In Orbit: A Chicago aesthetic emerges in the NYC Group Show

“Microwave”, installation view, King’s Leap 2022

Is there a device more fascinating than the microwave? You load up an unassuming box, press a button, then step back and watch your softly lit scraps slowly swirl as they roar.

Something equally familiar and mysterious happens in “Microwave,” presented at King’s Leap in New York. Curated by HG Gallery Chicago founder Peter Anastos, “Microwave” features the work of Laura Davis, Mindy Rose Schwartz, Steve Reber and John Henley. These four Chicago artists emerged in the 90s and have remained in each other’s orbits as friends, studio neighbors and SAIC teachers. With the kind of ingenuity reflected in many of the works themselves (after all, Anastos studied with Davis, Reber and Henley), the exhibition offers succinct summaries of each artist’s individual program, while revealing curious associations between them.

Laura Davis’ sculptures incorporate both found and handmade elements whose interactions engage the eye as much as the unconscious. Mindy Rose Schwartz’s works refer to decorative household objects and exude a supernatural aura bestowed by her consultations with an astrologer. Steve Reber seems deeply interested in the formal aspects of sculpture (scale, perspective, material), but at the same time resists formality with the inclusion of playful elements. John Henley’s vertically composed works on paper are populated by male figures performing mundane tasks, with references that range widely from Buddhist landscapes to imagist figuration.

“Microwave”, installation view, King’s Leap 2022

As distinctive as each artist’s work is, shared sensibilities emerge. For example, these serious artists have made some really fun works. Four oversized incense cones stand at the start of the show (“Jupiter Cones” by Schwartz). Bright colors and pointed shapes are reminiscent of wizards’ hats or garden gnomes, hailing onlookers like amusing sentinels. Spectators are invited to bend down to smell the cones and are rewarded with the scents of lavender, peppermint, lemongrass and sandalwood. Reber’s work “Mr. Koala” refers to Mies van der Rohe in the title, the simple geometry and the single-point perspective of the main form. From this shape springs a branch supporting the kitsch relief of a koala, eyelashes for days. The piece plays with flatness and depth and is a lovely send-off to the master of minimalist architecture. Henley’s work also undermines the heroic. In “Fluff and Fold”, male figures are arranged in elegant symmetry as they wash, dry and fold clothes. Zooming in on the details, the idealism gives way to funny outcroppings of hair, ironic facial expressions and plenty of underwear. Davis gives artistic creation a playful boost. In “Telescoped,” Davis includes the abandoned poster box of the late Chicago lawyer, art collector, and photographer Arnold Crane. Looking through the eyepiece, a viewer sees a crystalline reflection of their own eye. Looking into our own gaze becomes a contemplation of the narcissism of the art world.

As the kitchen appliance mentioned in the title of the exhibition signals, these artists share an interest in – and perhaps an anxiety for – domestic spaces and the rituals that take place there. Reber’s work references the shapes and materials of mid-century spaces, like the plywood vinyl in “Mr. Koala,” and the furniture-like components and pantry staple in “Sugar Lift.” As Anastos points out, the open frames in Reber’s work sometimes suggest altars, but the kitsch objects he includes resist respect.Schwartz’s sculptures, like the giant scorpions in “Dance of Love,” evoke a maximalist hippie setting. They arrived in King’s Leap through a “ceremony of good luck and protection on Friday, April 8, 2022 at 87w39, 41w51, Chicago, IL, USA,” which was performed with an astrologer. Schwartz made these works during the pandemic; does she look to the cosmos to deal with the terrifying transformations of domestic life from COVID? The figures in Henley’s paintings may also seek relief through ritual labors, but their faces don’t convince the viewer that it works. Davis’ “Marketing Ploy 2” features a miniature chalice with protruding pins, a ceremonial vessel made dangerous.

“Microwave”, installation view, King’s Leap 2022

“Microwave” is full of connections, puns and ironies. Davis’ “Telescoped” and Schwartz’s astrological pieces point to the stars. A fish and a chalice dangle like charms in “Marketing Ploy 2,” right in front of the gallery of Schwartz’s works during a recent charm ceremony. Reber’s geometric sculptures resonate with Henley’s geometric backgrounds. Optical illusions are part of the fun of Davis’ “Static Will” (are you looking at the outside cover or the inside text?) and “Mr. Koala.” How fitting that a show with so many top-down interactions is the first show to appear in King’s Leap’s expanded space, which now includes both a street level and a basement gallery. As Anastos pointed out, one layer of the show’s title sums it up nicely: it’s all microwaves, as in tiny gestures of connection. (Meg Reuland)

Meg Reuland would like to thank Peter Anastos, Alec Petty, Laura Davis and Mindy Rose Schwartz for their conversations on “Microwave”. “Microwave” plays at King’s Leap, 105 Henry, New York, New York, through June 26.

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