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Matt Saunders At The Renaissance Society

By Ben Schuman Stoler in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 3, 2010 6:40PM

Matt Saunders, Passageworks, 2010, still from animation
We’ll just come out and say it, cliché and all: Berlin artist Matt Saunders’ exhibition Parallel Plot at The University of Chicago’s The Renaissance Society is one of those rare displays of an artist who manages to successfully convey ideas through a smart, graceful, and meaningful convergence of form and function.

Saunders creates images with small ink on mylar and uses that mylar as a negative to create a photographic print (his original image is made backwards). Like Andy Warhol’s prints, the comment is first of all on the ways in which images are produced, conveyed, and received, and secondly, on what role a medium plays in images’ production, conveyance, and reception.

But unlike Warhol, Saunders is not interested in images of mass consumption or pop culture. Instead, he’s interested in the way images are formed in the mind, that is, how our minds recognize images. Objects in the exhibition’s rotoscopic animation videos (which are essentially looped series of his prints), like “Passage Work” (above), form as recognizable images slowly, slowly, and then at once—a bicycle wheel, two bicycle wheels, people riding on a street—it hits you.

Besides cyclists, Saunders turns to traditional subjects of painting like landscapes or portraits. The woman in most of this exhibition’s prints is Hertha Thiele, a German actress who was famous in the 1930s for Madchen in Uniform (1931), among other films, but who was blacklisted by the Nazis. She subsequently disappeared from public sight and memory until rediscovered in the 1960s shortly before her death.

Her biography represents an external, real-life example of the kind of internal image recognition that Saunders is interested in. Many viewers in the 1960s surely recognized her from somewhere, struggled to place her in their memory, and then…ah yes. The way Saunders teases out collective cultural memory from viewers is different from the way Warhol used pop culture recognition because the images in Saunders work is seated deeper in the mind, the subjects are less pertinent.

The prints are photographic, sure, but they have what can only be described as a painterly texture. Along with tape on some of the prints, you can discern brush strokes. Again, the medium is important. You could say the painterly texture comes from the same kind of cultural memory the images come from, or you could interpret it as overlapping methods presenting the same image.

Either way, Saunders’ implicit discussion of image recognition is nothing if not thought provoking when combined with the print technique. It might make you think about your cognitive processes in a new way, and that’s more than enough to make this exhibition worth seeing.

Parallel Plot is on display until April 11.

The Renaissance Society is open Tuesday-Friday from 10-5, and Saturday-Saturday 12-5 and is located at 5811 S Ellis Avenue, Bergman Gallery, Cobb Hall 418