Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Sonnenzimmer studio turns off the dark

Posted By on 04.16.13 at 05:14 PM

While I may not fit the clinical description of a problem drinker . . . hang on, I feel bad not researching that.

OK—just took an online quiz. I'll start over:

Because I fit the clinical description of a problem drinker, the fact that I'd been standing in Public Works Gallery for a full 20 minutes without a drink in my hand was worth noting. I was there for the opening of a new exhibition by Sonnenzimmer, the Chicago-based studio of Nick Butcher and Nadine Nakanishi, and the mood in the room was palpably light. All openings have a celebratory air but there was something about this one that made it feel different. There was a noticeable lack of international signs for contemplative thought: furrowed brows, arms folded across chest with index finger pressed to chin. Instead, the room felt bright and bubbly, and after a few sober minutes, it suddenly dawned on me why: Sonnenzimmer's work is easy.

That's not an insult. I don't mean easy to conceptualize or easy to produce, but it's easy to be around. And if the idea behind making art is to eventually sell it, then that easiness becomes a real asset. Because at the end of the day, who wants to live with a piece of art that makes you feel like shit? Yes, there are highbrow arguments to be made here in defense of painful themes, and were today a different day, I might be tempted to make them myself. But because the world has given us enough darkness recently, let's celebrate art that unabashedly embraces the light.

"Maybe it's the designer in us," says Butcher. "We need things to feel positive."

Sonnenzimmer is an interesting duo, managing to seamlessly and unself-consciously blend fine art with elements of pop and commercial design. They are image makers, a designation that allows them to move fluidly through different media like painting, screen printing, and textiles. It also allows them to balance commercial work with a studio practice while seeing no real need to differentiate between the two. The result is work that feels accessible without seeming vapid, light without feeling weightless.

It's also interesting to note that because they work as a team, Sonnenzimmer is naturally predisposed to working in a language that others can understand.

"Inclusivity is a big concern," says Nakanishi. "I think by nature of working together, we have to find the denominator of two ideas. So you take an idea that started with Nick, and it already has to be edited once to be more inclusive than his own intuition to make sure I understand it. And he has to understand my intuition. So I feel like just by working together, we're already one step close to making work that's open."

"Funny story," she adds. "We go to Austin to sell posters at Flatstock and we always end up getting all the couples. I think we make work for the couples who can agree on something."

The agreeable nature of their work is on full display at Public Works, where a series of abstract paintings, loosely evocative of landscapes, are presented in a pleasing, springtime palette—lots of yellow, pink, and pale blue. Each painting contains a small microprint image of another painting in the series, something I likened to the "picture within a picture" function on a fancier TV (after I'd had a few beers). Someone not making observations fueled by Old Milwaukee may have commented on the openly self-referential nature of the work, on the fact that the artists were more than willing to make the connections for you.

"We're very narrative driven in creating things," says Nakanishi.

"Part of that is because a lot of our work is client based," Butcher says. "We're trying to please a client. Whether we do or not, that's a different thing. But we're always trying to make work for what it was intended for. With our own stuff, we take the same kind of notions and they just kind of roll over. So maybe now we're the client, but we're still thinking about where this work is going to be and who it is that's going to be looking at it."

There's a lot to be said for bearing your viewer in mind, and I would imagine that many people have had the experience of standing in front of a piece of art—or wandering through a gallery show or museum exhibition—and thinking, "This is not for me." Not "I don't like this," but something much stronger, much more alienating—the feeling that you have no access to the world that artist is representing, nor the artist to the world in which you're living. In turn, those kinds of experiences can lead to an alienation from art in general, a fact that Sonnenzimmer remains conscious of.

"The mediums we work in are accessible by nature," says Butcher, referring to screen printing and design—the language of production and mass appeal. "But at the same time, we make a point to try to remain inclusive. Because we never fit into those exclusive clubs. We've all had those experiences of walking into a museum and thinking, 'OK, I'm supposed to not get it. I'm supposed to feel like I don't belong'."

"We're just not that heady of artists," he says. "We don't shy away from doing things naively. We can experiment with abstract paintings and not feel the burden of the history of abstract painting."

That willingness to experiment, naive or otherwise, led to a collaboration with Chicago architects Club Club, who designed two forms—one vertical, one horizontal—for the show. The forms interact with quilts created by Sonnenzimmer, and I admit to Butcher and Nakanishi that initially, I found the pieces confusing. I didn't understand how they worked with the paintings, which seemed to be the proper focus of the show. But the longer I lived with the work, so to speak, I noticed the mind-bending geometry of Club Club's forms, the multifaceted design of the quilts, and the fascinating dialogue that those different dimensions and mediums created. I also noticed the way viewers in the gallery were reverential at first, giving the pieces the space that gallery art demands. But as the night wore on and the room filled, the dialogue between the viewers and the work changed. People surrounded the pieces, bent down to touch them, examine them. The work became integrated into the crowd and the lines between observer and object were blurred.

That's about as inclusive as it gets.

"Image Structure—Sonnenzimmer" runs through 6/7 at Public Works Gallery, 1539 N. Damen.

Sarah Nardi writes about visual arts on Tuesday.

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