Art Papers

Published in ART PAPERS | May / June 2004 Issue
By: Tom Csaszar

Recent installation works address some combination of social, personal or perceptual issues.  MICHELLE OOSTERBAAN’s installations lean toward defining perceptual and spatial statements that underpin our social and personal views.  At the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (December 12, 2003 – February 1, 2004) she spread colored rectangles across the walls and floors to make deadpan statements whose drama is present but underplayed.  Her greatest success is the careful orchestration of the panels—which evoke place, not just personal stories about it –to include our social responses to these perceptions of space.  The limitation of working with these ideas is that the installation can seem to diagram our involvement with environment and color –or rooms and décor—rather than constructing or distilling an encounter with the world.

Oosterbaan’s now familiar wall drawings and site specific images and patterns make color palpable, and get us to use color to measure our experience of space. Her typical hues, in medium ranges of contrasting warm and cool colors, stay on the surface and a virtue of their flatness – or at least seem undisturbed by desires to approach or retreat.  Panels about an inch thick spread across the floor, allowing you to walk on them: lined up rectangles in two side-by-side touching rows here, and another two over there.  They empty the space more than they fill it, by separating your perceptions of it into measured areas.  The work invites you to notice how you interact the colors, following them across the floor and up the wall to the ceiling and repeating your observations four or five times as the colored rectangles cover different sections of the floor and the four walls.

It is comforting to me that whenever I feel like I don’t know what is going on in an Oosterbaan installation, I get the sense that its neither because I’m not applying enough thought to it, but rather because I’m not paying close enough attention – in particular to its environment.  Oosterbaan here, as in previous installations, always addresses you and the space equally in her panels or lines of color.  As each series of colors shift hues in measured steps, the carefully constructed parallels between the dimensions of colors and the dimensions of the room become clear, the width of the doorways referenced in the rows on the floor and the empty floor space between them reflecting the width of the wall.  The colored rectangles going up and across the wall sometimes echo measurements of the body, seeming at times to be about the length of an arm here, or a leg there, other times alluding to the shape of the windows or moldings.  If none of these become precise, it is because the scale of the body and the architectural scale are present at the same moment and place in the work.

Focused more on the present than on memory, Oosterbaan’s current installation lacks the playful, intelligent punning shapes of her previous work, where stripes extending from vents interacted with lines that became diagrams and addressed our remembrance of architecture as well as our mental images of it.  She has carefully delineated the terms of the problem that she has adhered to here: creating space by reinforcing our measured responses to color.