The Power of Suggestion: Rhonda Wheatleyby William Corwin
HYDE PARK ART CENTER, CHICAGO | FEBRUARY 12 – MAY 7, 2017
Matter-of-fact trickery is evident in Rhonda Wheatley’s solo exhibition A Modern Day Shaman’s Hybrid Devices, Power Objects, and Cure Books at the Hyde Park Art Center. Wheatley’s wit and aesthetic resourcefulness emerge from her ability to bestow archaic knob- and dial-covered radios, mannequin hands, and even the odd plastic houseplant with the aura of the uncanny. While, for the most part, far from extraordinary totems in their own right (rite), her collected assortment of retro foreign objects lack banality, largely predicated on the fact that they are unfamiliar though recognizable.
Similar to an Egyptian New Kingdom serpentine Horus—a versatile 3000-year-old oracle who may have assisted in everything from matters of state to real estate disputes employing an ancient hidden megaphone—blocks away at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, Wheatley’s apparati have distinctly contemporary uses: according to the label, her Life Review Device (2017) “uplifts users from depression and despair, triggering a life re-boot.” This seemingly trance-inducing, energizing object is composed of a pile of three clock radios topped with a TV antennae and a chunk of pale pink quartz. A portable turntable, two movie cameras, some snakeskin, plastic spider plants, and oversized earphones become the Post-Traumatic Soul Restoration and Brain Rewiring Device (2017). With childish glee, the artist suspends sets of signifiers in front of the viewer, many of which have obvious symbolic connotations: clock faces, number-sequences, crystals, and the organic geometries of sloughed skins and shells. Other forms are a bit more insidious—the ubiquitous rabbit ears antennae have faded from memory for many viewers and take on a dusty, misty watercolor aura. Is it our own sense of aging that lends these objects power, or a nostalgia for outdated technology?
It is the artist’s recognition of the age-old ritual purpose of consistent button-pushing that makes Wheatley’s sculptures, drawings, and books so effective. It is impossible to gauge the level of sincerity throughout—works seem to ride a hazy border between tongue-and-cheek and a desperate hopefulness—but belief, by the artist or the viewer, is really not the objective of Wheatley’s talismans. Anyone who has drowsily watched an episode of “Ancient Aliens” on the History Channel, or leafed through a glossy book in the New Age section of Barnes and Noble, is aware of the seductive imagery of crystals and fractals, and of the primal human desire to tune out obvious answers for completely irrational solutions.
At the center of the exhibition is a plinth laid out with mason jars and bottles of varying sizes, filled with bones and bits of moss, colorful sands, and desiccated objects. Elixir Stills and Cure Bottles (2017) offers salvation through merely looking; but the “gazing must be 100% voluntary”—thus insisting on belief as cure. Other works seek to stabilize the dissonance of their multifarious mediums—for example lacquered mannequin hand/crystal hybrids lose some of the excitement and paradox of the disjunction of the objects, and are a bit too sleek. By forcing a greater level of finish on the piece they lose the “dumbness” of that ancient Egyptian talking bird, the obvious impossibility of the whole assemblage that offers room for the miraculous.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are the Cure Books (numbered 1, 2, and 3, all 2017), rich confections of origami-like folded pages and carefully illuminated Kabbalistic diagrams built atop vintage math textbooks. Offered in these books are not the simple proofs and algebraic solutions to rational problems, but rather alternative truths—colorful, mysterious rubrics for analyzing emotional well-being and sorting out life-problems. These books and hybrid devices are about the mirage of authority; whether there is magic or spirituality is largely irrelevant. From the titles the artist bestows on her works, we can tell she means business—these pieces are meant to solve problems—and I believe she is sincere in this aim. The efficacy of the emotional poultice they offer is determined by whether we are convinced by the voice offering us the answer. Whether it emerges from the golden beak of Horus, or the speaker of a Sears clock radio, doesn’t really make a difference.