Atlas: RK Projects at the Cohen Gallery

by by Ana Alvarez

At first glance, the minimal aesthetic and grey palette of ATLAS, the latest exhibition at the Granoff’s Cohen Gallery, is almost indiscernible from the gallery space itself. The overt spectacle of past Cohen Gallery exhibitions’ is markedly absent. Yet as totemic plaster cubes rise from the concrete as a genderless voice eerily drones from a video projection, something perceptible comes into focus. The space is neither empty nor full; it is instead situated in an amorphous and aesthetically neutral space.

The exhibition is the latest undertaking from RK Projects, a Providence-based self-described “experimental exhibition platform” that specializes in bringing greater visibility to local artist through ephemeral, DIY shows. The group consist of duo Tabitha Piseno and Sam Keller, the curatorial and conceptual head and the engineering and installation expert, respectively. Together, the two 2009 RISD alums decided to stay in Providence post-graduation to fortify the budding, yet at times locally neglected, Providence art scene. Their ideology is centered on using exhibitions as platforms for social engagement by locating their projects in abandoned industrial properties around Providence. Through this they hope to both bring a reviving awareness to these forgotten sites and to create an alternative community in which to feature local, site-specific works that avoids commercialization. The art they feature is often performance based, making it as ephemeral and experimental as the sites where the exhibitions are produced.

When the Granoff committee invited RK to propose a Project for the Cohen Gallery, Piseno and Keller chose to work with local performance artist and prolific “laptop pop” musician Xavier Valentine—perhaps better known X.V., the ever friendly and chic store clerk of Providence vintage haven Foreign Affair. One year later, ATLAS has emerged as a collaboration between X.V.’s aesthetics and RK’s curatorial drive, using the Granoff’s architecture as its muse.

As the show’s curatorial statement attests, exhibiting at the Granoff was a central consideration of the show. RK Projects is, after all, primarily conceptualized as a platform for projects that want to break from the institutionalized gallery setting, so exhibiting at Brown University, a blatant institution, became an obvious point of deliberation. As Piseno explained in an interview with the Independent, it was less about “coming to terms with” exhibiting within an institution. Instead, RK and X.V. took the Granoff and “utilized the space of the building, the architecture of the building as a point from which to address site specificity.” This is an exceptional quality found in most RK Project shows—their lack of a predetermined gallery space gives each project a site-unique attribute.

In ATLAS this is revealed through X.V.’s use of Granoff’s architectural quips as inspirations. As X.V. explained in an interview with the Independent, the extended preparation of the show, which spanned a whole year, focused on how he and RK could “address the inherent beauty of the architecture of the building while simultaneously referencing [their] own points.” X.V. retells first visiting the Granoff and instantly conceptualizing what are now the monolithic gradient mural and plaster cast totems that line the gallery space. The black-to-white gradient of the mural, which is represented in consecutive vertical beams on the back wall of the gallery, is a response to the jagged, pleated metal sides of the Granoff.  Similarly, the plaster totems are also died in black-to-white gradients and are placed throughout the gallery in varying sizes, from a one-foot totem that could easily be tripped on, to a six-foot totem that precariously dominates the otherwise unoccupied gallery space.

X.V. went on to explain that the works were conceptually framed around an attempt to physically embody Roland Bart’s 1970s lectures on neutrality. Bart’s notion of neutrality pointed towards a deconstruction of binaries; the neutral ground was seen a space where these constructed divisions could cease and truer forms of understanding could arise. The exhibition’s curatorial statement further explains this analogy; in the works, neutrality serves “as a vantage point from which to reconsider the suspension between two polar opposites as something more momentous then often assumed.”

This notion of suspension above neutral ground leads to the second unifying concept of the show—that of the precipice. In this light, the at once seemingly placid, neutral space is charged with possibility; the works are no longer neutrally secure, but are at risk of plummeting over the edge, into an adversary existence. Snap This Quiet Snap, a digital print and installation featured in the show, perhaps best elucidates this quivering divide. In the piece a minimally designed black and white digital print seemingly hangs from the wall by a single thread. “It was ideal I think the way that the print is hung to kind of emphasize the verticality of the space as well but [also] the idea of it being about to fall,” X.V. explains. “Everything to me looks like its on the brink of being something else—the gradient is always on the brink of becoming the next color and the pillars are always on the brink of falling to the ground.”

Below the digital print there is a spotlighted stand with various rocks surrounding the exhibition catalog, which was designed by RISD artists Dan Brewster. Such a prominent emphasis of the exhibition catalog as part of the art piece Snap This Quiet Snap was an engaging choice. The catalog’s yellow cover is the only object in the space to break with the strongly imposed black-and-white-only design of the exhibition. It also suggests that perhaps the real “work of art” is not so much what is present in the neutral space, but its continuation outside the gallery setting, once it falls off the precipice and into the combatant world.

The videos, which are displayed on the wall opposite of Snap This Quiet Snap, present a collection of found footage that continue to engage with these notions of neutrality and the precipice. Motion of Gilded Moments presents a “digital seascape in perpetual motion.” Each minute of the video shows one hour of real time of what appears to be the horizon on an ocean shore. As the video progresses, a human figure hangs suspended from the landscape, continuously on he verge of leaping, facing a neutral abyss.

While many might find ATLAS too dependent on its minimal aesthetic to be engaging, and too laden with theory to be accessible, it’s less the work and more the possibility of an exhibition like this that makes it both engaging and accessible. This is an arresting example of collaboration though several layers—collaboration between an artist and his curators, between the architectural design of a building and the work displayed in it, between an institution and the community it lives in.

ANA ALVAREZ B’13 is on the precipice.