To discover in the analysis of the small individual moment the crystal of the total event. —Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

Undone dances in the dialectics of abstraction. The handmade is the song that sets the objects from this group exhibition of mostly new work from seven artists in motion; yet it is abstraction that keeps them moving as if in unison.

The title of Erika DeFreitas’ series of six elegant, plaintive embroideries, So buried in it that we only see the problem pulled out in abstractions, associates abstraction with withdrawal. For “we only see the problem” in parts. The abundance of negative space motivates us to step closer and examine the individual images. When we do, we see that what looked like model mountains or various versions of a shirt crumpled in a bedroom corner are dead bodies beneath winding-sheets. If we could identify these bodies maybe we could identify “the problem.” Or does the unnamed “it” necessarily limit our field of vision to the abstract violence of spectacle?

Several newer works in the exhibition likewise objectify abstraction. Adriana Kuiper and Ryan Suter’s dynamic multidisciplinary set pieces—Cover Series I and Cover Series II—seem designed to stage the absorption of sound. They capture a process by isolating its elements. Nineteen foam acoustic panels rise up, towering beside a video screen perched on a sideways speaker in Cover Series II. An amplifier teeters on the screen, muffled by a soundproofing blanket that could be from the same set as the ones hanging on the wall—background silencers. These are not “cover” songs, then, but forms covered in the absence of sound.

Andrea Mortson’s verdant collages and Tara K. Wells’ vibrant fabric flows are eerie, scenes abstracted from motion. We pause on unease. Distressing doubles lurk in the forest and studio scenes that define Mortson’s collages, while a red hazard flag flaps in one of Wells’ nautical Stacks. The storm keeps arriving. Where does it keep coming from? Could it be that the very ambience of crisis, like the broken mirror in Mortson’s Holding Pattern, obscures its origins?

Roula Partheniou, Untitled (Post Its) (2022), Wood, acrylic. (Photo courtesy Owens Art Gallery)

But abstraction is not only a property that can be assigned to the works in Undone; it is also a method whose critical potential they exemplify. What happens to office supplies when the supply is abstracted from the office? Roula Partheniou’s deceptively simple fabrications of labels and post-its provide an answer. We may only think we recognize them. A line of 11 neon post-it assemblages resembles miniature shipping containers, and Various Small Labels #5 is composed of familiar circular and rectangular labels made less familiar by their liberation from use. But the users, which in this case could mean the hypothetical white-collar workers attaching the labels and post-its, remain trapped within the lived abstraction, or alienation, of having to produce more and more for less and less. Partheniou’s supplies look back at us through an ever-expanding work process.

Critically positioned within this abstract, alienating system, objects are never static; they are always relations. Ursula Johnson’s three intricate black ash and sweetgrass baskets gather an interaction of the traditional and non-traditional through the practice of basket weaving. This practice was passed down to Johnson by her great-grandmother, the Mi’kmaq elder and basket maker Caroline Gould. Johnson’s Non-Traditional Mi’kmaq Fascinator thus expresses a deep, moving cultural attachment. The title aptly cites the cultural and historical referent, transforming the basket into a peaked hat, lying flat atop a stark white pedestal. The second basket’s title, Post-Colonial Lens, is more playful, seeming to invoke a distance between concept and object.

Ursula Johnson L to R:, Non-Traditional Mi’kmaq Fascinator (2010) Post-Colonial Lens (2010) Awije’jk (2010) Ash baskets. (Photo courtesy Owens Art Gallery)

Abstraction is a lens for discovering “the crystal of the total event,” to quote my epigraph from Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project. Benjamin’s unfinished magnum opus measures the capacity of objects of nineteenth-century bourgeois life to awaken his generation from the nightmarish history of fascism. Such an awakening is admittedly too high a bar to set for any contemporary art exhibition, but there are glimmers of Benjamin’s ambition for abstraction here: analyzing the part allows us to comprehend the whole, i.e., a constantly shifting, interconnected social reality.

Perhaps what Undone does best is to evoke the intimacies of abstraction—of being separated together.