There’s an unmistakable physicality in Minneapolis artist Jennifer Nevitt’s solo exhibition “Sans Terre,” now on view at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
It begins with the olfactory. The scent of freshly chopped cedar lingers in the air from the literal framework of this exhibit: hand-built, rack-like wooden structures, arrayed in the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP) project space. Some are draped with gigantic shrouds made from locally sourced and Icelandic wool. Others hold large slices of hand-dyed parchment paper, or delicate aluminum leaves.
Nevitt and her curator have provided no text to help interpret the works, other than a brief paragraph at the beginning of the exhibition (whose title is a French term for a person who is landless). Instead, the tactility of the art — the inviting softness of the shrouds, the silky touch of the aluminum leaves — grounds the exhibition in a way that a detailed, wordy explanation could not.
To understand these pieces, viewers must interact with them. In Nevitt’s world, the objects rule.
Arrays of sculptures are grouped together in a way that is reminiscent of bodies gathered in a space — but there’s something missing, namely the body. Still, there is an intense focus on the material in a way reminiscent of the artist Kiki Smith.
“Passages” (2017) is an arrangement of five cedar and concrete structures from which hang a series of thick, wool shawls dyed pink, blueish-gray or black, arranged in formation, with one in one row, three in a second row and two in another row, like an awkward hopscotch game. They look a bit like scarves put out to dry after a hard day of getting soaked by the rain-turned-to-snow Minnesota weather.
A bevy of aluminum leaves hangs from “Sentinel,” recalling a work by the late conceptual artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) Both pieces suggest how an object can stand in for the body, and how that object can easily be separated from the structure. In the case of Gonzalez-Torres, he created a pile of individually wrapped candies that weigh 175 pounds — the ideal body weight of his lover Ross, who died of AIDS-related illness in 1991. The viewer is invited to take a piece of candy until they all are gone.
Similarly, “Sentinel” is suggestive of a body losing something — weight, skin, hair, perhaps? — but in a way that is unpredictable, rather than being offered up as in Gonzalez-Torres’ piece. Sometimes the leaves fall to the ground; they are not secured too tightly, which is, of course, the point. I found myself stepping on ones that had fallen, wondering if they were for the taking — and if I could carry away part of this stand-in for the body with me as I left the gallery.
In another corner of the exhibition space, “Lighthouse” is an arrangement of hand-dyed pink parchment paper — one piece hangs off a wooden structure, like a long roll of pink Hubba Bubba bubble gum tape, but again made giant. Pieces of the paper in various shades of pink (not shades of gray) are arranged on a wall, gently connecting and overlapping.
In the front room is a piece called “Signals,” an abstract reference to the signal flags used by sailors and the Coast Guard when other types of communication aren’t working. This piece starts and ends the show — the viewer has to pass it either way.
That’s ironic, since the purposely incomplete-looking nature of these works makes it feel that the show is constantly ending and beginning — almost as if you’ve walked onto a movie set where they haven’t started shooting the show yet, but the objects are still there, waiting.