Gregg Louis: Down to Earth at Atrium Gallery

Visual manifestations of UFOs are typically simple joinings of convex and concave discs, often envisioned at night, emitting ethereal light in an undetermined manner. Most accounts of UFOs begin in the mid-20th century, though some historians cite a few examples from classical antiquity.  Manifestations of UFOs are not only alien in their attribution, but in their psychological nature. Carl Jung’s writing on flying saucers argues that these ‘sightings’ throughout modern history answer humanity’s need to escape from reality. In the post-WWII context of the 1950’s, with the rise in the development of nuclear arms, Jung offers a plausible explanation for the human psychic mechanism that UFOs engage. As he writes in Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies (1959), our interest in UFOs “may be a spontaneous reaction of the subconscious to fear of the apparently insoluble political situation in the world that may lead at any moment to catastrophe. At such times eyes turn heavenwards in search of help, and miraculous forebodings of a threatening or consoling nature appear from on high.”

Artist Gregg Louis’s recent solo exhibition, Down to Earth, at Atrium Gallery in St. Louis, MO, explores the UFO as a symbol for, as he states, “an unknowable thing.”  Following in the footsteps of Jungian individuation through play and active imagination, Louis’s series of photographs from 2011 document whimsical yet elegant sculptures made in the artist’s studio out of common domestic kitchen objects such as glassware, mixing bowls and ceramic plates. In Everyday UFO No. 11, a classic UFO silhouette (the ubiquitous metal disc shape) is suggested with a cocktail shaker, a colander, and a mixing bowl presented as a simplistic, reduced form. Other images, like Everyday UFO No. 17, stretch notions of the formal qualities of traditional flying saucers.  This photograph unites a plastic duster, a couple of dinner plates, a few other plastic bits, and what looks like a toilet bowl brush cover into an absurd vertical object incapable of flight.

The series of photographic prints are subtle and nuanced, allowing us to see the barely-there black backdrop that frames the sculptures. The images are not quite as polished, and definitely not as banal, as a commercial stock photograph of kitchenware you might see at a chain restaurant.  Instead, the images are conceptual mechanisms, and the attention to formal detail hangs somewhere between amateur and professional, and is perfectly suited to the conceptual conceit of ‘play’ in the artist’s studio. Louis expertly balances both formal rigor and conceptual humor, not quite bringing us down to earth.

One can get lost in the details of the objects, seeking concrete substance in the glossy metal reflections.  The photographs inspire a kind of investigative looking, a search for how the objects were made and where.  This curiously parallels our internal search for deeper meaning, in an X-Files, “the truth is out there” kind of way. The process of how these images were actually made — a scene I witnessed in the artist’s home studio in New York City before the exhibition — further endears them as illustrations of the potential of imagination in the immediate domestic sphere.

Down to Earth is not a transgressive ‘semiotics of the kitchen,’ á la Martha Rosler.  Louis’s intentions, as shared in his artist statement, are to playfully rearrange familiar objects into new forms in an act of  artistic transmutation. Louis’s alchemy has the potential to be our own, as we seek recognizable forms within the new whole, spying a rubber band as a portal here, or a stack of vinyl records as a slick rim there.  We seek out the familiar in the unfamiliar, reversing the formula followed by the artist.  We become, like the artist, homo ludens (‘man at play’) which brings us full circle into the act of art, the nature of psychic experience, and the charming possibilities of UFOs. Out of this world, indeed.

Down to Earth was on view at Atrium Gallery in St. Louis, MO June 3-July 24, 2011.
Images courtesy of the artist.

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