‘Things in process … objects out of place and time.’ Frances Lightbound’s exhibition Tectonics at the John David Mooney Foundation in Chicago, reconfigures and re-enacts the languages of architectonics and manages to refuse the colonial configurations of power and brute strength in structural materials and components. Pia Singh reviews and finds a striking refinement in these rare and enigmatic arrangements.
Following Fran’s work since 2017, I had the chance to come into direct contact with the artist shortly upon hearing of her tryst with a near-death experience in 2019. I recall Fran’s willingness to meet mid-2021, to share her experience of reassembling a life in the strangeness of a pandemic. Watching as she spoke with complete transparency and a kind of rare sensitivity of her body as vessel, I thought of how her skull had been impacted and partially reconstructed, leading to her reacquainting herself with the physical, aural and tactile in ways one takes for granted. Paralleling this sensual displacement, one can assume ‘Tectonics’ arose much earlier than Lightbound might admit. Pointing to a tender area behind her ear (one lovers distinguish and read so well) she explained, “There’s a scar here- where they stapled my head back together after the surgery. It feels like running your fingers down a spine.” As vessels oft do- we hold, carry, expel, stack, and sometimes, break. I pass through the city reading people as anatomical models, imagining a calcified metropolis whose bones, displaced and rearranged, inform the construction of my own inner receptacle.
April 2023. Lightbound has invited me to her and her partner, Joshua Patterson’s, newly acquired studio in Chicago’s historic Fine Arts Building on South Michigan Avenue. It had been less than a month since they moved in. A number of prints seemingly laid on display in anticipation of our conversation flank two ends of an irregular hexagonal room. I’m immediately drawn to a pair of salvaged semicircular windows resting under plastic sheets. “What will these become?” I probe. Under sunlit particulate, Lightbound walks across the room and skirts her fingers across the curve of the found object, “I’m not quite sure as yet, we’ll see.” Overlooking several stories of smaller windows across a quadrangle that somehow continuously multiplies as our eyes tilt up, we’re entrapped in the vertical difference between architecture and surface. Moving toward the flat files, Lightbound pulls a series of variable editions— hundreds of screenprints neatly stacked side by side— speaking to the consistency of her practice. We squint over fluid structures, atmospheric traces and architectural ecologies that have landed on Lightbound’s screens. Permutations of urban terrain shape shift through dappled greys, scratches and intentional markers of impact snag teal blues on various paper samples as we discuss emergence in relation to the processes of printmaking.
Lightbound’s consideration of architectonics and constructed time are striking. On a wall above the flat file, ‘Cosmos III’ (2023), bears a composite image of photographs of tiles, glass blocks, and architectural grids from across the city, superimposed back upon themselves. Lightbound’s hand is refined and seemingly ever-present through quick decisive screen-pulls that are maneuvered, rotated and adjusted improvisationally throughout her process. Responsive to human-imposed grids at varying scale, her prints also locate human evidentiary patterns through nature; plucking weeds and wild grasses that grow through asphalt and concrete cracks, marking a world that pre-exists against the blueprint of modernity. The tension between agencies, between non-human elements as actors and places as social constructions, mobilize her prints making it easier to quiet any disappointment in the present.
Rejecting the fallacy of in-animity associated with the fixity of our built world, Lightbound’s absorption with emergent surfaces comes through in her treatment of photographic images. Transferring captured images into halftone prints, she emulates the characteristic nature of the very architectural elements she seeks to fracture. Applying degrees of transparent to opaque, diluted acrylic inks in secondary and tertiary, stratified layers to capture the schism between human-non human behaviours, she exposes a cross section of frameworks through refractions, reflections, and rotations of carcasses pinned to her printing screens. Creating skins of a map of social-architectural relationships, she blends phenomenological and atemporal tensions seamlessly so as to not disturb the inherent political turmoil engendered in the creation of their source material.
