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Perplexing, elusive, and hard: all words critics have used to describe the work of Josephine Pryde. For a practice characterized by its difficulty, the images are surprisingly prosaic. Her subjects are not without their charms—previous series include images of deadpan cephalopods lounging in airplane lavatories and stylized portraits of guinea pigs amid colorful props—but the images nevertheless provoke unease around the coolness of their content. In two coinciding exhibitions in Chicago. The Vibrating Slab at the Art Institute of Chicago and Club Med at Soccer Club Club, Pryde focuses on the processes by which we come to understand the material world. Under her subtle gaze, the dreary or uninspired appear novel, even alluring. Documenting smartphones and rock formations alike, Pryde appears apathetic towards distinctions between the natural and the manmade. She seizes moments of physical flux where material substrates emerge in the process of deformation and wear, whether it be wind whipping a mountain-face or water distorting a tablet screen. Apprehension of what a thing is emerges in the instant it falls apart.
At Soccer Club Club—a private bar turned gallery operated by record label Drag City—Pryde presents Club Med, a show of seventeen photographs documenting the remnants of a defunct, bohemian resort embedded in the geologically diverse terrain of a nature park on the Catalonian coastline. Atop the wood-paneled and brick walls of Soccer Club Club, Pryde has added vertical ceiling boards stained with tea, mirroring the gallery’s soiled ceiling tiles. The photos, hung at even height, but mounted at staggered intervals, some centered, some mounted past the board edge, illustrate innocuous, but nevertheless bewitching images captured on the Cap de Creus in 2006 and 2007.
In contrast to other close-up shots, one image, Club Med (Untitled) (2006/2022), illustrates an expanse of white dwellings with terracotta roofs trailing the curves of a craggy landscape. Rather than manipulate the existing terrain, these structures were built to bend to nature’s will. In Club Med (Duvet) (2007/2022), a closer look suggests that these two things—the vacation structures now flaking away and the unruly beds of rock—are not so different. Both bear marks of age. Other untitled images of rock formations from the series appear dynamic. Repeating the same form through photographic manipulations, it is as if Pryde attempts to capture the slow and imperceptible erosion of matter. In tracking the passive breakdown of forms, Pryde paradoxically illustrates how things come into being.
Parallel to the presentation at Soccer Club Club, which accentuates the material conditions of the gallery as framing device for the experience of the work, the Art Institute’s exhibition, The Vibrating Slab, leans into the crisp austerity of the museum’s modern wing. At the entrance, an interior wall of reflective glass obscures the gallery’s contents. Inside, parodying the museum architecture’s concealment of the objects on view, an additional pastel-tinted partition masks a suite of photographs on the parallel wall. Comprising panels in hues of cyan, magenta, and yellow, the translucent divider echoes the material production of Pryde’s printed images.
This act of filtering extends to a group black and white photos framed behind colored Perspex produced in 2014. Pryde’s images of manicured hands grasping touchscreen devices are incredibly static—see the editorialized grip of digits in Finger, Pad (Teal Filter) (2014/2020) and Thumb, Pad (Pink Filter),(2014/2020). The hands model, but they do not act; they advertise how it might look and feel to handle a device, but they are hardly illustrative of that technology in practice, their dimmed screens void of content. Rather than center user experience, these images test material conditions, with many of the screens coated in beads of water from undocumented spills.
Alongside these wall-mounted images, the curators appropriate conventions of museum display for the presentation of sculptures and large-format photographs. In the first gallery, five bronze objects mimicking shards of driftwood topped with patinated globs of chewing gum rest under square vitrines. Isolated and arrested under protective covers, they espouse a kind of authority that refuses further interrogation. They are things to be collected and preserved, not questioned.
This kind of framing, pronounced for the way it distances the viewer, reappears in a series of large-format, inkjet prints in the second gallery. Dispersed across two massive, low-lying plinths, the photographs detail prehistoric cup-and-ring and animal stone carvings across various grounds. Unlike the positive forms of stone-carved sculptures which stand atop pedestals elsewhere in the museum, these two-dimensional images of incised rock lack material depth. Plotting an uneven index of topographies—some damp, some mossy, and some snow-covered—the photos record a history of mark-making by humans and nature alike: both participate in the process of weathering. The legibility of these symbols is secondary to the processes which scarred and ornamented their surfaces.
Alongside images of petroglyph-flecked terrain, The Vibrating Slab exhibits a lively yet seemingly impenetrable suite of chromogenic prints, all from 2022, which dramatize the titular action of the exhibition. Fourteen photographs, N-CT-W 1 (Ø) through N-CT-W 14 (Ø), document the interplay of a Nokia phone, perhaps set to ring, knocking against a spherical prism on a black ground. Both objects are optical devices. We see through them, and, as such, they filter the way we see. And yet, capturing this dance of material gliding against material, Pryde shifts what we see once more. Despite the ever-shifting structures from which we make meaning of the world, the vibrating flicker of materials—plastic, glass, metal, dust, all of it—endures.
Alexandra Drexelius is a writer based in Chicago, IL.
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