‘Every separation is a link’ at Aspen Art Museum group show

Andrew Travers | The Aspen Times
Alice Channer, //Every///Separation///Is///A///Link//, 2017 at the Aspen Art Museum in the "Gravity & Grace" exhibit. Eleven mirror-polished bronze and aluminum bangles, dimensions variable.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times |

If You Go …

What: ‘Gravity & Grace’

Where: Aspen Art Museum

When: Through May 28

How much: Free

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A display case of decades-old postcards, empty hooks in a wall, a string of lights hanging from the ceiling, a sheet of paper with a single sentence typed on it.

These are the kinds of barely there artistic gestures in “Gravity & Grace,” a deceptively simple yet mind-bending and ambitious six-artist group show that opened in March and runs through May 28 at the Aspen Art Museum.

The exhibition borrows its title from the French philosopher Simone Weil’s 1947 book of the same title. In it, she made an argument for human connection made possible by separation, writing of ways that walls — both spiritual and physical — can serve as portals. Most famously, she wrote, “Every separation is a link.”

The British sculptor Alice Channer responds directly to this quote in her new site-responsive piece, titled “Every///Separation///Is///A///Link//.” Channer has screwed 11 bronze and aluminum bangles along a gallery wall, calling us to imagine what’s not there, what’s not strung between them or hanging from them, and what to make of the white space.

In the exhibition catalog, curator Courtenay Finn writes that the show “explores the communicative possibilities of objects, positing that artworks have the same ability to operate as intermediaries and provide a passageway or entrance to a deeper understanding of reality. … Each piece reaches beyond material form to reveal something more about the human condition, transforming the seemingly mundane into the extraordinary.”

That’s a tall order for a seemingly modest six-piece show in an often-overlooked basement gallery — the smallest in the Aspen Art Museum. But spend some time with these challenging conceptual works and you may find yourself agreeing. Take a look at them with Weil’s ideas in mind and you might discover a surprisingly cohesive collection of ideas and artworks.

A playful “conceptual sculpture” by Fred Sandback from 1969 rebels against the definition of sculptures itself. It is a framed piece of paper, on which the artist has typed “There exists a sculpture consisting of the material components of this statement and nothing else.” It suggests a sculpture in your imagination, using language as a portal between something and nothing. As Sandback put it: “My marks are the gap between the spectator and the space that allows him to create his own conception of reality.”

Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled (Couple)” offers even less of an artistic gesture. It consists of two strands of lights, hung from ceiling to floor. It’s the kind of easily dismissible minimalist work that frustrates and baffles skeptics of conceptual art. In the context of “Gravity & Grace,” Finn points to the finite lives of the light in each bulb on the string of lights and calls it “a poignant meditation on our individual lives and our relationship to one another, reminding us that often what separates us is actually what binds us together.”

The Japanese artist On Kawara’s “I Got Up” series from 1968 to 1979 groups together picture postcards the artist sent to New York from Europe, on which Kawara typed the time he got out of bed that morning (literally, “I GOT UP AT 7.12 A.M.” and so on). Banal picture postcards of buildings in Berlin and typed reports the most universal act of starting the day are as mundane as it gets. But placed alongside the rest of the works here, the “I Got Up” series takes on some weight — if every separation is a link, what stronger link is there across an ocean between friends than a postcard reporting that you exist?

The most visually striking piece in “Gravity & Grace” comes from Colorado native photographer Francesca Woodman. Her untitled black-and-white self-portrait from 1976 shows the artists from the waist down, seated in a chair, wearing only her shoes, positioned above a silhouette of her body in white powder on the floor. It’s a haunting image from the teen artist, who died of suicide at 22 in 1981, speaking of both the connection between body and spirit in the photo, and the long-gone subject and artist to the viewer.

The show also includes one of Isa Genzken’s “World Receivers,” which the artist has been making since the early 1980s. This one, from 2015, is a block of concrete — cut roughly in rectangles to sort of resemble a television — that’s painted crudely in baby blue and white, with a pair of antenna rising from the top. Genzken called the antenna “feelers” and once described them as “things you stretch out in order to feel something, like the sound of its world and its many tones.”

Whether those feelers get to you or leave you cold, “Gravity & Grace” will give you something to think about.