If you're like me, the title of Alyson Shotz's show at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Topologies, doesn't give you much idea what to expect. A panel on the gallery wall describes topology as "a branch of mathematics devoted to studying and mapping organic and continuous forms and defining space." Me, I'm still a bit confused, but that's not necessarily a reflection on Shotz's art.
A New Yorker in her early 40s, Shotz is not alone in contemporary art in her fascination with scientific and mathematical concepts. And just as political art must stand not only on its ideals but also on its visual impact, so must scientifically oriented art succeed as a visual experience and not just an illustration of a concept. Viewed in this light, Shotz mostly succeeds.
Some of her most intriguing works are the "Forced Bloom" series of large-scale prints, which present odd conglomerations of biological and topological forms. One can pick out bones, beads and cactuses, among other things. In an essay on Shotz available in the gallery, MMoCA curator Jane Simon links the "Forced Bloom" series to Monet's gardens at Giverny and Chinese landscape painting. Other associations these prints conjure up are both weirder and closer to home: I couldn't help but think of the bizarre chicken-bone thrones of Milwaukee outsider artist Eugene von Bruenchenhein. While their symmetry seems rational at first, Shotz's "Forced Blooms" are actually quite trippy and otherworldly, not unlike von Bruenchenhein's bone constructions.
Shotz's three-dimensional works play with vision and modes of seeing. "Arnolfini 360º x 12" is a configuration of 12 convex surveillance mirrors arranged where two walls meet. With their irresistible gleam and their positioning near the large picture window onto State Street, it's impossible not to get sucked into the maze of reflections upon reflections. Since the mirrors are installed so close together, they reflect not only the world of the gallery and the street, but also each other, creating a bubbling, multiplying effect. The result is an interactive commentary on watching and being watched that is playful rather than ominous.
Still fun but less benign is "Viewing Scopes," a cluster of 30 steel tubes installed with different lenses and pointing directly toward the State Street window. While it reminds one of the viewfinders at state parks, the act of looking at ordinary passersby with a muscular knot of 30 scopes seems slightly menacing (though the effect is probably unintentional). With the cold metal tubes tightly clustered, I thought not only of innocent things like telescopes but also of the chambers of a gun.
Some of Shotz's other work offers a kind of austere, clinical grace, with little to no color and purposely mundane materials, like the glass beads strung together and suspended from the gallery ceiling in "Allusion of Gravity," which recalls a web of capillaries or netting. While Shotz's art may be wonky and intellectual, it also has a way of pulling viewers in, as unassuming forms give way to a range of personal associations.