The Sweet Escape: A dual exhibition at Area 405 poses the dérive as sanctuary

Lu Zhang, ‘Headspace’ / Photo by Joseph Hyde / Courtesy Area 405.

There are two ways to retreat, strictly speaking. The difference is not in the action—to pull back—but in the disparate circumstances in which one retreats: One is militaristic, the other leisurely. In war, you fall back because you are outnumbered, overpowered, or facing emminent defeat. In leisure, you fall back (usually to a peaceful place if you’re fortunate enough to have one) to rest, recharge, refocus. But either way, you are trying to escape.

Escape fantasies grow more seductive by the minute these days. So does the premise for an exhibition featuring the work of Baltimore-based artist Lu Zhang and New York-based artist William Lamson at Area 405. Curated by Area 405 co-founder and executive director Stewart Watson, “Retreat” considers the implications of falling back into one’s work, one’s own interiority, the lull of repetition, reflection, and meandering.

Zhang and Lamson ask us to follow a current. That is our escape.

Zhang previously invited her audience into her studio during her residency at Baltimore’s dazzling George Peabody Library, where she created site-specific work in the form of six large books drawing directly from the library’s collection of mostly Victorian-era texts. Another space for the output and exchange of ideas, Area 405 houses the first floor artist-run gallery and event space as well as 40 artist studios and the Station North Tool Library. Zhang, then, presents the production and experience of art in tandem.

During “Retreat’s” run through Jan. 13, her studio/installation, titled “Headspace,” will remain in flux. The final state of the space will be no more or less intrinsic to the work than its arrangement on the evening of its mid-October opening. Visitors might even find Zhang working on her installation, moving from the small desk equipped with paper, utensils, and some kind of automatic mist dispenser to the sculptures strewn throughout the gallery, adding to them, moving them around. She opens up her own subjectivity to the public.

On that opening night, the gallery’s front room, where “Headspace” lives, is framed by three large hanging sculptures, two of which resemble the lines on the page of a ruled notebook by way of black strings pulled taut from floor to ceiling and from column to column. Mostly small, mostly white objects—drawings of repeated lines, cut paper, small toothpaste squirt-shaped sculptures, pieces of foil, crocheted squares, a number “3” from an address marker, loosely draped strings—are arranged more or less evenly across these grids. One of these structures holds pieces so tiny and distinct they resemble, from a distance, snowflakes suspended in air. Some of the objects feel like direct nods to the physical character of the 170-year-old industrial warehouse space—the diamond-shaped negative spaces in a little paper sculpture echo those of the metal grates (one of which, I notice on a subsequent visit, Zhang has started to highlight by wrapping in aluminium foil) that cover the windows.

In Zhang’s hands, this cherished modernist tool of the grid—which the critic Rosalind Krauss wrote “is what art looks like when it turns its back on nature”—becomes malleable both in form and function. The strings acting as the surface for her large-scale dimensional drawings appear flexible though taut, like strings on an instrument. In a nearby floor sculpture, Zhang eliminates that tension by loosely hanging three cut-out grids from hooks on a rolling metal rack. Layered over each other in limp sheets—along with a long white fringe, aluminum foil molded into a shape resembling the Chinese character for “moon,” short chains of metallic circles, among other forms—the grids here feel less like measuring apparatus than expressionistic marks culled from Zhang’s subconscious.

Insofar as Zhang’s grids are dependent on the whim of her dérive-like practice—an intuitive flow—and lacking of the modernist grid’s stagnancy, they are almost anti-grid. There’s a release in breaking through the mathematical rigidity and establishing a new logic, and Zhang asks us to join her in letting go.

From William Lamson’s ‘Untitled (Infinity Camera).’

Behind the wall separating the brightly-lit room housing Zhang’s work and the darkened space containing Lamson’s, the destabilized grid—though less obvious—reappears in his video installation “Untitled (Infinity Camera),” projected onto a looming screen installed diagonally in the middle of the floor. In the video, the grid’s lines are drawn by the edges of Lamson’s self-fashioned optical device, “an open sided chamber of one way mirrors that can be configured in various ways in relation to the video camera.” The rig flows partially submerged up and down the waterways around New York City, holding the camera just above the water’s gently undulating surface as the device’s reflective sides reveal opposite views of the landscape as it floats past. At one point, a trio in a canoe pass our view, returning a curious gaze.

In some shots, the view from the rig’s interior is fairly clear—it looks like we’re inside a kaleidoscopic box, water lapping and bubbling at its sides. There’s a simultaneous sense of interiority and exteriority, like we’re in a glass house, as we look out onto the angled views of the rippling tides, trees, distant buildings, the glow of the setting sun. In others shots, the rig is reconfigured, and the effect is more like an infinite series of concentric frames-within-frames. In any case, the video is quick to entrance, though the sharp shifts in perspective every few minutes keeps the viewer alert and aware.

In a far corner of the gallery is a smaller screen hanging just below eye level, illuminated with another Lamson film wherein the camera follows a wrinkled sheet of silver mylar racing forward in a desert landscape, grazing the dry, cracked ground like a metallic tumbleweed. What exactly is propelling the object forward is unclear and, it seems, irrelevant—again, we’re seduced into a relaxed focus of the scene, its motion, the way the light hits at one moment and then another, a glimpse of the surrounding mountains when the shot moves just slightly upward.

“Retreat” comes at a time when artist-run warehouse spaces similar to (and nearby) Area 405 are under threat of being inspected and shuttered by the city. In the wake of the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, Calif. that killed 36 people last year, the Bell Foundry (just a few blocks away from 405) was abruptly condemned and its tenants immediately evicted, their living, work, and performance space deemed unsafe by the fire department. But many of the building’s tenants and visitors valued the Bell as the closest possible thing to that seemingly impossible ideal of a “safe space”—in this case, where POC and queer folks could feel welcome and free to make and experience art away from whiteness and insularity of the DIY-scene-at-large, where racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and harassment were explicitly not tolerated. People went to the Bell Foundry to retreat.

With the Bell mostly empty (the Baltimore Rock Opera society still holds its headquarters there, but over 200 days after the listing was first posted, the building is still on the market for $1 million) and other warehouse spaces forced to hold fewer or zero events in fears of getting shut down, a show framed as a retreat into a space like Area 405 holds an irrefutable weight. Nowhere in the exhibition description or the work itself is an explicit objective to create a “safer space” like the Bell Foundry was, or really a community of any kind. The show instead offers an escape into ourselves—and sometimes that’s all we have.

Retreat” continues at Area 405 (405 E. Oliver St.) through Jan. 13, 2018. There will be an artist talk on Dec. 10 at 2 p.m.

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