Devening Projects is pleased to present our second summer Cabinet exhibition showcasing Chicago artist Clay Mahn. Clay has shown most recently at Paris London Hong Kong, our satellite gallery project, and at Gallery Weekend Chicago Expanded at Mana Contemporary in 2017. Softer Thoughts, his first solo show at Devening Projects features a new series of paintings and an ambitious installation of recent sculpture.
As a painter, Clay has consistently reduced his pictorial concerns to draw attention to the subtle elements of surface, edge and structure. In his mostly monochromatic canvases and panels, there are always compositional decisions that keep the work well within a figure/ground conversation, but those assumptions about object and space are always put into question. It seems that like many artists engaged with Modernism, the notion of pure matter and painting is only a starting point from which to consider so many other aspects of painting’s topology. One recognizes his interest in framing and boundaries as a way to both reiterate the picture plane and to reference other devices that focus perception. Windows, picture frames, textual margins are elements used by this artist to organize and subvert the trusted stability of the rectangle. There may be a comforting sense of order and logic in Clay Mahn’s paintings but they still willfully resist stasis to remain flexible and nimble.
In his new paintings for Softer Thoughts, a highly charged palette is brought into play to heighten the opticality of the work and to ask new questions about associative color. We see references to landscape—particularly sunrises/sunsets—that are almost clichéd in their allusion to familiar tropes in painting, but like all of his work, the read is not at all that simple. The landscapes may be conjured by the simplest of designs, but in this new work, they’re physically present, produced with intense solid hues with pigments pulled directly across the canvas surface. This work may endear us with a sense of longing for pictures that connect to memory, but that nostalgia is quickly subverted with the aggressiveness of the color and the physicality of the material. The paintings may frame a familiar scene, but what we actually experience is what we can excavate by looking and by feeling rather than what might be assumed.
Bringing his ideas about material, form and schematics to sculpture and installation, Clay stages his newest concrete sculptures within a context of both modeling and theater. All the concrete forms here were developed carefully at a minor scale before being enlarged to the sizes we see in this exhibition. The small versions allowed him to easily play with placement, scale and order; the fully realized sculptures manifest the significance of weight, mass, volume and surface.
His paintings are contextualized through “ground” and space; these heavy concrete objects become the “figures” playing roles within the setting of the gallery. They’re both playful and ponderous; there is an innocence of form—like a giant’s broken toys—and they’re also the ruins remaining from the fall of some mysterious culture. These objects are both occupying and activating the rooms in the gallery and allow his audience to interact, move through and around; they ask to be moved, stacked and reorganized. Unlike the paintings that so successfully hold us in place, the sculptures create a field of movement driven by curiosity to know more about their purpose and history. The way the paintings and the floor installation create a panoramic totality is one of the many engaging elements of this ambitious exhibition.
Clay Mahn was born in Missoula, MT and received his BFA from the University of Montana in 2012 and his MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2017. In addition to his shows at Paris London Hong Kong and Expanded, some other recent exhibitions include Bad Habits at False Front in Portland, OR; Left, Right, Left at TW Fine Art in Brisbane, Australia and a two-person exhibit at PULSE Miami Beach with photographer Ryan James MacFarland.