A series of graphite blackish-grey molds of the inner cavity of the artist’s enclosed fist sit on newsprint back at the studio. With a BA from the Glasgow School of Art, and an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Lightbound slips between cultural referents inhabiting both landscapes through experimental practice. Even in this seeming biological exploration of the force of her body against material, Lightbound’s views on human agency and the material world remain discreet. We speak about the irrationality of perception and the fragmented nature of memory, as I process a recent death in the family. For a brief window of time, we sit in stasis yet in deep observational mode, examining ’Outlook (Variable Edition)’ (2022). Having lived through many winters in Chicago, one can’t help but imagine these variable abstractions as fleeting indexical landscapes overcome by the distortion of seasonal, climatic, and haptic shifts. Icy-blue auras breathe through vertical window panes, divided into 4 rectangular quadrants along their length and breadth. I tilt my head to the side, imagining the horizontality of film or landscape painting, but Lightbound shows no interest in expanding the representational cross section. She is scientific in her hypothesis of viewing the world through a window-like frame. To her, the paradoxical impossibility of horizontality lies in the fact that abstracted from its origin point, the window (in its most graphic sense) represents a bodily relation to a system of micro and macro political forces capable of being captured in their materiality and brought into ‘real’ time through print.
A fine white line connects a series of slate fragments in a corner beneath Lightbound’s studio window, overlooking studios that once housed the city’s great minds behind the Arts & Crafts and women’s suffrage movements. The longest vertices of each fragment are rotated and aligned to form the straightest edge. I try to pinpoint an agitation that arises in my body as echoes of design movements, their impact on architecture, new materiality, deep time, and a long history of found objects in sculpture, concuss.
In Tectonics, ‘Until in the end the land was only separated from the sea by a continuous ribbon of text’ (2023) holds the central gallery floor at the John David Mooney Foundation. A series of fallen roof slate, brought back to Chicago from the outskirts of the city, harks back to Scottish and Welsh slate industries, plummeting the viewer 550 million years deep where fine grained sediment once formed silt and mudstone under the ancient Iapetus Ocean. Metamorphosing into overlapping shelves from an incredible amount of pressure over time, the western Highlands remain rich in natural shale, bringing a hypothetical charge to the exhibition. A nod to her ancestry, Lightbound’s affinity to this historic material conflates distances between home and one’s adopted homeland. A white chalk line as a frontier, connecting while separating two spaces and geologic time scales with no certain bearings. Serving as a reference point for something shifting, journeying, yet geographically specific, their foreignness breaks with the surface they’re laid upon. The piece awakens my subconsciousness to the craft of hand laid roofing while traveling between India and Chicago for the remaining half of the year. Thinking about human forces and labour required to quarry and lay slate and stone in a manner that’s acutely aware of their elemental specificity, Lightbounds fistful of salvaged (read: stolen) dark, sharply edged fragments are a pocket tabernacle to her father’s legacy as a geologist. As metamorphic rock paves a path into the architectural crevice of the building, Lightbound and I meet on a shared fault line as interspersed immigrants, emerging from topographic timelines of Scottish and Indian enclaves.
Tectonics is about things in process; objects (and therefore people) out of place and/or out of order and time. About navigating tides of sensation while being anchored to islands of familiarity, somewhere between today and millions of years ago; it is about objects and spaces that move to their own tune. Let loose in the library of the metropolis, Lightbound uses architecture as a lens to examine spatio-temporal relationships between people, bodies, built spaces, landforms, and identities; rearranging aspects of one against the other until each loses authority, regaining an inherent vitality of a more or less ‘human’-kind.
‘Glass Curtain I’ (2022), and large scale print installation ‘Curtain Wall’ (2023) grip the entrance and far left extremity of the gallery. Reflecting and reverberating from within a 6 x 6 inch square body of a glass block, Lightbound’s variable print editions posit the material against architectural elements; partially drawn blinds, discreet light sources, windows and elements move us closer to and further away from their materiality. Rotating her screen and angling half-tones from zero to ninety degrees, she creates visual interferences; patterns that mimic the prismatic distortions of glass, her hands allowing light to partly bleed through aqua-toned transparent bases that obscure and reveal depths and traces of dimensional data. As a durable building material, glass blocks widely entered American architecture shortly after their debut at the Chicago Century of Progress International Exhibition in 1933-34. Glass, a viscous material largely favored by Expressionists, grew increasingly important for daylighting interiors specifically in dark and dreary cities with extended winters. Living in the Midwest, I’ve spent many an afternoon peering into facades built of the eponymous block, growing covetous of Sixties style design details on the exterior of homes from Irving Park to Belmont Avenue. Seen more frequently in storefronts and border designs of building facades that incorporate a meld of clear, striated, and prism glass, I often think of the fused forms as hyper material– not brick, not concrete, but strong enough to refract the economies of extraction linked with modernism. Thanks to Lightbound, we begin to see the glass block as a recursive literary device found in variable formations; conflicting our desires for privacy and illumination, enclosure and transparency, structure and freedom, the artist reasserts its aesthetic application making it categorically different from its known qualities. Harnessing its ‘thing-power’ ( Bennett), the block presents itself as an ‘actant’ ( Latour), proving its competency through a set of performances against a backdrop of technological innovation and urban development. With AI lurking in shadows, threatening to harvest our virtual presences, Lightbound helps develop a vocabulary for resistance suspended between material knowing and human agency, leaning on distorted historiographies as both excavator and storyteller.
