Alexis Petroff’s sometimes showy, sometimes spare mixed-medium sculptures can be playful wall-size constructions with a theatrical flair or smaller pieces with a delicate, even fragile, simplicity. Both belong to his seven-year-long “Floating Drawing” series, 12 examples of which appeared in this compact solo show. Born in France, Petroff came to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to study in 1985, and he has remained in the city. His basic building blocks consist of molded paper forms—boxes and gouache-painted tubes (the latter emanating from a multistep process that begins with wet paper strips being wrapped around rope)—along with suspended translucent muslin and silk panels. All are held together with fastidiously bent and tied wires.
Though not revolutionary, the abstract wall works on view—each titled Floating Drawing, followed by a number—offered a wrinkle on artists’ longstanding efforts to blur the distinction between painting and sculpture. In the larger pieces, such as No. 1 (63 by 96 by 12 inches), Petroff creates an open curtain of loosely interconnected, multicolored sculptural lines and forms that hang from a rod 7 inches from the wall. Such elements appear to float in space, presumably giving rise to the series title. No. 4 features a muslin backdrop with appliquéd silk abstract shapes that echo those in the exuberant three-dimensional composition hanging in front. The three suspended layers in No. 2 (65 by 96 by 12 inches) function much like the rows of scenic drops on a theatrical stage, giving this semi-abstracted landscape a sense of both real and illusionistic depth. A blue-and-white scrim suggesting clouds hangs behind the front curtain of 3-D flora and branchlike forms; behind is a back layer of other three-dimensional forms.
Though the smaller constructions have elements in common with their bigger counterparts, they are more overtly sculptural in feel and more minimal in look and structure. No. 12 (18 by 28 by 3½ inches), for example, consists of two dark-gray, paper-wrapped wires that cross in the shape of an X; each then extends horizontally to the right. From the top extension hangs a tiny rectangle of gold-tinted silk. It is a clean, economical and striking piece. Others are more complex, such as No. 11 (22 by 34 by 3 inches), which features two overlapping sets of thin, paper-wrapped wires that swish and swirl in an intuitive pattern.
Perhaps the most subtle work in the show was the three-layered No. 21 (18 by 18 by 4½ inches), which presents a single wire line jutting downward at a slight angle. The focus is a brown-tinted muslin panel that forms a hazy window onto a similarly sized square of white muslin. But in what Petroff has described to me as a riff on Kazimir Malevich, the two squares are tilted very slightly in opposing directions, giving the composition an added complexity. This is just one way that Petroff uses an exacting craftsmanship and geometric sensibility to unleash his work’s whimsical spirit and compositional freedom.