For their most recent exhibition AND NOW, SQUARE TREES, Portland-based conceptual artist sidony o’neal creates a game for the viewer. Presented at their local Fourteen30 Contemporary gallery from March 3 to April 27, 2019, objects index virtuality and gamification while nevertheless resisting interpretation, allowing o’neal to invite the viewer to grapple with the trauma of materiality, what Heidegger calls the “thrownness” (Geworfenheit) of being – one is simply “thrown” into the world, forever detached from world-in-itself and limited to sense experience, thought and feeling, and speculation.
The central metaphor for this “thrownness” is the procedurally-generated dungeon found in gaming, which is algorithmically-generated such that the player never experiences the same dungeon the same way twice (known as “Roguelike” games in homage to 1980’s Rogue, a famous early example of procedurally-generated dungeons). Landscape reduces to grid evoking the tragedy of dividuality by yoking together gamification and value: archetypes of the ludic here are inseparable from the tragic distance between human perception and the “real.” Just like the seemingly-infinite consumer choices of late capital, the “innumerable” variations of a procedurally-generated dungeon may often conceal bad virtual space design, flimsy gameplay, and other flaws. Gamification as ideology; play as rule-following. And unlike life, in games, you get extra lives (on the back of the works list is a kind of poem drawn from new age magazine headlines; one line reads “WORKING TO REHUMANIZE DEATH AND DYING”).
The apocryphal nature of humanity, and the artist’s penchant for obscurantism, is clear before one steps into the gallery: outside, o’neal hangs a 24×71” vinyl banner that reads: “CUTTY”, a Black California English word meaning hidden, shady, out-of-the-way, dankly hermeneutic, and related concepts. The visible banner pairs with an invisible one, which the artist reports is hung at a secret location somewhere in Portland metro. The space, which is one of the city’s few nationally-recognized commercial galleries is at an unassuming house on the outskirts of downtown Portland, off the highway. “CUTTY” here could refer to the space itself, the neighborhood, the city, the work, the show, the practice… Semantic withdrawal becomes a polysemic network: the possibilities go on, and the banner offers the reader the first insight into the kind of experience o’neal wants to tease out.
The show includes three kinds of work: drawings with ink, conte and wax crayon on grid vellum drafting paper, found object sculptures, and unglazed ceramics. The latter o’neal produced as part of their residency with the ceramics department at the Oregon College of Art and Craft (OCAC), utilizing the clay waste of other practitioners. In ‘even if you’re not playing, i’m gassed to see you in the world’ (2019), greenware (clay which has been shaped but not bisque fired) is stacked on a floor vent in five off-kilter piles, two of them topped with rotting citrus. A forlorn rag of raw silk is wrapped around one grille section. The other ceramic work consists of fired red and dark brown hollow spheres coated with lime-yellow nylon flocking– an accretion of small, loose microfibers. While a cursory glance indicates sports balls, a closer look reveals imitate natural objects: these are virtual moss-covered rocks, from the world of the titular square trees, and somehow they have “broken through” into meatspace.
Building on these gestures of accumulation and iteration explored through primary shapes, the works on vellum draw on asemic mark-making practices to produce an experience that blurs the line between reading and looking. At moments they register as graphic scores, at others, like abandoned architectural plans. Virtuality here is a litmus for struggle, not so much a stand-in for a nostalgia as a reminder of the technical limitations of the mind to comprehend space and time. The gridded vellum paper of the hung works rhymes with the central object in the show, ‘FOR I WAS AN EDIBLE YOUTHFUL LIFEFORM WITH DREAMS OF BECOMING GRITS’ (2019), in which the artist covers a heavy wood structure with tile and joint compound. Almost like mold, a light blue acrylic on the joint compound begins to creep into the grid lines, coming to fruition at the second ‘tower’ of the work, which looks like the top half of a 3D cross. This work is the titular square tree, the font from which springs the show’s and the hermeneutics of refusal. The grid reveals itself as always already wonky and tragicomic, a CGI render constantly in-process.
The found object sculptures give off spiritual vibes. ‘Untitled’ (2019) made from styrofoam, sand, steel, thermoplastic rubber is a pun on the legend of British King Arthur and Excalibur: a waterlogged hunk of styrofoam is pierced by a blade which o’neal forged at OCAC, branded along the dull edge with the exhibition title. Despite seeming like a very heavy object, it’s actually extremely light, apt to tip over at the slightest touch. On the other end of the spectrum, ‘meet cute 3: super farmacia’ (2019) is physically heavy but feels airy, like an altar that found its way here from another planet with different gravity. A black sink rests on a powder coated black steel stand with four legs. Plexiglass rests in the sink basin, a pun on water, and down below a mirror talks back, revealing the piece of obsidian that rests on the mirror, and the text painted under the sink (“super farmacia de dios”).
The polysemy of the works in the show becomes a kind of sardonic joke about what “dies” when sense-experience is indexed to sense (meaning), reduced to medium and materiality. Gestures in reference to gaming and virtuality allow the artist to evoke the distance between human perception and “the real.” That is, it reveals that sense experience is itself always already mediated, since it must be experienced through the sense organ and cannot thus be considered world-in-itself. This philosophical tragedy harkens back to Kant, who argued that conceptions of space and time are not empirical, but are instead facets of cognition – unless one already has a priori concepts of space and time, one cannot experience objects as spatially and temporally ordered. We know this to be true since we can imagine space absent of objects and time empty of events, but we cannot imagine or represent the absence of space or time. With cheeky gestures of accretion and disjunction, o’neal depicts this tragedy – the always already virtual nature of perception, the lack or distance toward the “real” that marks the experience of truth.**