What lies below, within, or beyond a surface? The nine international artists included in little lower layer—an exhibition drawn largely from the MCA collection and spanning the 1970s to the present—scrape, scramble, puncture, or otherwise interrogate surfaces. Breaking down the walls, blockages, and fixed assumptions that their materials present, these artists engage a political imagination that is particularly urgent now: moving from what is to what could be.
Not coincidentally, techniques like digging through layers and rearranging patterns result in works that take a critical approach to their subject matter, whether buried histories, stubborn borders, or entrenched narratives of power and control. Jack Whitten scrapes away paint to reveal repressed symbols, Paul Chan reorders constellations as monuments to imperiled civil liberties, Simon Starling exposes photography’s connection to ecological exploitation, and Kate Gilmore dons stilettos to punch and kick her way through solid matter.
The title comes from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, in which Captain Ahab is transfixed by his quest to hunt down the white whale. Yearning to grasp the mystery at the center of his obsession, he is certain that some “little lower layer” of meaning exists below the veneer of appearances that masks the truth. “If man will strike, strike through the mask!” he declares. “How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?” With an eye toward withheld images and untold stories, the artists in this exhibition challenge us to look deeply, think critically, and confront a politics of what we can—and cannot—see, discuss, and access.