term “digital” stems to the digits of the hands. The emergence of lines of codes is accompanied by the sounds of tapping fingers on keyboard keys. The mathematical symbol , meaning approximately equal, introduces a movement and exchange between the terms, encouraging an act of translation across virtual and physical experience.

This slippage between terms leads to new meanings; even as each entity loses its individual identity, it gains a hybrid relationship that opens it to new potentialities. Tim Cross and Cable Griffith both contribute works to Digital ≈ Soft that transform line, the building blocks of graphic language, through a process of abstraction and translation across media. Cross’s 2016 Land and Sea is an acrylic transfer on silk where lines take on the hybrid identities of pattern and signifiers for landscape details. Griffith’s Remainder, a 2016 fabric dye and oil on canvas, meanwhile, is a grid of lines and curves evoking Mayan glyphs that gestures towards new pictographic modes of communication. Comparing Griffith’s Remainder to his earlier landscape paintings, which appear as crosses between Philip Guston’s garishly colored and compelling later work meeting the whimsical and physics-defying animated worlds of such cartoons as Adventure Time, it seems that line has become abstracted from its role as a tool for representation. Liberated from an ensemble of graphic repetition, line now comes to signify a new. Rather than using pictorial elements in the service of a unified representational image of a landscape, Griffith’s and Cross’s works oscillate between the graphic and the representational to suggest that one’s experience of place is a constellation of information. The artists’ respective use of Shibori resist dyeing and acrylic transfer introduces a process of translation across media that simultaneously introduces abstraction and draws disparate media into relation. Not only do the individual works liberate graphic codes into new gatherings of visual pleasure and poesis, but the authorial slippage between Cross and Griffith suggest that binary codes introduce new relationships of similitude, adhesion, and equilibrium between self and another.

Left: Tim Cross, Land and Sea, Acrylic transfer on silk, 74”x52”, 2016 Right: Cable Griffith. Remainder, Fabric dye, oil on canvas, 2016 (Courtesy of G. Gibson Gallery)

Relationships of equilibrium are fragile because they are contingent upon particular spatial and temporal, as well as affective, conditions, and Susan Robb’s work stages the lack of those conditions. In Innanet Cloud Shit Storm (Water Protector Moonlight), LED and electroluminescent wire, reflective trim, Mylar and found objects form an installation in which parts remain fragmentary. The lights delineate two profiles—one female and one male—facing away from each other. The titular shit storm cloud illuminates the silhouetted male, whose pursed lips identify the profile as a caricature of US president elect. Lines of LED lights surround the profile of Hilary Clinton; their downward pulsing of the lights suggests tears. The rhythm of lights across the canvas evokes a deluge that cannot uniformly submerge the disparate entities because of the vast distances between them.

The rifts between forms in Cloud could be viewed another way: as cracks within a decrepit system. Perhaps the ground is up for grabs and people can decide on the nature of what grows within the cracks of the system. According to Brazilian philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Unger, plasticity is the facility with which relations among people can be constantly shifted in order to suit changing circumstances, resources, and intentions.[3] Rather than a top-down systemic overhaul, plasticity is an ongoing, cumulative flow of small-scale transformations. Umber’s articulation of plasticity also proposes a thesis of institutional indeterminacy. Rather than positing institutions as monolithic and stagnant structures, Umber argues institutions operate like scaffolding or a frame: the scaffolding itself may represent the dominant ideology, but the space between each rung offers a porous mesh where change can exert pressure upon—and transform—the structure. The 2016 US election threw into sharp relief the scaffolding that refugees, immigrants, indigenous people, as well as women and men of color, have always known—that the foundation of US government is rampant with racism and exclusionary politics with little regard for native people or nature. Robb’s work illustrates what happens after a situation has surpassed its limits. Yet, the vast distance between forms is also a space for something new to emerge—cracks offer room for maneuver.[4]

While Robb’s work evokes the ongoing ripples of an election cycle, the plasticity of the ground is not confined to language or social relations. Underneath the earth’s crust, the mantle moves at an indiscernible pace.[5] Composed of a silicate rocky shell, the earth’s mantle is predominantly solid in terms of human time, yet it behaves as a viscous fluid within geological time. Its plasticity causes the subduction that creates the particular wilderness and varying landscape of the Pacific Northwest. This plastic mantle, which threatens Seattle, is also the very ground that allows for movement.

