How to reconcile the idea of nothingness, when it takes the form of an object? And what of the object, as nothingness? These questions are not as abstract as they seem, especially when considering Aria Dean’s new exhibition of work, Baby Is a Cool Machine, at American Medium.
Dean tackles nothingness not as a void, but as social fact. Mining her own identity as a black woman, and the history of art, Dean finds an inexorable connection in the value and function of the two.
Some context for Dean’s work is necessary before discussing the art itself. As a writer, Dean artfully untangles the complex relations between blackness, digital life, and political erasure, and is a vivid voice on issues of objectification and the struggles to empower people of color—and how the internet serves as both a vehicle and blockade in that struggle.
As assistant curator of net art for Rhizome—one of the first platforms for digital artwork—Dean is an expert in the super-contemporary edge of aesthetic production. This is an important thing to think about when seeing the “real-life” works on view at the Chelsea-based gallery. The art itself, though beautiful and minimal, is committing a sort of treason against itself and the viewer: the works want to escape their form, go away, self-destruct.
However, this is subtly so. Consider what appears to be a series of canvases with slight burn marks. One might be tempted to see this as a simple technique to evoke the destruction of art, but no. These are, in fact, stretched pieces of cotton batting, a reference to the American South, where Dean’s family comes from, and all the exploitation, terror of, and resistance to this economic industry.
The other works, like the divinely mysterious “BLACKBOX,” etched with letters and numbers, contain similarly embedded signifiers, but they’re not screaming their meaning for the viewer. It takes a studied visit, some true reflection, to see what Dean is trying to say.
Baby is a Cool Machine
Through November 25, 2017
515 W 20th St, 3N, New York, NY 10011