On view at Whitespace Gallery through August 1, Ann Stewart’s “Causa Sui” deals in complex abstraction and hefty concepts without sacrificing accessibility and visual appeal. Borrowed from philosophical discourse, Stewart’s title translates from Latin to “cause of itself.” It’s a concept embedded in each individual work as well as in the exhibition as a whole.
Two small prints, titled Pivot and Swarm, have center-heavy compositions, and Stewart — who received an Idea Capital grant this year — favors this arrangement throughout her two-dimensional work. Marks are repeated in compulsive-looking layers, forming a nucleus at the core of the picture where abstract lines intersect. The background of each is a field of gray — the soft, speckled gray unique to the aquatint process—and it’s filled with small pictographic motifs that suggest human and animal silhouettes. The tiny forms evoke ancient cave art, conjuring notions of genesis and birth. Appropriately, these two prints are the first encountered in the gallery.
For the bulk of “Causa Sui,” Stewart’s aesthetic is crisp, with repetition and complexity serving as constant leitmotifs. In her gray-scale drawings and prints, Stewart allows her process to remain evident. Lines are erased or printing plates repeated in successive layers as if to unmask the passage of time and further imbue work with a layered density. Both architectural and cartographic, the lines suggest a “conception” of space (to steal a line from Apollonaire) that transcends the three-dimensional. Perhaps it’s easier to invoke a passage from the recent film Interstellar: the protagonist, an astronaut played by Matthew McConaughey, finds himself in web of tangible, navigable time created by people in the future so that certain, necessary events—the film’s plot points—will occur. Stewart’s drawings seem to map that kind of space.
Stewart’s sculptures are a different matter. Printed with a 3-D printer, the forms are labyrinthine but pristine, reminiscent of the neo-gothic lines of Frank Gehry’s fluid architecture. Planes crisscross and lines form webs, making the intricate space of her drawings a crystalline reality. Careful gallery lighting creates spidery shadows on the wall. Each is utterly unique. Yet, all are white and deviate between two basic size formats. Given Stewart’s impressive formal variety within the show’s strict, self-imposed formal parameters, her sculptural work would be at home at another exhibition, “Repetition and Difference,” a current show at the Jewish Museum in New York that explores French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s notion that repetition generates metamorphosis rather than sameness. Certainly, her focus on multiples allows Stewart to push her process and to realize its myriad possibilities.
Throughout “Causa Sui,” Stewart merges organic and geometric shapes in tangled grids that collide and overlap as if to suggest dense webs of information rather than Cartesian clarity. Thus, her work is aligned — at least aesthetically — with the infinite complexity of cyberspace or the many, simultaneous dimensions of the multiverse. Stewart, then, might be situated as heir to the early 20th-century Cubists and their contemporaries, who were inspired by the philosophy and physics of their era — such as the fourth dimension and Einstein’s theories — as they sought to push representation beyond empirical reality.
“Causa Sui” begins purposefully with an image that evokes origin, and appropriately ends not with a work that suggests finality but with a print called Anamorphic Loop. An anamorphic image is a picture that is purposefully distorted. Usually a mirror is required to correct the picture and make it legible (it’s the trick at play in Holbein’s The French Ambassadors). The most Escheresque of Stewart’s work for the show, cubic shapes and zigzag forms orbit an empty center. The puzzlelike configuration of shapes has an inherent playfulness, and due to the title, the viewer is encouraged to consider the picture as an optical illusion—a game between artist and spectator. Finally, the spiraling composition makes visual the basic conceit behind “Casua Sui”: a perpetual, self-propelled loop in which ending and beginning are inexorably intertwined.
Next door to “Causa Sui” in the gallery’s project space, is Geewon Ahn’s “Between Absence and Presence.” It’s an appropriate pairing, as both Stewart and Ahn (a recent MFA from the Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta) impose similar limitations on their processes and work in similar modes of nonobjective abstraction. For her work, Ahn uses only black and white, and weaves honeycomb patterns out of plastic zip ties and white rope. The resulting sculptures are soft orbs and cones that she also photographs and displays alongside the three-dimensional forms. Perhaps the most compelling is her installation indoors: a group of soft and slender pyramids are illuminated so that they multiply and overlap in the shadows cast on the white wall. Though not as dense and multifaceted as Stewart’s work, Ahn’s sculptures suggest growth and proliferation.
Rebecca Brantley lives in Athens, Georgia, and teaches for Piedmont College and the University System of Georgia. She is board president at ATHICA: Athens Institute for Contemporary Art. She was a participant in the first cycle of BURNAWAY’s Emerging Art Writers Mentorship Program.