The use of discarded objects as coveted material in works of art is hardly uncommon. The likes of Mike Kelly and Shinique Smith quickly come to mind as some of the stalwarts of this transformative technique. What distinguishes these works is the kind of detritus used to alter one’s perception—especially in the case of entire canvases constructed from castaway circuit boards and electronic components that display enormous ingeniousness in their composition.
Such are the works in Ethiopian artist Elias Sime’s first solo exhibition at the James Cohan Gallery, New York. Fueled by his interest in global interconnectedness and technology, the artist’s large and most compelling structures on panels are composed from years of accumulating and sorting computer scraps that are put together to resemble birds-eye-views of elaborate architectural boards for city planners. What appears from afar to be viable prototypes of high-rise buildings and houses, roadways and agricultural swaths of land, are, in fact, on closer inspection, intricately combined computer circuits.
Works from Sime’s Tightrope series, built between 2009-14, draw one’s attention right away. The detritus, particularly in this series, becomes the artist’s painterly tools. Like an assorted palette of pigments, computer fragments of red, green, rust, and brown are placed together to resemble an urban landscape painting. For instance, in Tightrope 8, 2009-14, patches of turquoise green boards dotted with silver metal bits are placed next to large sections of harvest rust rectangular strips fitted with brown batteries and electric connections. Cherry red cylindrical and trapezoid configurations approximating a high tech commercial ship abut the panel. Seen together these meticulously assembled pieces of computer scrap morph into an extended urban metropolis with a busy harbor that points to a city that is congested, lacks space, and seems compressed. Sime’s metaphorical symbols become important signifiers of his take on technology and the fast transforming condition of countries outside the western world.
Tightrope 3, 2009-14, formed on a glossy black fiberglass background configures an industrial project on a reclaimed dark lava base. Here, dull gold electronic components are inventively fixed with nuts, bolts, batteries, and wire to evoke narratives about industrial design and planning. These wasted collectibles easily stand in for water tanks, manufacturing materials, electric poles, and varied other parts that are integral to a production site. Like a vast floating city, this contrasting gold and black relief is reminiscent of the Russian Constructivist sculptures of the early 20th century.
But most significantly, Sime’s use of grids in the Tightrope series places him quite squarely in the modernist trajectory. More than his use of technological by products, his application of the grid in almost all the works is emblematic of the “spatial constructions,” of the Russian Constructivists that were models of socialist urban spaces. In Tightrope 7, 2009-14, for example, the largest piece in the exhibition that occupies two adjacent walls, Sime’s painterly sculpture becomes a spatial map of a well-planned city. Its distinct three-dimensional scope makes it relevant to the discourse of artists like Tatlin who were very interested in structures, architecture, and the three-dimensionality of art.
Ye the appeal and complexity of the Tightrope series does not extend to the Ants and Ceramicists series, or Tightrope 5.1, and Tightrope 5.2, 2009-14. Here lacking in the scope of the electronic works, these two-dimensional forms designed with yarn stitch on canvas and wires speak to Sime’s skill as a master craftsman. Beautiful in their abstract designs and combination of vibrant colors, the crafted series appear to be more decorative compared to the rich intellectual and visual possibilities of its counterpart.
Elias Sime at James Cohan Gallery
533 West 26th Street New York NY 10001
SEPTEMBER 10 – OCTOBER 17, 2015
Article by Bansie Vasvani
Photographs provided by the gallery and the artist