Susan Robb, Innanet Cloud Shit Storm (Water Protector Moonlight) LED and electroluminescent wire, reflective trim, Mylar, found objects, 2016

[1] Kathryn Schulz, “The Really Big One” in The New Yorker, July, 20, 2015.
[2] Rob Rhee, Interview between author and artist conducted on January, 25, 2016.
[3] Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Plasticity into Power: Comparative-historical studies on the institutional conditions of economic and military success, Volume 3 (London: Verso, 2004), 153.
[4] This discussion of plasticity is also influenced by Ross Chambers’s discussion of oppositionality, rather than resistance, to power. Ross Chambers, Room for Maneuver: Reading (the) Oppositional (in) Narrative (Chicago: Chacago University Press, 1991).
[5] Thank you to Bret Langendorfer for indulging and informing my geological musings.

Roksana Filipowska is a PhD candidate in History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is completing a dissertation titled Polymorphous Plasticity: Artists’ Experiments in Plastic and the Aesthetics of Capitalism. She has worked at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, as well as the Institute of Contemporary Art and the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia, and is a current fellow at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Tim Cross is a Seattle-based artist working in drawing, collage, painting and sculpture.  He received a B.A. from The Evergreen State College and an MFA from The School of The Art Institute of Chicago. While Cross employs various unorthodox applications of traditional materials, which are visible in his aesthetic, drawing and collage are still at the heart of his expansive practice. Northwest-born, he has a strong connection to the region, and his work is heavily inspired by the culture and landscape of the surrounding area. His exhibitions have included the Linda Hodges Gallery, Bridge Productions, SOIL Gallery, and Gallery 4 Culture. Cross has maintained an ongoing curatorial project, Valley and Taylor, and his work is in the collections of Microsoft, The City of Seattle, King County and Seattle Public Utilities.

Cable Griffith is an artist, curator, and educator living and working in Seattle, WA. Griffith has exhibited at national and international venues, including the Frye Art Museum, the Whatcom Museum, Aqua Art Fair (Miami), NEoN Digital Arts Festival, (Scotland), SOIL Gallery (member 2010-2014), and G. Gibson Gallery. In 2008, he was a nominee for the Henry Art Gallery’s Brink Award and in 2014 he was nominated for the Portland Art Museum’s Contemporary Northwest Art Awards. Griffith’s work is in multiple collections, including Microsoft Corporation and the Washington State Art Collection. Curatorially, he served as Kirkland Arts Center’s Exhibitions Director from 2007-2010 and as Exhibitions Curator at Cornish College of the Arts from 2010-2014. Griffith received a BFA from Boston University and an MFA from the University of Washington. He currently teaches at Cornish College of the Arts and is represented in Seattle by G. Gibson Gallery.

Rob Rhee lives in Seattle. He is artist and writer, and has exhibited his work nationally and internationally, including White Columns in NY, the Hunterdon Art Museum, the Ilmin Museum of Art in Seoul, the Changwon 2010 Biennale, and the Ferdinand Van Dieten Gallery in the Netherlands. He has served as the Arts Editor for the Columbia Journal and as a Contributing Editor for the forthcoming journal Heck. His writing has been published in Art in America, Arcade, and La Norda. He servers as an Assistant Professor in Visual Arts at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle.

Susan Robb is based in Seattle and her work is an ongoing investigation of people, place and the search for utopia. She orchestrates temporary, site-responsive and socially-engaged projects to transform contemporary concerns—climate crisis, social isolation, high-speed daily living—into opportunities to re-envision and re-connect. Drawing on her own travel experiences, the utopian thought at play in intentional communities, and the hands-on ethos of DIY subcultures, she depicts the kaleidoscopic relationship we have with our surroundings. She combines poetic applications of technology (from muscle wire circuitry to methane digesters), an interrogation and manipulation of materials (giant black plastic bags to cultured crystals), and a re-purposing of forms and sites (bike parking-as-social hub; hiking trail-as-game space). Robb was the recipient of the Stranger Genius Award and has received a Creative Capitol Grant, Pollock-Krasner Fellowship and Artist Trust Fellowship. Recent exhibits of her Wild Times project include the Henry Art Gallery, Frye Art Museum, Tacoma Art Museum, Grand Central Art Center, and the Palm Springs Art Museum.


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