Sabina Ott began her career on the West Coast as a painter in the 1980s. But it didn’t take long for her work to extend off the canvas into sculpture, video and installation, often coming together in “environments that amplify sensations,” as she stated in a 1999 essay published on her website. Now a professor of art at Columbia College Chicago, the artist finds inspiration in a vast range of sources, from Expressionism and Surrealism to Gertrude Stein to artists as diverse as Odilon Redon, Cy Twombly and Gérard Fromanger.
At the Chicago Cultural Center, Ott has produced three distinct installations (or what she calls “mise-en-scènes”) loosely based on the three parts of Dante’s The Divine Comedy—Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise. The show’s title, “here and there pink melon joy” as well as the individually named works (all 2013 or ’14) are taken from Stein’s writings. Each room features a sound installation by musician and curator Joe Jeffers.
The first room, motivated by Dante’s account of hell, contains a grouping of mostly polystyrene and canvas works-on the walls and floor and hanging from the ceiling. Certain elements recur, including clocks, mirrors and grids. It was gold, it was radiant and reasonable, for instance, is a grille-like screen, roughly shaped of foam sprayed onto a mesh-drywall-tape armature. Three hanging pieces—including a kind of a one, a long, rectangular construction with a digital inkjet print on one side displaying eyes set against a kind of constellation background—hover over a sound installation featuring drums, music stands and speakers.
Arguably, the focal point of the exhibition is the second room—Purgatory—in which Ott, inspired by the panoramic views of Millennium Park from the gallery’s windows, attempts to bring the outdoors indoors. The centerpiece is having everything having been, her whimsical, largely white evocation of a giant fountain. Wispy pastel colors and a smattering of plants adorn the fountain, which consists of an irregularly carved, faceted rectangular pillar rising from what looks like a hollowed half-boulder that, in turn, rests on a circular pedestal. According to Ott, the accompanying audio installation was supposed to offer the sounds of running water, but it was not working the two times I visited the show. In addition, the artist said she had originally intended to have water flowing through the fountain but was forced to turn the pump off because of problems with “over-splash.” The lack of these elements detracted from the work’s overall impact.
The third room—Paradise—feels almost like it was conceived by a different artist, with its video projection of swirling, intersecting phrases taken from poets such as Dickinson, Rimbaud and Stein projected across one half of the gallery. A dozen circular mirrors reflect the moving words onto the opposite wall and floor, attended by bass-driven ambient music. Ott’s installation, titled to perceive the invisible joy in you, unfortunately does not have the all-encompassing feel of, say, a multi-projector digital surroundscape by Scottish artist Charles Sandison.
The exhibition is meant to be fanciful and fantastical. But rather than transporting viewers to a “receptive playful state”—as Ott wants it to do—it might leave them a bit befuddled as to how the disparate parts are meant to add up.