Museum of Contemporary Art

Little Lower Layer

03 Jun - 01 Oct 2017

Paul Chan, Democracy to come (formerly Ursa Major), 2005. Archival ink-jet print; 30 x 44 in. (76.2 x 111.8 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York.
Jack Whitten, Pink Psyche Queen, 1973. Acrylic on canvas; 71 × 60 in. (180.3 × 152.4 cm). Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Gift of Mary and Earle Ludgin by exchange, 2012.14. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth Photo: Nathan Keay © MCA Chicago
Simon Starling, One Ton, II (5 handmade platinum/palladium prints of the Anglo American Platinum Corporation mine at Potgieterus, South Africa, produced using as many platinum group metal salts as can be derived from one ton of ore), 2005. Platinum/palladium prints framed in acrylic boxes; five parts, each framed: 29 11/16 × 37 1⁄4 × 2 5/16 in. (75.4 × 94.6 × 5.9 cm). Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift of Gerald S. Elliott, Albert A. Robin by exchange, 2014.35 Courtesy of the artist and neugerriemschneider, Berlin.
Kate Gilmore, still from Between a Hard Place, 2008. Single channel video. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, restricted gift of Emerge, 2010.9. © 2008 Kate Gilmore
Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, Ring of Fire: Sketch in Metaphor for the Seventh Lagoon, 1975. Oil, ink, graphite, and red pencil on map mounted on canvas; 49 7/16 × 56 9/16 in. (125.6 × 143.7 cm). Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, restricted gift of MCA Collectors Group, Men’s Council, and Women’s Board, and National Endowment for the Arts Purchase Grant, 1980.48. © 1975 Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison Photo © MCA Chicago
3 June – 1 October 2017

What lies below, within, or beyond a surface? The nine international artists included in little lower layer—an exhibition drawn largely from the MCA collection and spanning the 1970s to the present—scrape, scramble, puncture, or otherwise interrogate surfaces. Breaking down the walls, blockages, and fixed assumptions that their materials present, these artists engage a political imagination that is particularly urgent now: moving from what is to what could be.

Not coincidentally, techniques like digging through layers and rearranging patterns result in works that take a critical approach to their subject matter, whether buried histories, stubborn borders, or entrenched narratives of power and control. Jack Whitten scrapes away paint to reveal repressed symbols, Paul Chan reorders constellations as monuments to imperiled civil liberties, Simon Starling exposes photography’s connection to ecological exploitation, and Kate Gilmore dons stilettos to punch and kick her way through solid matter.

The title comes from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, in which Captain Ahab is transfixed by his quest to hunt down the white whale. Yearning to grasp the mystery at the center of his obsession, he is certain that some “little lower layer” of meaning exists below the veneer of appearances that masks the truth. “If man will strike, strike through the mask!” he declares. “How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?” With an eye toward withheld images and untold stories, the artists in this exhibition challenge us to look deeply, think critically, and confront a politics of what we can—and cannot—see, discuss, and access.

The exhibition is organized by Nina Wexelblatt, Marjorie Susman Curatorial Fellow. It is presented in the McCormick Tribune Orientation Gallery on the museum's second floor.

Tags: Paul Chan, Kate Gilmore, Simon Starling, Jack Whitten