Grotto: Shrine @ Soloway

In conversation with Hannah Barrett and Saul Chernick

Saul Chrnick and Hannah Barrett in front of the gallery

The Grotto: Shrine group exhibition at Soloway Gallery, curated by Hannah Barrett and Saul Chernick, featuring works by Orli Swergold, Laurel Sparks, Ben Pederson, and Saul Chernick, merges the physical with the mystical. It showcases sculptures and installations that draw on the use of scale and a diverse range of materials—obsolete electronics, dried grains, paper pulp, and glitter. These elements serve to connect viewers to celestial, underworld, ritualistic, and imaginative realms, referencing the reflective and immersive qualities of shrines and grottos.

You are co-curators of the exhibition Grotto:Shrine at Soloway, and one of you is participating in the show. Tell us about the genesis of this show and about your curatorial vision and process.

SC: Initially, I was trying to figure out how to organize a group show of sculptors influenced by sci-fi and fantasy source materials. It never quite materialized; in the end, there was something too limiting about the premise. As my thinking evolved, I realized there was more possibility in a show that highlights sculpture’s capacities to be transportive, to take us to other realms and alternate realities, much in the same way that great sci-fi does. Digging a little deeper, I realized that scale plays a role in this: For centuries, artists and artisans have fashioned deities, vessels, and other ritualistic objects for shrines in temples and homes. These objects, intentionally made at a domestic scale, function as portals to otherwise unreachable worlds. As a point of contrast, some artists and architects transport the viewer by literally enveloping them within a sculpted environment.

As I was working through these ideas, I approached Hannah as a thought partner, and through our discussions, the thesis of the show finally took shape. It also turned out that we have good collaborative chemistry, and decided to go for it!

HB: I’m not in the show, but I’m co-curating it because I’m interested in the opposing and complementary concepts of the shrine as something that transmits a spiritual signal and the grotto, which immerses me in a cavelike art experience. Both the concept of the shrine and the grotto attempt to connect the maker and the viewer to something cosmic or spiritual.

Till quite recently, the art world frowned upon curators as artists. I believe this approach has shifted. Can you share your experience of being a curator/organizer/ participating artist, and how do you see that role-merger in a wider context?

HB: Because Soloway is an artist-run gallery, the exhibitions have always been artist-organized. Artists are obsessed with art, their own and everyone else’s, which breeds a lot of strong opinions and can translate into exhibitions. Artists have always been curators at Soloway…

SC: Curating presents artists with an opportunity to expand the scope of their artistry and deepen their engagement with their chosen art community. For me, curating this show has been a way to initiate dialogue with other artists that are thinking about and exploring similar themes, but in their own way and within their individual studio practices. To be able to take work from artists I admire and place them in relation to one another within the gallery initiates a new level of dialogue. There is an alchemy that happens through this process that reveals unforeseen relationships that can’t be experienced any other way.

What can you tell us about the art venue?

HB: Soloway has been an artist-run gallery since 2010, founded by artist Annette Wehrhahn. It’s located at 348 South 4th Street in Williamsburg and is a storefront gallery. A group of artists pools dues to pay for gallery expenses (mainly rent), and in return, each member curates a 6-week show that is open on Saturdays and Sundays from 12-5 or by appointment. The gallery website is:

Let’s look at the artists in the show – at individual works and how they interrelate in the group to form a whole.

Ben Pederson’s sculptures are like dioramas from another corner of the universe. They blend a certain kind of Modernist formalism with a sci-fi sensibility, like the obelisk in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. They have a zany and self-aware artificiality to them, which is to say they look intentionally fake, like miniaturized models from a low-budget space epic. The small scale is not intimate but signals the intellectual distance of humans remaking their environment. The archaic and geometric form language is as ancient looking as it is futuristic, reminding us of myths and legends.

View of Pen Pederson’s studio, with three sculptures included in Grotto:Shrine, Photo courtesy of the artist

Laurel Sparks created a grotto installation in response to the gallery interior and their materials, which in this case are paper pulp disks attached to lengths of torn canvas, ribbons, and various other fabric strips. The strips and ribbons will serve as the structure, and the brightly colored and heavily decorated disks will ornament the space to create a radiant, highly textured, and colorful cavern.

Luarel Sparks, detail

Landing from a planet of mid-century design and cuisine, Saul Chernick’s work invites us to eat with our eyes and contemplate the mystery of geometry. Chernick’s objects are encrusted and entombed in gorgeously colored geometric patterns and shapes. References to screens and upcycled electronics combine with pantry staples like amaranth and quinoa, creating an uneasy relationship between domesticity and technology. Is Chernick reminding us of technology’s pernicious invasion of the home or instead suggesting that such devices have become cozy, coffee-stained and pastry-crumbed?

untitled, Saul Chernick, 2023, homemade sculpting compound, plexiglass, wood, armature, amaranth, 24.5” x 18.75” x .4.25”. Photo courtesy of the artist

Orli Swergold has been exploring a body of work based on stalagmites, which is immediately visible in the shape of this piece. The bumpy edge of the Steele mimics the accretive surface of the stalagmites, which take thousands of years to form, as referenced by the title, yet the blade character of the steel shines through and gives these pieces a jagged-toothed menace. The paper pulp that fills the recesses of the steel is softer and made up of many tiny units reminiscent of cells, structures of insects, or even human organs. The silhouetted forms suggest shadows in a cave or an inscrutable alphabet of glyphs, slowly eroding – reminding viewers of our mortality and vitality.

Area Aleph, 2023, steel and paper pulp, 46” x 26” 

Grotto:Shrine, Feb 18 to March 24, 2024 Soloway, 348 South 4th St, Brooklyn, NY 11211. Curated by Hannah Barrett and Saul Chernick. Artists: Orli Swergold, Laurel, Sparks, Ben Pederson, and Saul Chernic