A ruse in some of Rachel Niffenegger’s recent work is repeated attention to masking, contorting and distending the human form. Many of the distorted photographic prints on display in “Soul Bone” work funhouse magic on people, generally their faces, and a life-size, running mannequin draped with white fabric dominates the gallery. Even some of the smaller, seemingly non-figural sculptures have titles like “Spiral Unravels (of Ribs).” Two mixed-media pieces are titled “Womb Water I” and “Womb Water II,” respectively. But much of the ambitious work focused on bodies these days attends to vital issues of race, gender, sexuality or ability, grounding the body’s subjecthood in social procedures of constitution or experience. Niffenegger’s art does not.
Instead, bodies, faces and skeletons are like the raw material of a personal poetics. Everything from color to the varying thickness of line is made to seem allusive, and the fact that it’s difficult to tell what, precisely, is alluded to, seems to be the point. Niffenegger’s sculptures court the ethereal, delighting in small details, while manipulated prints like “Baby Waterfall” smear the meaning out of things. No individual piece is quite as compelling as the whole installation, which aggregates delicate works like “In Her(e)” [sic] into a landscape (here, I’m resisting the urge to use the word “dreamscape” which seems like a lazy way to characterize the space) of incidents.
Indeed, many of the smaller sculptures placed amid the large, draped sheet which takes up much of the gallery rest on plexiglass drawers that are claimed to contain studio debris. By way of analogy, should we read Niffenegger’s images as repositories too? Is “Soul Bone” more about collecting, reworking and storing things than making a new, weird world? It’s hard to tell. (Luke A. Fidler)
Rachel Niffenegger’s “Soul Bone” shows through July 7 at Western Exhibitions, 1709 West Chicago.