Art awhirl

Alexa Horochowski harnesses the power of the vortex in her new drawings

Alexa Horochowski built an artificial wind vortex to create her latest series of drawings. Submitted photo

THE WEDGE — Somewhere out in the vastness of the northern Pacific Ocean floats one of the great and terrible wonders of the Anthropocene: the Pacific Trash Vortex.

Also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it’s an ocean within the ocean, a drifting debris field that covers the swells like a threadbare carpet. Corralled miles offshore by the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, an endless ocean current that circles clockwise between California and Japan, the garbage patch is thick in some places like a mat of invasive seaweed, but because it’s largely made of plastic — plastic that floats and never biodegrades, just breaking down by the action of sun and waves into smaller and smaller and, eventually, microscopic bits — it’s mostly invisible to the naked eye.

When Alexa Horochowski set out to harness the power of the vortex for her art, purchasing eight 24-inch barrel fans from Fleet Farm and setting them up in a circle on the third floor of the Soap Factory, the Pacific Trash Vortex was one of the things she had in mind. The vortex, be it whirlpool or hurricane, is nature at its most powerful and uncontrollable, and in the Pacific, those natural forces intersect with some of humanity’s tragic flaws: the insatiability that drives over-consumption and the short-sightedness that allows us to pollute out of sight and out of mind.

Installation view of "Vortex Drawings" at Highpoint Center for Printmaking. Submitted photo
Installation view of “Vortex Drawings” at Highpoint Center for Printmaking. Submitted photo

We have our own trash vortices, here, far from the oceans: the little dust devils that gather up leaves and litter for a carnival ride across an empty parking lot. Horochowski made a video of one of these, a three-way dance between plant matter and styrofoam and an empty Doritos bag.

She was still figuring out just what, exactly, she was doing with those fans up on the third floor of the Soap Factory — a video, maybe, or an installation, she thought — when Cole Rogers, Highpoint Center for Printmaking’s artistic director and master printer, began talking with her about a residency. Dozens of visiting artists, including Jim Hodges and Julie Mehretu, have collaborated with Rogers on prints that are published through Highpoint Editions, but this would be no usual collaboration (not least because it did not, technically, produce prints).

“What am I going to do with the vortex?” Horochowski remembered thinking at the time. “Maybe I can make it draw.”

The nine massive drawings on paper and Tyvek currently on display at Highpoint are the results that hunch. They are the made not by the artist’s hand, but by the interaction of Horochowski’s artificial vortex and materials chosen by her for a certain trashiness, in the sense that you could easily picture them skittering across an empty parking lot: aluminum cans, plastic bottles, packing peanuts and Styrofoam cups.

By coating them in graphite, linseed oil, turpentine and other inky substances, they would “draw” on a bed sheet-sized sheet of paper or Tyvek laid on the floor in the middle of the vortex.

“I first started with aluminum cans, because I liked the clinking sound they made,” Horochowski said. When she turned on the fans, they “scurried” across the room like animals, she said — an illusion of agency that mimicked, for Horochowski, the way materials produced for our benefit can so easily escape our control, wreaking environmental havoc in ways we could not have imagined, like those nearly invisible micro-beads of plastic leaking chemicals into the ocean.

Horochowski’s star performers turned out to be the Styrofoam cups, which would roll and turn on end and catch the wind, creating interrupted arcs and spirals. Coated in white pigment and set loose on a sheet of Tyvek coated in black ground, the cups produce a drawing with an almost Pollockian tension between order and randomness.

Horochowski coated packing peanuts in a mixture that included cochineal, a dye derived from insects, to create this vortex drawing. Submitted photo
Horochowski coated packing peanuts in a mixture that included cochineal, a dye derived from insects, to create this vortex drawing. Submitted photo

Swarms of packing peanuts make diffuse, cloud-like impressions. A mist of fine red dots — left by packing peanuts tossed in a mixture of chalk, cochineal dye and linseed oil — hovers just off-center in one drawing; to Horochowski, it looked like a spray of gore staining the Tyvek.

She said she wanted the finished pieces to reflect the process that created them, so imperfections are left uncovered. There’s a tiny paw print on one drawing, left by a cat.

By relinquishing some of her control over the drawing process, Horochowski allowed herself to be surprised by the results. A Styrofoam cup, released for just a brief spin in the vortex, uncannily draws a spiral across one sheet of paper, and out of the randomness seems to appear a glimpse of the golden ratio that explains the naturally occurring spiral shapes of seashells, fern fronds and hurricanes.

Regarding the piece in the gallery, Horochowski posed a question: “Who’s in charge here?”


Vortex Drawings

When: Through March 25

Where: Highpoint Center for Printmaking, 912 W. Lake St.