Stevie Hanley does not ask viewers what it might be like to taste a color or see a sound. Instead, the sculptures, installations and drawings embody the show’s titular experience of synesthesia, a phenomenon where multiple states of sensory perception are joined. Viewers are encouraged to use earplugs as they watch “Hairy Eyeball Love,” a single-channel video installation showing, among other things, a giant plush spider resting on top of similar neon-colored ear plugs. Nearby, a four-panel mixed media painting, “Ommatidia Quilt,” separates the ear plug cabinet from the video projection while emulating the jewel-hued view through a kaleidoscope.
According to scientists who participated in the Synesthesia Project at Boston University, the condition is an involuntary response that cannot be suppressed. Secondary reactions to stimuli, such as tasting honey upon hearing the middle C tone or seeing the number five as azure, for example, happen automatically for synesthetes, and the compounded patterns of perception they experience are remarkably consistent over time.
California-born, Chicago-based Hanley does not himself experience synesthesia, but perhaps feels an affinity with those who know the feeling of multi-sensory marvel intimately. Hanley grew up in a Mormon household, and his experience of gay conversion therapy sessions provide material themes that recur in his work. For Hanley, experience and perception are not states that can be easily categorized as singular impressions. The reactions each experience provokes are personal, complex and contextual.
While Hanley’s sculptural and video installations are playful, nearly literal interpretations of synesthesia, his drawings and paintings are worth closer engagement. Spiders rendered with detailed shadow and shading appear to be perched on top of a page, their baby hairs begging to be touched. Shapes and colors drawn on the transparent surfaces of vinyl and drafting film produce a muted, softening effect that makes the resultant images seem to disappear into the background while bold color pops shift the picture plane in the opposite direction. Hanley’s “Synaesthetica,” evoking the aesthetics of synesthesia, is a fun take on perception and a pleasant reminder that experience is wonderfully subjective. (Lee Ann Norman)
Through November 15 at the International Museum of Surgical Science, 1524 North Lake Shore.
Elliot J. Reichert is a Chicago-based curator, critic, and editor. He is a currently a Hatch Projects Curatorial Resident at the Chicago Artist Coalition and Art Editor of Newcity. Formerly, he was Assistant Curator at the Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University. His writing has been published in The Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of Visual Culture, and Newcity.