Delicate, gauzy rice paper sheets and scrolls hang throughout the compact storefront gallery. From a slight distance, the sheets appear to be topographical maps or, more likely, aerial black-and-white photographs of ambiguous terrain. Patterns of lightness and darkness roil over the soft surfaces of the rice paper, resolving into firm peaks of dense graphite just as easily as they dissolve into faint valleys of dull metallic traces. Do they represent mountains or deserts, hazy cloud cover or the surface of an ocean? The scale and materials recall Chinese scroll painting, but other associations just as easily come to mind. Last summer, the Art Institute exhibited World War I reconnaissance photographs of the Allied front in France taken by an American military brigade commanded by Edward Steichen. In their intransigent abstraction and grayscale gradients, Mariana Sissia’s drawings appear much the same. How to discern anything of use from such immaterial forms? Steichen’s problem became our pleasure, and Sissia yields all the more fully to the tactile and sensate in the matter of abstract geographies.
The artist calls these “Mental Landscape,” and they are indeed a product of the mind much more than they are a transcription of reality. They refer to no place in particular and, as such, they can be perceived to resemble many places and many features. And yet, they are embedded with physical referents more tangible than any map can offer. Sissia develops the drawings by frottage, rubbing graphite over paper that covers a textured surface. Borrowing the minute topologies of walls, stones, cement and other very real surfaces, she renders the tactile and physical into the abstract and immaterial even as she lifts her forms directly from reality. Sissia’s drawings function like maps in reverse. They trace an intimate encounter with place so near that it cannot be ascertained, whereas the map renders vision so far removed from a terrain as to obliterate nuance in the pursuit of describing all. Herein, the engrossing paradox of the drawings emerges: how to resist seeing what is not there, or conversely, how to imagine what might be? (Elliot Reichert)
Through April 25 at The Mission, 1431 West Chicago