First impressions help to define our interactions with people and things. Usually, first impressions guide a person as to how a relationship (whether personal or professional) will progress. For example, if I wear sweatpants and a sweatshirt to a job interview, chances are I won’t be getting that job. This being said, my first impression of Deb Sokolow’s show was a bit off the mark. Sokolow’s abstract collage works rely heavily on narrative for their impact. This is not a show one can comprehend at first glance.
Entering the room, I was taken aback by the stark presentation. Her works are simple, two-dimensional collages composed largely of graphite on paper and incorporating other materials (such as correction fluid). Running along the back wall is her largest piece, from which the show gets its name, “All Your Vulnerabilities Will Be Assessed.” I saved this one for last, and I recommend that you do so as well. Along the shorter side walls are smaller pieces. In the center of the room hulks a mysterious table topped with something lumpy, covered with a black cloth.
The pieces along the shorter walls focus on the details of various successful art heists executed by a mysterious organization called “The Association.” For these works, Sokolow speculates on the coordination and execution of various art heists conducted by the Nazis during World War II. I remember school textbooks touching briefly on the subject in World History class, but did not realize the extent to which art looting reached. It seems that Sokolow has done her research. The collage focusing on the heist of the Amber Room, one of the most notable art heists in history, was hard to believe. She explains that 27 crates containing the disassembled Amber Room were shipped to a clandestine location she refers to as “The Mountain,” and have not been seen since. [Ed. note, see Roberta’s review of the documentary film, The Rape of Europa, which is an account of the Nazi art heist.]
The artist’s large narrative, “All Your Vulnerabilities Will Be Assessed,” is a real treat and nicely ties the show together. The narrative opens the story on a strange scene. Sokolow states, “You are not supposed to be seeing this.” Someone is poisoning all of the food in her cabin with a syringe and notes that he must be a “first-time poisoner” because he is markedly nervous. She rewinds and explains through second person narrative (“you” become the paranoid, self-deprecatory narrator participating in a strange plot) that she and a group of artists have been selected for an artists’ retreat in a secluded mountain region of Norway. We soon find out that the retreat is sponsored by “The Association,” and that the artists have been selected, not for their talent, but because they all are employed as museum security guards. The Association subjects the artists to grueling psychological tests and promises fame in the art world for those who help to carry out their schemes.
The Association program director warns the participants not to interfere with the local trolls. The narrator incredulously wonders whether he is serious. An artist approaches the narrator asking whether she has ever had a Philly cheese steak, to which she replies that they’re not really traditional in Chicago. He then explains that he has a plan to hunt down the local trolls and ship the poor trolls back home to be used for cheese steak meat. As if things weren’t weird before, they continue to get weirder. The narrative then returns to the time of the poisoning. “We” hear a noise in the kitchen. Upon investigation we discover our troll-cheese-steak-inventor in the kitchen poisoning the food.
In the narrative, there is a description of a strange, bulging mass covered with a cloth on the table. The poisoner explains to the narrator that the bulk is his first troll kill and that he could get at least 100 cheese steaks from all that meat! The narrator remembers Olga, the artist who chose to leave early. She thinks that the body looks too small to be a troll. He is holding a knife in his hands and the narrator thinks that it is nowhere near the size of the knife she is holding… And this is where our story ends.
A quick glimpse at Sokolow’s other works reveals that she is deeply intrigued by conspiracy theory. The lens of silliness through which she perceives these theories is highly entertaining. Sokolow’s aesthetic choices are very clever; she “redacts” mistakes with blacked-out blocks as one would expect to find in a classified dossier. She also writes in smaller quips and thoughts under the larger text so the viewer is forced to investigate the piece closely to catch all of the whimsical detail. I also enjoyed the inclusion of her abstract drawings and paintings, which helped to illustrate the scene without giving too much away. The overall result is a rough-edged sketchy feel of an amateur detective’s notebook.
As I’m thinking about it, I’m not sure if I’m telling the story correctly. I should make it clear that there is so much detail, so much obsessive/ neurotic thought behind these simple works that it’s difficult to remember where it began and where it ended. I also think this may be an intended effect. These pieces hold all the excitement of airport thriller novels partnered with a thorough dose of research and a highly creative imagination. A visit to Sokolow’s show would be a great remix on the traditional dinner-and-a-movie Saturday night.
Deb Sokolow’s All Your Vulnerabilities Will Be Assessed will be on display at Moore College of Art and Design‘s Levy Gallery until December 8, 2012.