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Holding Water, Chris Warr’s recent exhibition of wall-mounted and freestanding sculpture at Phase Gallery, included objects that combed through, restaged, and obliquely rendered significant moments of the artist’s family history. Warr sourced many of the images and materials included in his assemblages from the very sites of trauma that the sculptures reference. Popotla (2020–22), for instance, is a 3-D printed rendering of a cliff where, years ago, Warr’s father fell after the artist, a child at the time, nearly drowned in the ocean below. Decades later, Warr’s father’s makeshift workshop inexplicably exploded into flame. From the building’s burnt remnants, Warr salvaged old plumbing equipment and marred tools that he repurposed as sculptural components, their once-usefulness now defunct. To connect these and other disparate parts, Warr turned objects on a lathe until they fit together like plumbing joints growing into motley assemblages. At Phase, peepholes into the sculptures’ intestine-like caverns revealed tiny videos of his father’s hands rummaging through charred detritus. Throughout Holding Water, Warr mined his personal stories in a digestive, rather than an extractive sense—pulling apart particular moments of his life and presenting a reshuffled version. Ephemera and images from seemingly disparate chapters are presented adjacent to, or even superimposed onto, one another, resisting a tidy retelling.
Across the show, cast paper sculptures—seed (2020), conkjas (2022), and two untitled works (2020, 2022)— took on a variety of abstract forms, embodying this metabolic churning of materials most literally. Made by pulverizing old receipts, abandoned paintings, and architectural drawings from his father’s handyman business into a rough pulp that is then compressed together again, the sculptures reveal strips of text just long enough to signal the fact that other information, which we are now missing, was once contained on the materials therein. I couldn’t help but register them as akin to the fibrous remnants of food that the body cannot process and so expels, the chewed scraps from one meal emerging tucked up against another without order beyond the slippery logic of the gut.
Moving through the exhibition, I found myself continually turning on my axis in an attempt to chart a material history across time and space—lurching, for example, after the scrap of floral bedding embedded in a paper cast that also appeared across the room on a sculpture made some three years prior. “There is a tendency when you tell a story to want to tie things off and put them in a sequential order,” Warr wrote in his 2020 MFA thesis. “I want to resist the conventions of narrative because I am skeptical of what those conventions produce.”1 To whatever extent the sculptures in Holding Water narrated Warr’s personal history, they did so in a manner equally resistant to clarity and discordant with linear time.
nothing is ever finished (2020) likewise scrambled disparate moments. As the central sculpture in the exhibition, it occupied a majority of the gallery’s girth and required viewers to navigate around it in wide, looping orbits. Welded on one end of its ancient I-beam base and plugged into a trail of discolored iPhone cables, a rusted steel bowl sat at hip level with a dull disc of cast paper set across its rim, obscuring all but a central hole. Leaning over to peer inside, I found a video. Its shimmery blue light danced like the surface of water. One shot panned across grey wreckage—likely from the fire in Warr’s father’s shop—while, superimposed onto this footage, a green digital rendering of a cliff-face swirled on its side. I felt a kind of vertigo, becoming nauseated by the images as they panned and twisted, the rendering of the cliff circling like shit in the excruciatingly slow flush of an old toilet. Unable to watch any longer, I looked up to find a small, aerial model of the same cliff—the aforementioned Popotla—looming on a nearby wall, its topography flanked by a deep blue epoxy ocean. In mild physical distress and recalling the near-death experience shared by the artist and his father, I sensed with treacherous clarity the expansiveness and total power of this ocean despite the miniature rendering.
Like a plumber (the artist is trained in this trade), Warr knows that, even when we seek to disappear the thing we no longer want among us, it doesn’t actually go away, and so the images continue to resurface. If we’re lucky, there’s a metabolic function to sifting through personal wreckage and, by extension, its attendant histories, as the artist has done here. In Holding Water, Warr restaged memories and transformed their material ephemera—perhaps nonsensically, but that is beside the point. The exhibition seemed to assert that we make the work that we make in response to a bodily need to do so, not in service of the message it may produce. It is in this spirit of relentless return that Warr is moved to endlessly turn and fiddle with his materials, the embodied approach of his practice permitting him to absorb something otherwise insoluble. As viewers, we’re left sorting the indigestible bolus, the fibrous remains cast out upon the wall—evidence of something, but void of a clear message or moral. Still, these relics of bodily sense-making grant us access to the digestive fire that has so transformed them. The nutritive force may be indeterminate, but its power is profound.
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 31.