In Bushwick, Signal Gallery’s Latest Show Will Improve Your Mental Health

Kat Herriman
Feb 29, 2016 11:08PM

A warm waft of eucalyptus fills the sinuses upon entering Signal’s new exhibition “Watermark.” While the pungent smell is more fitting for a spa than an industrial Bushwick gallery, it’s welcoming, especially after a brisk walk through the wintry air. And it begins to make sense once you’ve taken in the impromptu sauna that sits steaming in the gallery’s corner. “We’d never curated a group show, so we wanted it to have this familiar, family vibe that would enable you to come here and hang out for as long as you wanted,” explains Kyle Clairmont Jacques, artist and co-owner of Signal. “We wanted the show to be conceptually loaded in a way that would make you feel better.” And it does.

Installation views of “Watermark” at Signal, Brooklyn. Pictured: The Perfect Nothing Catalog’s sauna. Images courtesy of SIGNAL.

“We don’t have any heating and it’s a big concrete box, so we knew it needed a warming element,” Clairmont Jacques explains. “The sauna idea was an immediate fit.” Whimsical in its current configuration, the functional sauna represents months of backyard experiments by The Perfect Nothing Catalog founder Frank Traynor and gallery co-owner Alexander Johns. The tented hot box is the show’s centerpiece, a literal hotbed that engenders an exploration into the intersections between art and the health of body and mind.

On the eve of the opening, the young gallerists invited the participating artists and friends for a beer-fueled test-run of the new heated clubhouse. Guests are encouraged to grab a pair of flip flops, a water bottle, and a towel before crawling into the sauna or reclining in one of the lounge chairs lined up just outside. The show’s hypnotic soundtrack, conceived by artist Alexandra Drewchin, plays overhead; darkly ambient, the sounds lend the scene Lynchian undertones that feel especially poignant while sitting inside the sauna’s communal antechamber, where candlelight bounces off the metallic insulation, giving off just enough light to make out the faces of fellow bathers. 

“I wasn’t so much interested in health as I was in creating an extreme body experience,” says Traynor, as he stokes the steam by pouring water over the heater. “If anything it’s just a happy side effect.” While wellness wasn’t a major concern, the primal installation is certainly mood-lifting. (This isn’t the first time that Traynor has collided body treatments with art—last summer he opened The Nothing Mud and Seltzer House, a small shack with a mud bath near Rockaway beach.)

Installation views of The Nothing Mud and Seltzer House, 2015. Images courtesy of Frank Traynor.


The other works in “Watermark” pick up where Traynor left off. An imposing black ceramic sculpture by Elizabeth Jaeger contrasts with the undulating white waves of John Dante Bianchi’s freestanding sculptures; like ying and yang, their opposition embodies a masterful harmony rather than a tension. “Art should lead to health in so many different ways,” says Bianchi. “I think by making art you are always resolving some sort of mental health issue.”

Input and output of chemicals plays an important role in the material-focused work of Hayden Dunham. Standing by her gelatinous floor piece, Dunham smiles when asked how her site-specific sculpture fits in with the meditative atmosphere. “It functions as a recharging station,” she says. Dunham is also currently featured in the two-person Neville Wakefield-curated show “BIO:DIP” at Red Bull Studios, with Nicolas Lobo, where she has manipulated the atmosphere of the space through an ice sculpture that melts, evaporates into the air, and is essentially inhaled by the show’s visitors. 

Like the “BIO:DIP” works, Dunham’s assemblage at Signal comes from a body of work initially inspired by a research trip to Svartsengi, the Icelandic power plant responsible for the silicon-powered benefits of the iconic hot spring, the Blue Lagoon. Embracing our ever-evolving relationship to both inorganic and organic materials, Dunham’s sculpture revels in an amorphous state.

Installation views of “Watermark” at Signal, Brooklyn. Left: sculpture by Hayden Dunham. Right: sculptures by John Dante Bianchi. Images courtesy of SIGNAL.

Nearby, Florian Meisenberg’s waterfall streams over a blue-sky landscape that the artist hopes will slowly wash away over time. It’s this fluidity between forms and materials that gives the show its transformative, reviving quality. Promoting a sense of well-being rather than examining it, the show looks at health and art as equally physical and mental pursuits. And Signal and company aren’t the only ones looking at these intersections. Shelley and Donald Rubin’s exhibition space The 8th Floor is in the process of curating a spring show focused on contemporary art and public health. So far their roster includes Hannah WilkeFred Tomaselli, and Jordan Eagles, but like the show, is still evolving. With new discoveries to be made, wellness, like art, is a constantly moving target reflective of the time and space it inhabits.

In addition to offering a steamy, soothing respite on a cold winter day, Signal’s show sheds light on a striking parallel between wellness and art; ideals of beauty, strength, and longevity that we seek for ourselves, we also require in a great work of art.

Kat Herriman

“Watermark” is on view at Signal, Brooklyn, Feb. 27–Mar. 27, 2016.