On the evening of September 4th, the air was fresh and the streets were humming with curious excitement as the skies over New York City transitioned from a balmy peach to a soothing plumb, marking dusk. Galleries in and around the Lower East Side opened their doors and invited the public in for the first glimpse of their Fall programming. Eager crowds comprised of artists, collectors, academics, and supporters alike participated in the tradition of gallery hopping and contributed to a jovial atmosphere in the galleries and on the street. Halfway through a list of must-see shows, my feet led me to signs and symbols on Forsyth Street. Although signs and symbols moved to the brick and mortar location slightly over a year ago, this was my first time visiting the space. The allure of Sharon Louden and Hrag Vartanian’s’ collaborative installation, Origins, was no doubt the draw.
Louden and Vartanian are monolithic figures within the New York art-scene; creative individuals who each possess an extensive tracklist of contributions that have unquestionably shaped the dialogue of contemporary art. Louden is an ebullient powerhouse whose artistic practice informs her pursuits as an educator, advocate for the arts, editor of the ‘Living and Sustaining a Creative Life’ series of books, and her role as the Artistic Director of the Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution. While Vartanian’s work as a writer, editor, curator, and cultural generator is rooted at the crossroads where art and politics meet. As the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic, a beloved online publication for art and culture, Vartanian strives to provide an inclusive perspective on art in society as well as a platform for critical discourse. Needless to say, the collaboration between the dynamic duo piqued my interest.
A distinct cluster of art-goers milling about and chatting on the sidewalk signaled that I had arrived at the destination. After springing up a short set of steps I entered signs and symbols. The lighting in the main room was dim and auras of pink and lavender washed over the walls and bounced off of a multitude of reflective surfaces. People engaged in conversation mingled amid pink circular cushions, a faux fur rug, clear acrylic furniture, laser lights, and silver balloons collectively making the space appear as a waiting room for a truly epic slumber party. I was immediately drawn towards the back of the space where a defused bright light streamed out from behind a half wall. I timidly ducked around aluminum strips installed overhead and tiptoed through a floor of balloons secretly playing an unspoken game of “the artwork is lava”.
The backroom, a nook partitioned off from the front gallery, was made even tinier by Vartanian who suspended a series of drawings hung at eye-level in banner-like rows. The repetitive gestures contained within each drawing beckoned for closer inspection. However, to get there I first had to wade through a thigh-high cascade of silver balloons. I quickly realized that attempting to appreciate these works individually void of their maximalist environment was a fruitless venture and perhaps even a counterproductive method with which to approach this immersive installation. Loosening up I gleaned that Louden and Vartanian intend to induce giggles rather than reinforcing stringent gallery etiquette.
Moving forward with the understanding that nearly everything is touchable the viewer’s engagement with the space now seems paramount to give the work life. Louden confirmed that she and Vartanian intended to create a “joyous space” where visitors can spend time, “walking through, sitting, laying on the rugs while looking up and wondering.” The intent to implicate the viewer within the site-responsive installation aligns with the overall mission signs and symbols which considers itself a “curatorial platform and multi-disciplinary incubator that brings together diverse mediums.” In its concept, Origins requires footsteps to help disperse balloons, subtle motion or a brush with a shoulder to make the drawings sway and quiver, and most importantly the reflection of the viewer within the curved mirrored surfaces of the aluminum strips.
Considering that four hands and two minds undertook the making of this installation it was hard to pick out exactly who contributed what as many of the elements seemed either found or store-bought. One feature that distinguished Louden’s touch was the aforesaid strips of shiny industrial aluminum. Louden explained that for her the metallic surface “set up a frame for the environment” as it’s mirrored finish seductively twists and carves throughout the installation. Louden is admittedly infatuated with the material and has employed it in past work as a means to help, “ visually expand architectural spaces and to physically include people in the space by its mirrored-reflective quality.” Within the context of, Origins, it served to create a funhouse collage of ricocheted light and sheepish smiles.
The title of the immersive installations, Origins, points to the longterm working relationship and personal friendship between Vartanian and Louden. This is duo’s second iteration of Origins with the first being in 2018 at the Sharpe Wallentas Studio Program in Brooklyn. In Vartanian’s opinion, “the origin of art is rooted in relationships,” which can historically be seen as the human desire to capture memories and reflect upon experiences. For Louden this, “ iteration of ‘Origins’ at signs and symbols is centered in the present”, and focuses on inducing, “joy and intimacy.”
Origins is an I Spy smorgasbord of things and objects that send viewers on a quest in search of something, nothing, and everything. The invitation to participate and even play remains a rare subject even for the relatively open-minded audiences of New York. Somewhere in the transition into adulthood society teaches us all to compartmentalize our play or leave it behind altogether. Similarly, contemporary art can easily lend legitimacy to works that address serious topics and dense existential ponderings. Ultimately, Louden and Vartanian’s immersive installation calls upon viewers to check these hang-ups at the door and simply be present.
Sings and Symbols Gallery
102 Forsyth Street
New York, NY 10002
Wednesday – Sunday, 11:00am – 6:00pm