Moving from glass to the substance of graphite, Lightbound presents two unofficial, authoritative accounts of site specificity in ‘Index (Cladding)’ (2023) and ‘Hemispheres (Longitude)’ (2023). Comprised of two dimensional graphite rubbings of three dimensional exposed brick at the Mooney Foundation, unlike 3 dimensional models capable of expressing height, width, and depth, these highly subjective, analogue impressions are contingent on several factors to create an ur-metaphor of what lies beneath the surface. While we are well aware of the power structures (modes of production and capitalist exchange) that lend value to our modern world, Lightbound’s drawings create a snapshot of a moment, a reconfigured indexical marker of being in time and of place. Reproducing an active starting and/or ending point for the locality of the exhibit, the rubbings are open-ended and do not aim to posit any finality of what is expected of pencil drawing. With prolonged exertion and wavering physical pressure, Lightbound considers the rubbings as “projections of her body”, the graphite as an active response to contingencies outside the body. Much like a fossil that emerges from the debris of forces of time and circumstance, Index and Hemispheres challenge the viewer to stop and enter the conditions of their making.
Hemispheres (Latitude) I & II, (2023), return salvaged semi-circular windows from the studio to the gallery, this time resting flush against polished wooden floors. Traces of construction marker, tar-like sealant, staples and partly broken nails point to their insertion and consequent extraction from social life. I look closely at the 4 inch curved wooden frame encasing the air between a double paned window. To be able to see time, heavy and contained, raises questions on its dispossession. What replaced this manufactured vessel? Installed at a height above proportionately vertical windows, how does it feel resting flush to the ground where a child can sit with their cheek pressed up against its cold curve? Approaching the semicircular fragment, Lightbound throws reflections and shadows on either side of Hemispheres (Latitude) I. A reflection of brick in laser engraved glossy acrylic to one side, to the other, a graphite impression of the gallery wall, now surfaced like skin. In Hemispheres (Latitude) II, one of two double paned glass panes bears a ghostly laser engraved impression of said brick wall. Not as mediated as its counterpart, the sculpture leaves a bricked shadow on the floor beneath its long edge, the form completes its atemporal orbit as it forms a mirrored circle through its reflection. Moving from locally specific salvaged object to a universal experience of alienation and identification, Lightbound seems to have felt a connection with what was cast by the object, described as an index, that traces its outline from its physical relationships to what they symbolize (much like shadows are an indexical sign of their causality). This Duchamp-ian projection of found objects and the enactment of linguistic shift is central to what the artist wants the viewer to receive. Skirting the domain of resting/leaning minimalist found object sculpture, Lightbound’s ability to capture the momentary and uncanny translates everything in the gallery as anything but one-to-one. Bound to the circularity of the ‘attention economy’, the artist leans into the slowness of terra formation and the accelerationism of human interference in a way that composts and reassembles what we perceive as ‘real’.
Smaller accents of screenprint on phototex accent the entirety of the exhibition, providing balance to the totality of Tectonics. Smaller parts of prints; windows, blocks, and city sites, disperse into corners of supporting metal girders, columns, and lower quadrants of walls, unsettling the familiar and spurring several parallel trajectories between printed surfaces. Almost as a re-enactment of everyday displacement and the retrenchment of otherness in the West, Lightbound’s arrangements are rare, indexical artifacts that permit us to reconfigure, re-enact, perhaps even re-perform representations of ourselves, toward an enigmatic refusal of hierarchical, totalizing, colonialist, political subjectivities. Placing an intra-subjective experience of bodies within a network of relations, Tectonics unleashes the possibility of a collective solidarity between life forms to consider what practices (within and beyond the arts) have the ability to support a more interconnected modus vivendi.