Our lives are composed of innumerable repeated actions. What we say, think and do forms a matrix of repetitions, an accumulation of modular repeated fragments that amount to a life. In The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size, the Danish science writer Tor Norretranders lays out just how few of the things we do on any given day are consciously executed. Dawn Gettler, a Chicago-based artist, has cultivated an art practice predicated on the scores of repetitions that constitute lived existence.
Gettler's current exhibition at Artspace, through the doubt, is the culmination of her month-long residency there. Each of the five works on view is a product of Gettler's signature repetitive acts, which coalesce in large sculptural constructions composed of imprinted pages that reiterate, hundreds of times over, various phrases, such as "harness the blame" or "I thought I would find you here."
Gettler's materials are not obvious, and the wall labels describing her work can read like poems. The text on the label for the work "numb" (all Gettler's titles are in lowercase) reads:
suspended wooden armature,
cut text flocking in pickling salt,
sewn roofing felt coated in glycerin
Unlike traditional art media such as oil or watercolor, unorthodox elements gain some of their power from their capacity to communicate through sheer materiality and associative power. Gettler's work is worth seeing if only to glimpse materials like glycerin (clear liquid soap) or Carborundum (sandpaper grit) exploited for their expressive potential. The show's opening work, "the cowardly lion," draws us in with its unfamiliar visceral and visual qualities. An abstract "V" shape is achieved through an accumulation of hanging sheets of sewn carbon paper, the edges of which are coated in a thick, gooey wash of glycerin. The edges seem to be almost dripping with goop, drawing us into a narrative of viscosity, unctuousness, conveying a palpable heavy quality, oozing in gravity's pull. The backs of the sheets are white, and dye has seeped into the paper fibers, generating subtle patterns of dark on light. Ultra-fine loose threads that hold the structure together hang in dark hair-like wisps. The repeated phrase "harness the blame" is formed in the white of the paper ground by a stenciled overlay of black, glittering Carborundum silt.
The fact of Gettler's repetitions packs a bigger punch than the texts themselves. Although Gettler describes her work as being about interpersonal communication and relationships, it is in this realm that the work falls short. No matter how many times it is repeated, "harness the blame" sounds like something that was mined from a self-help guide. On the strips of receipt paper that make up Gettler's two luminous hanging works titled "jack and jill," the artist has typed phrases from the children's nursery rhyme hundreds of times: "jack fell down" and "jill came tumbling after." The gallery text suggests a profundity in these lines, describing Gettler's insight that Jill "blindly followed Jack's misstep." These are formally stunning works that fumble conceptually.