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Olga Balema’s second solo show at Hannah Hoffman Gallery, Loon, inspired an almost immediate sense of suspicion. The gallery contained the usual trappings: gallery assistant at the front desk, press release and checklist available—so far, so good. Though, after that, things became a little complicated. Save several pedestals, the gallery appeared empty at first glance. But soon, 16 pieces of plastic scattered throughout the space came into focus, emerging almost as if out of thin air. (To be precise, the show contained 16 sculptures fabricated from polycarbonate sheeting, acrylic paint, and solvent, each bearing similar, vague names like Loop 17 or Loop 135 [all works 2023].) Suspicion, however, was not the endpoint for Balema’s exhibition, only the start of the aesthetic experience. Though viewing this exhibition began with a dubious feeling, Balema successfully leveraged this wariness to force a sustained encounter with her sculpture. Without the suspicion, the viewer might have lost the sense of intrigue and the incentive to move beyond first impressions to truly engage with the works.
The unease of this viewing experience will not be completely unexpected for those familiar with Balema’s practice. Her sculptures often occupy a space that barely registers as art—they are made of anonymous industrial materials, shaped into nondescript forms, and frequently strewn loosely across the gallery floor. They are minimalist in the original sense of the term, coined by British philosopher Richard Wollheim in 1965 to characterize the then-nascent artistic movement which centered around cold, simple, almost featureless structures that were either “to an extreme degree undifferentiated in themselves and therefore [possessed] very low content of any kind, or else the differentiation they [did] exhibit…[came] not from the artist but from a nonartistic source, like nature or the factory.”¹ Put simply, art of this kind privileged generic form and industrial materiality at the cost of the traditional hallmark of an artwork’s quality: the trace of the artist’s hand. Balema centers her work around similar concerns, relinquishing her own touch in pursuit of materials, forms, and installation strategies with a “minimal art-content.”1
Take, for example, Balema’s 2019 exhibition brain damage at Bridget Donahue in New York. From waist height up, there was nothing in the gallery. Instead, intricate networks of elastic bands were stretched tautly into grids that hovered above the ground or slumped in slack lines on the floor. Since the artwork consisted solely of the elastic’s skeletal contours carving out space, instead of a substantive material body, the viewer’s gaze was always filled more prominently with the typically overlooked interstitial areas of the gallery (especially the floor) than with the work itself. Consequently, this installation, like much of Balema’s output, produced a strange oscillation in the relationship between both figure and ground and art object and negative space —a gesture that simultaneously delineated the limits of sculpture while opening up its possibilities.
The wispy plastic forms in Loon elicited a similar feeling. These sculptures are rendered bare and stripped to their most basic parts. Each piece is almost easier to describe as what it is not, rather than what it is. This is in large part due to the material: The clear polycarbonate, like all transparent objects, can only be seen as a result of its interaction with the surrounding environment. Balema expertly accentuated this quality through her installation: The artworks were de-emphasized in the gallery, which almost appeared to be displaying its emptiness—the pedestals drew the eye more than any of the individual works. Each of the sculptures, too, seemed bent on denying its value. Loop 70, for example, leaned crumpled against its plinth as if it had fallen off and wasn’t worth replacing, while Loop 112 brought to mind the cellophane wrapper of a pack of cigarettes littered on the floor. Contributing to this paucity was the fungibility between every work, as each piece was made from the same set of materials and looked nearly identical to every other, save for variations in scale and shape.
And yet, something does delineate these sculptures, giving them form and allowing the viewer to identify them as distinct entities. Impressions of Balema’s labor are evident in the shape of the plastic sheets, their heat-induced discolorations, and scars from the solvent. These were seen most clearly in Loop 92, a collapsed mass perched atop a pedestal, whose numerous folds and wrinkles refracted the gallery lights to produce bright highlights that drew the eye, while a long dark trapezium streak and several burnt umber smudges stained the surface. The very thing that seemed initially to be lacking from the sculptures—the artist’s hand and effort—ultimately is the precondition for their recognition. What one then notices is not the collection of artwork itself, but the interruptions scarring each piece’s surface, the marks made by the artist’s action.
Lingering with the Loops reaped rewards as initial appearances began to dissolve and a more complex understanding took shape. By deflating their sense of material importance, the sculptures in Loon forego a simple encounter between object and viewer to instead bring into focus the artist’s labor. One is left not with a fully realized artwork separated from its making, but instead a strange specimen in which process and form are always bound together and simultaneously experienced. This, too, recalls minimalist works like Robert Morris’ Box with the Sound of Its Own Making (1961), a small wooden cube fitted with a speaker inside that plays a 3.5-hour recording of Morris fabricating the piece. But while process and duration are similarly highlighted here, they remain obfuscated by the pristine, opaque cube which appears as a standalone object. Balema instead leverages the qualities of the material —here, the clarity of the polycarbonate—to produce a truly transparent artwork that harnesses its context to activate both the viewer and the environment, visualizing the actions and processes that brought them into being.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 33.