Smoke & mirrors at hot new gallery

GREGORY J. SCOTT , | Updated 8/22/2013

Ethereal installation sheds light on the sphinx-like Public Functionary.

Sougwen Chung’s “Chiaro/Oscuro” installation bathes her cutout drawings in an ever-shifting choreography of purple and white lighting.

So, have you heard of this Public Functionary place?

Of course you have. Few art spaces have debuted with such carefully calibrated bombast. Even before the opening of its first official show, back in April — hell, even before the building had working electricity — the northeast Minneapolis nonprofit gallery had left a tantalizing, slow-burn trail of seduction. Enigmatic video teasers released on Vimeo. A sly, minimalist website, dropping quotes from art-world visionaries like some new-media fortune cookie. Countless pings and buzzes in the cooler corners of social media. The breadcrumbs dropped for nine months.

And we gobbled them up. A word-of-mouth Kickstarter campaign netted $31,000 for the building renovation. Gushing previews of the space cropped up on slickster interactive-marketing blogs. And opening night (a party for the Chicago-based, street-inspired artist DZINE) was killer — so steeped in lowbrow decadence and smart-kid swagger that it could have been a Vice Magazine launch. The hype rumbled all the way to the Big Apple, and on the weekend of Art-A-Whirl, PF hosted New York Magazine’s Jerry Saltz, one of the world’s pre-eminent critics, for a fireside chat about the future of galleries.

Suffice it to say, Public Functionary is hot. But on the eve of its second exhibition, it’s still very much a sphinx. We’re still waiting for the cologne-heavy branding to lift, to smell what the PF folks truly have cooking. This Saturday’s opening of "Chiaro/Oscuro" — featuring Brooklyn artist Sougwen Chung, who brings her ethereal, light-and-shadow fantasia to the gallery — offers a clue.

Chung grabbed eyeballs last May at the Mapping Festival in Geneva, Switzerland, an annual celebration of high-tech audiovisual installation art. Chung’s contribution, called “Chiaroscuro,” was a feat of sensual, heart-swelling gorgeousness. A number of black-and-white drawings — fine-spun and calligraphic, the line work blooming in Baroque, flower-like forms — were cut from paper and suspended from the walls of the gallery. Then Chung, using a projection software program called MadMapper and a colony of carefully nested LEDs, bathed the cutouts in an ever-shifting, symphonic choreography of soft purple and white lighting. The effect is extraordinary. The drawings teem with the lush, biology-like flittings of color and shadow, like an alien coral reef swarmed by fish. The whole thing is set to an atmospheric score by sound artist Praveen Sharma.

Chung has said that the installation “is a contemporary interpretation of ‘Chiaroscuro’ — a term commonly associated with 17th-century painting — that is as handmade as it is digitally enabled.” And herein lies the rub. Chung’s success comes not from the wizardry of the software, but from the integration of older, much more traditional modes of artistry: the painstaking paper illustrations, the balletic choreography of light, the sense of orchestral movement and texture. The new-tech bells and whistles simply communicate these pleasures in a new way, to an audience trained to want pleasure delivered digitally. The show isn’t just about new drawings. It’s about “new drawing,” an attempt to maintain the grandeur of line work in a CGI world. And in a way, we might see it as mirroring the ambitions of Public Functionary, which must imagine itself a “new gallery.” A space for the post-gallery era. A brick-and-mortar joint going viral for the on-demand generation.

But Chung — who grew up with an opera-singer dad and, in addition to art, is classically trained in piano and violin — wisely grounds herself in old-world traditions. She doesn’t totally dissipate into the digital ether. Here’s hoping Public Functionary doesn’t, either.

Sougwen Chung: Chiaro/Oscuro

Opening: 8 p.m. Sat.

Exhibition: 8 p.m.-midnight Fri., 8-11 p.m. Sat. through Sept. 27.

Tickets: Free.