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Surface Tension

Two shows place experience above image

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Tiffany Black’s The Shredding Room

Tiffany Black: The Shedding Room

George Belcher: Sum x Dreams

At School 33 through Dec. 29.

Photographic representations insult the works of George Belcher and Tiffany Black currently on view at School 33’s members’ gallery and project space, respectively. Photography’s flattening doesn’t flatter the works.

In Belcher’s Sum x Dreams, what’s muted is the pervasive subtlety belied by his stark contrasts. The 11 pieces here—one sculpture and 10 paintings—are formal exercises in black and white. Nine pieces are rendered entirely in black and white; the remaining two are nearly monochromatic white expanses. Belcher isn’t revisiting Rauschenberg’s pure experience, a visual analog of Cageian silence. Instead, he is tapping into the negative space of advertisements and page and screen layouts. It’s the absence of color that, in contemporary visual language, often denotes cleanliness but can also cast a disquieting shadow: Think of the white space as an existential void that the black figure is falling through in the those Mad Men posters advertising this year’s season five.

Belcher doesn’t quite leap over that edge into the emptiness, but he does try to walk right up to the precipice and peek down. The result is a frustrated tension, the sort of loaded expectation that sinks in the gut when standing atop a very high diving board and preparing to jump. In “Lock” a black rectangle obscures most of a word, only few of the lettering’s lines extending above the redacting shape. In “Locus,” a solitary black dot sits along the white canvas’ vertical midline, about two-thirds of the way up from the bottom; a single line of a different white intensity runs down, as if a white piece of paper was slowly trickling out white space from a typographic period. And in “Still Whirring,” Belcher gets nearly figurative, setting what looks like a person in a HAZMAT suit next to a woman in a uniform of some sort, with a black/white/gray morass of brushwork taking place in the areas where each figure’s hands might be.

What’s curious about Belcher’s work here are his surfaces; there’s a meticulousness to his articulation that’s refreshingly obsessive. White isn’t just white; there’s a directionality to the brushwork, some purpose behind the way it’s applied. At first glance, “((l))” looks like a stylized black X on a white background. Get up close, though, and see how the brushwork of the white oil pigment runs like air currents around the X’s arms, as if trying to get as close as possible to it without touching it. “Corridor” is even more subtle in its frisson. It’s a pair of white candles on a white background with vertical striations of near-white-gray disrupting the image, as if a lens not quite in focus. Up close, however, it becomes an uninviting infinitude, a nightmare’s dark alley illuminated in a heavenly but suffocating white.

Just what Belcher is going for here, though, remains a bit obtuse. There’s a wonderful play between the painstaking work to achieve his imagery and his imagery’s superficial simplicity, but it’s unclear what that interaction is driving at. And he’s a bit all over the map: sculptural canvases, a piece of sculpture, nearly figurative work sitting next to intellectual abstractions sitting next to self-aware art historical referents. The result is a show that feels less like variations on a theme and more like variations of materials.

You get the feeling Tiffany Black knows exactly what she’s aiming for—even though any effort to document this experiential installation will be an epic fail. Black’s installation engulfs School 33’s small second story project room, in the swallowing whole sense of the word.

Black has reclaimed pieces of plywood and scored them repeatedly with a woodworking hand tool. And by repeatedly, think each piece of plywood being turned into a piece of turf, little julienned strips of wood jutting out like a blade of grass. Black has lined the room and floor with them and arranged three small spotlights to illuminate them obliquely. Immediately when you enter is a stand holding a few pieces of scored plywood vertically. It only takes a few steps to cross the project space, feet making the clomp-swish sound as if traversing a saloon’s floor. By the rear wall is a sawhorse with a piece of plywood atop it; next to it, a wooden chair. Take a seat.

The aroma of shavings slowly infiltrates the nose, a moist, woodsy smell. On a Saturday afternoon, the upstairs gallery was deathly quiet. No feet or muffled voices of other gallery-goers. It was like going into a room of a house that nobody goes into when nobody knows you’re there, and you start to wonder what caused the space to be trapped in time. The installation starts to feel like the eternal unknown of a sensory deprivation chamber—and you’re acutely aware of the thousands of minor acts of violence that surround you.

It yields a spectacularly cathartic impression. Black’s cuts, in ordered lines up the plywood sheets, reveal an utter composure in the process. These are not the erratic incisions of outwardly directed rage or the inward destructions of a suicide’s first-try hesitations. These are the competent, confident strokes that unite surgeon and self-cutter, the healer and the harmer, who both value life enough to want to exert some control over its ineffable chaos: blade goes here, and slice.

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