Zachary Cahill’s current exhibition, “USSA 2012: Wellness Center,” reflects on the contemporary dilemma of wellness in general and the healing potential of art in particular. Staging a physical retreat for therapeutic refuge in the third-floor enclave of the Museum of Contemporary Art that recalls European sanatoriums of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this highly referential exhibition of painting, sculpture and writing finds itself most cogent on the wall. Paintings often dressed in synthetic palettes and textual epigrams act in Cahill’s institution as optically prescriptive pseudo-pharmaceutical compositions with a desired effect on the viewer, a crooked analogue of the canonical canvases of romanticism they uncannily suggest.
The works center on health, wellness and care, topics as political and provocative as they come, instinctively relevant on a global scale, yet problematic as if by design. Health transcends the everyday, at once at the forefront of our collective consciousness and buried deep within it, a perennial victim of its own ubiquity. The industries of wellness wrestle with sizable points of contention, from intellectual property to the ethics of access. And the spaces of caregiving continue to provide rich ground to consider a question as genuinely human, ageless and pertinent today as any other, one found here, scribed in acrylic: what does it mean to be healthy?
Cahill’s “Wellness Center” invites more questions than answers, and if the most pressing of these is not “who cares?” then it is certainly “who has access to care?” As this exhibition offers up the postulation of whether or not art can be a place for therapeutic retreat, the issue of access is necessarily at the fore. Cahill’s umbrella project, “USSA 2012,” an acronymic union of USA and USSR, supposes a utopian synthesis of communist and capitalist ideologies, suspended between East and West. The “Wellness Center” is an appropriate place to consider the turbulent landscape of contemporary healthcare and its increasingly privatized industries, conflicted paternalism, poor accord with laborers and systemic difficulty with access. There is an unexpected, troubling echo of these issues throughout the world of contemporary art today. Beside this implicit commentary, Cahill’s exhibition is thoughtfully rich, an art historical rabbit hole detouring through literature, philosophy and popular culture, all toward one last question: should art be therapeutic at all? (Pat Elifritz)
Through September 28 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 East Chicago.