Rowan Fulton on Alex Ebstein: Plastic Images at Goucher’s Rosenberg Gallery
In Plastic Images, currently on view at the Rosenberg Gallery of Goucher College, Alex Ebstein, herself a graduate of Goucher with an MFA from Towson, displays a recent body of work, comprised of large and small-scale collages which utilize PVC yoga mats, acrylic paint, and other materials to articulate colorful abstractions. Joyful and deftly-composed, these works don’t quite know yet what they are saying, although they speak beautifully.
The incorporation of cut pieces of PVC yoga mats as an art material is easily the most surprising thing about this show. While a casual viewer entering the gallery space might not immediately recognize the material, Ebstein seems to be using it as a selling point of the show, and even alludes to it in the title. For an offbeat collage medium, it is integrated rather well, at least formally. Yoga mats, which are flexible yet sturdy, come in a wide variety of vibrant synthetic colors, and offer a bumpy, gridded texture, enable Ebstein to compose globular shapes within clean, hard-edged planes, while playing with unexpected color relationships. Formally, these works have a lot in common with modernist collage and in particular the shapes and vibrant colors unbound to observation which are present in the cut paper work of Matisse.
My only formal criticism is with craftsmanship–the cut edges of the PVC material are sharp and precise, which makes me wish that they abutted one another more seamlessly. Instead there are little gaps present between segments, occasional cutting missteps evident upon close inspection of the work which at times give the impression of a puzzle piece that does not quite fit. Moments like these could offer an opportunity to improve the physical presence of the works, but do not distract terribly. In general, Ebstein demonstrates an eloquence with shape and color, and these compositions are a pleasure to encounter.
Despite working successfully on a formal level, however, the material of a yoga mat carries substantial symbolic weight, and I am not sure Ebstein is entirely up to the task of carrying it. The majority of viewers who will be able to identify the material as yoga mats are contending with the automatic associations of pop fitness and the very particular experience of doing yoga on a mat, and perhaps even with throwaway culture (PVC, after all, is a non- biodegradable plastic often associated with consumer demand for cheap, durable goods). These could both be interesting areas of contemporary existence to explore, but I’m not convinced that Ebstein’s work is truly about either of them.
The closest she gets to addressing these issues are in the larger works, such as “Tiered Arrangement”, which utilize the format of two mats laid side-by-side (72”x48”) as a compositional jumping-off point. Confident and banner-like, these pieces take steps towards embracing the identity of the medium, and make use of the playful notion of “couples yoga” to both suggest a narrative and strategically compose the material. Still, given that Ebstein so deftly hides the yoga mats, displaying them on a wall, framed, rather than on the floor or even rolled up, I feel it is reasonable to assume that their identity is largely irrelevant to the content of the work.
On the other hand, I find much more meat in the artist’s interest in exploring visual perception through abstraction. Ebstein cites an interest in visual perception rooted in personal experiences with the deterioration of eyesight and dependence on corrective lenses, and this is supported well by the incorporation of just-barely identifiable shapes and spaces. The viewer is given just enough hints to discern that these images are derived from life (a floating circle to indicate the head of a figure, a tiny embroidered grid for a window, etc). Given this haziness of form, the geometric divisions of space and the artificial colors, Ebstein’s scenes come across as interiors which border waking and sleep, moments when visual stimuli begin to materialize, before we are able to discern their meaning, or right at the moment at which they fade to nothing. This lends a dreamlike quality to the collages which elevates them from being simple attractive formal objects.
All in all, Plastic Images is a purely fun show which demonstrates evidence of an inquisitive formalist exploring an innovative means to an end. It is historically conscious enough to be safe, and yet flirts just enough with unconventionality to stand on its own feet. Plastic Images will be on view through August 31, in the Rosenberg Gallery of Goucher College, which is open to the public Monday through Friday, from 9am to 5pm.
Author Rowan Fulton is a Baltimore-based artist and writer.