Elza Sīle at kim? Contemporary Art Centre

Browsing through fat editions of the Latvian Soviet Encyclopedia as a child, Elza Sīle felt something like a psychedelic experience as patterns began to emerge from this analogue, alphabetically organized Wikipedia: a ten-volume project undertaken in the 1980s whose outsize aspirations to universal knowledge fell prey to the distortions of state ideology. A work of fiction as much as fact, its thousands of articles, maps, and illustrations of nature, anatomy, and apparatchiks serve as the inspiration behind “Bi-Dža, Ge-Ilk, Mir-Nul,” the Latvian-born, Zurich-based artist’s enigmatic first exhibition in Riga.

Taking a material approach, the artist squeezes thick lines and dots of paint directly from tubes onto the canvas, texturing her abstractions further with pieces of plastic, gelatin, and tiny metal sticks assembled in fragile support structures to hold photographs cut from the encyclopedia. Sīle’s formal experiments, whose built-up picture planes sometimes seem to double as architectural models or military stratagems, resist direct readings, creating space instead for an associative richness. The muted, stretched-leather supports of her chamfered “Bi-Dža” paintings, for example, vaguely evoke the industrial doors of Soviet housing blocks or, from a distance, the tufted upholstery of a psychoanalyst’s couch. With a light touch, the artist has enmeshed portraits of Soviet bureaucrats in layers of oil paint, acrylic, and glitter; they look absurd. Elsewhere, a group of floorbound paintings-cum-objects on aluminum plates, titled “Ge-Ilk” and propped up by elegant weblike constructions, bring to mind street signs or riot shields. For “Mir-Nul,” canvases have been wrapped around sticks, like some kind of a skin, and hung them on the wall. Throughout, Sīle slyly deconstructs grand ideological narratives and the language of her medium in one go, her bibliographic source material finding new forms while retaining a paradoxical sense of cosmic order and illegibility.

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