Gwenneth Boelens: “At Odds” at MIT List Visual Arts Center, Boston

Review by John Pyper

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“Liar’s Cloth,” 2017 Gwenneth Boelens
“Liar’s Cloth,” 2017, Gwenneth Boelens, Reflective and conductive thread, folding chair. Photo: courtesy the artist, Grimm Gallery, Amsterdam and Klemm’s, Berlin

How can an art medium get out of its own way? For Dutch photographer Gwenneth Boelens it comes from being in the same room with light. In MIT List Visual Art Center’s “Gwenneth Boelens: At Odds,” her wall-sized photograms result from making overlapping patterns by placing objects in between controlled light projection and photosensitive materials. These modulated monochromes are more like a spatial echo than a stable image captured by a lens; more sculptural performance than photograph. Their surface entreats the viewer to decipher how the shadows that lasted only a few moments made these images.

Fluctuating between marks and feelings, each work in the show speaks of both cast impressions and duration. How long do things last? A broken umbrella and a pair of sculptures that look like simplistic shields (in two different materials) are on the floor. A pair of sticks marks an indistinct time, shocking the space with a sharp noise when they clap together. Fabric that looks like repaired denim—woven with reflective and electro-conductive fibers—is draped over a folding chair. There is a light shining on it that fluctuates in intensity. The room is divided by a cotton scrim. A meticulous row of fibers has been removed from the scrim, like a horizon crossing an erstwhile canvas. After the scrim has been handled, it is exposed to a forensic chemical used to find fingerprints. A reddish-purple smudge of fingerprints follows the line and marks where the scrim was handled. Much like photographic paper, the canvas only gains an image when bathed in chemicals. West-African Nkontompo Ntama, or Liar’s Cloth, inspires the weaving slumped over the wooden folding chair. It got its name from the King of Ashanti, who would wear this cloth while deliberating in court. The projected light makes it intermittently glow phosphorescent blue. At first, you question if your eyes are playing tricks on you, but no. It glows again.

Curated by LVAC’s Henriette Huldisch, “Gwenneth Boelens: At Odds” runs concurrently with another show by a European artist who examines photography, space and perception, Charlotte Moth’s “Seeing While Moving.” Boelens’ show is a meditation the limits of photography, yet is also a thesis on how an artist that was trained as a photographer can escape her category. These gestural images and sculptures fluctuate between transparency and opacity. Human motion leaves a negative space while the shadows cast by objects create layers of information.

—JOHN PYPER