Trompe L’oeil or Primary Sources

In 2011, the Brooklyn based artist Anna Plesset did a trip to Europe. She visited different places in England, France, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland, trying to retrace the journey of his grandfather Marvin R. Plesset who recorded, on a 16 mm film, part of his experience as a division psychiatrist in the US Army, during WWII. Her encounter with the original film and then her own travel are the points of departure for her latest exhibition, Various Records, currently on view at Patron Gallery, from March 23 to May 4.  

At first sight, the show looks like a contemporary display of a personal, as well as historical archive. Near the entrance, to the right, there is a wood table with a surface that seems used and, on top of it, various vintage objects: the book Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl, 3 old Kodak boxes for photographic and cinematographic film, a VHS cassette, an instant picture, a micro SD Card and a blue notebook. This piece is called Primary Sources and was made from 2015 to 2018. Then in the center of this main space of the gallery, there is a freestanding room titled Travelogue (21st Century Room) made out of the same wood than the table and produced between 2013 and 2018. Inside, we can see another collection of mementos. Museum’s and train’s tickets, photographs, the page of a philosophy book, pieces of a paper note, etc, all of them attached with tiny pieces of tape. Suddenly, a minuscule trace of a brush in these elements reveals itself. The tape is not tape, the photographs are not real, the marks on the white surface are illusions, and so on with everything in the small, intimate room. Using trompe l’oeil painting the artist is tricking the spectator with incredibly precise and precious copies of all the elements of her memory puzzle. At that moment, the show starts to make much more sense and open multiple questions. Are the Primary Sources painted as well? Are they real sources or it is a kind of fiction? Does the use of painting add another layer of time into the work? Does illusion make something more real, more engaging, than the real document?

Well, while all these questions start popping up into your head, you continue through the show and find another table like the first one but this time supporting a map of her travel, and a projector that shows parts of the original film of her grandfather edited along her footage from her travel –Document of a Travelogue by Lt. Col. Marvin R. Plesset, Division Neuropsychiatrist (2013)–.  Once again, there is a play between the original source and the one produced by her. The same game of the painting but through a different medium. So, part of the puzzle is finally exposed. There are primary sources, documents and film excerpts from the 1940s but then, what you are seeing are exact painted replicas of that material. What the artist is doing is involving herself in those documents through the slow act of painting and, as a consequence, is engaging the viewer in those multiple times. The time of her grandfather’s journey, the time of the encounter of this archive, the time of her trip to Europe, the time of painting and finally, the present time of the exhibition. In other words, is like a dissection of what memory can be. According to the artist, in conversation with Orit Gat: “Institutions, books, and media construct our knowledge of history” and “the faith that holding onto the memory of how you learned something means really grasping the fact that stories are all constructs”.            

Unfortunately, after those instants of excitement and discovery, you continue to a second space of the gallery, expecting new clues, or new parts of the puzzle but, instead, the trick is poorly revealed. Two hyperreal pencil drawings of two of the mementos just seen in the standing room are replicated, and over explaining what you can discover slowly by your own. Like if a magician, after impressing his audience, decides to boorishly tell them how he did it. This is a poor decision whose only justification is the fact that the exhibition is happening in a commercial gallery and that those 2 drawings, as well as others in storage, might be easier to sell than the video, the room panels or the boxes and books replicas. But it definitely kills part of the beauty and delicate strings of thoughts that hold the show. This doesn’t happen with a small cabinet of ceramic objects, Obsolete Objects from the Golden Mile and the Golden Arrow (2014-2018) that once again trigger the questions on reality, documents, memory, archive and fiction.   

Note: the exhibitions at Patron gallery tend to resonate with the ones at Document Gallery. Both spaces seem to be pushing the boundaries of what is usually shown in other galleries of Chicago.   

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