Becoming Silhouettes

Why is there something rather than nothing?
Why is there something rather than nothing?

Lisa Perez’s current exhibit, still even now, at the 5 Traverse Gallery is a meditative study in being and nothingness. The exhibit consists of small sculptural installations made of paper and wood. Her designs are poetic. They simplify the physical world without belittling it. Her best pieces are simultaneously microscopic and macroscopic. Organic grids and delicate squares cast shadows onto the gallery walls. These shadows define the physicality of each piece and in doing so aestheticize them. Yes, defined and aestheticized by shadows, which is to say defined and aestheticized by death and/or nothingness. Death is indeed the mother of all beauty, and thus the exhibit poses Heidegger’s famous question (paraphrased by Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane over the Sea”): Why is there something rather than nothing? How strange it is.

Perez responds to the question with an elegant boldness. Her perspective is multifarious, but she does not reduce the physical world to chicken-shit relativism. Her answer is this — there is neither nothing nor something (triple negative?). There is everything and it happens all at once, from every angle, from every standpoint. (More after jump.)

5 Traverse Gallery, exhibit runs through November 22, 5 Traverse Street

Perez supports such a fearless claim by slowing things down, by bringing the Heraclitean River to a standstill so that we can bear witness to the motion of Time. The world looks different when walking, driving, or flying. It’s as if Perez is providing glimpses from all of these altitudes and speeds. Within a few blinks, viewers witness organic patterns of the Earth’s surface (lakes and rivers) as seen from the clouds, or the infinitesimal beauty of paper and wood grains. These materials also have a voice and require the viewer to stop and listen. There are ambient noises to be heard in the various grains and shapes along with dense vibrations in her colors. Seeing her work is like listening to the distant chant of river rapids.

In a piece entitled The Way Things Go she sets two paper grids side by side, one considerably smaller than the other. The grids lack the structure of a city block, but provide a God’s eye perspective on the beauty of all things crooked and asymmetrical. Humankind isn’t brave enough to design cities and suburbs in such a way. I suppose it’s not practical. I suppose, as Oscar Wilde supposed, that all art must be useless or else it becomes architecture or an actual urinal. God, Mother Nature, and horse-drawn buggies have no need for symmetry when plotting passageways. That is an all too human preoccupation. It’s our artless way of getting from point A to point B. It’s our obsessive compulsive insistence that the universe have a moral order that works in our favor.

For neurotics like me, the shadowy nothingness that follows my figure around keeps my therapist gainfully employed. After viewing Perez’s work, I’ve managed to skip a few sessions. Her nothingness is reassuring. The absence of form that exists in certain pieces is what completes those pieces. This makes me feel so much better about all of the things that I am lacking as an individual. The physical world (and ourselves) is defined by what’s not there, by the absence of space, the same way that songs are half made of the silence surrounding the notes. Perez allows us to get intimate with the relationship of existence and nothingness in a way that doesn’t have the viewer reaching for his Prozac. Her work is comforting. It makes reference to relationships, things large and small, near and far, hard and soft. She reduces art and life to its lowest common denominator. Light and shadow define form, surface, and texture. This holds true to paintings and sculptures, and metaphorically, it holds true to the human consciousness. We are seen and defined by other immortal figures. Sometimes we’re cast in a favorable light, and other times we’re the ugliest person in the room. It all depends on whose company you keep. Perez makes the world look good by cutting us and everything else down to common shapes and sizes.

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