Press Releases

Date of Release: 
Thursday, August 10, 2017
Contact Info: 

Erika Monroe-Kane, Director of Communications
608.257.0158 x 237 or

Chele Isaac: the understory Opens at MMoCA

Chele Isaac: the understory Opens at MMoCA

September 2–November 12, 2017

MMoCA Opening:  Friday, September 22 • 6–9pm

The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art is pleased to present a solo exhibition of work by Chele Isaac, a Madison-based artist who creates immersive environments through a combination of multi-channel video projection, sound, and sculpture. At MMoCA, an encompassing cylindrical structure, nearly 30 feet in diameter, serves as the architectural backdrop forIsaac’s seven-channel video, the understory. Projected in the round, Isaac’s non-linear narrative captures surprising connections and overlooked details found within the everyday, all of which comes together as a poetic investigation of our relationship to our changing environment.  

The understory opens to the public on Saturday, September 2, and will be on view in MMoCA’s State Street Gallery through Sunday, November 12. In conjunction with the MMoCA Opening for this exhibition, Isaac will discuss her work in the museum’s lecture hall on Friday, September 22 at 6:30 pm. 

Isaac’s decision to project her work within a massive circular structure speaks to her interest in re-contextualizing the history of pre-cinematic theater techniques within a twenty-first century context. Transported from the artist’s studio and assembled within the space of the gallery, the large wooden structure is reminiscent of the late nineteenth-century cyclorama, a specialized gallery that housed monumental panoramic paintings. At that time, spectators stood atop a viewing platform at the center of the drama and could get lost within the depicted scene—often a sublime landscape or distant city—and imagine themselves beyond their immediate surroundings. Isaac’s contemporary rendition of the cyclorama eschews this singular, unified approach to image-making, and instead presents seven distinct yet enigmatically synchronized videos.

Well versed in the history of video-based art, Isaac takes her cue from experimental artists whose encompassing audio-visual environments interrogate conditions of perception, observation, and spectatorship. With multiple screens, shifting perspectives, sonic dislocations, and juxtaposed camera movements, these installations shift the role of audiences from passive viewers to active participants by requiring them to make decisions about where to look and how to assimilate information. Similarly, Isaac’s work engulfs us in multiple simultaneous moments.  In reminding us of our inability to decipher a conclusive narrative, the understory draws attention to the physical act of observing—the condition of spectatorship.  

The understory is as much a subjective exploration of Isaac’s own subconscious as it is a poetic vision of twenty-first-century existence—a restless torrent of images, information, and fleeting moments that challenge the limits of our perception. Each of the seven channels is simultaneously self-contained and in conversation with the others. They cycle through formal and conceptual relationships, never offering a beginning or an end, only a disorienting and all-consuming collage of relentless circling energy and complex visual interactions. The score for the work—composed by Isaac’s lifelong friend and collaborator Jack Kellogg—interweaves sound and music to both disrupt and direct our emotional connection to the visual language. As one image zooms in to capture the microscopic, another expands outward, illuminating the infinite. Tiny white particles from a table-top snow-globe transform into intergalactic dust swirling in the cosmos. Planets orbiting in outer space become ice cubes floating in water, or are they icebergs melting into the sea? Water becomes sky, sky becomes smoke, smoke becomes breath, breath becomes ice. Tympanic drums echo slow exaggerated heartbeats then shift almost imperceptibly to the magnified percussion of a bees’ mating dance. Ecosystems intersect, overlap, and trade places with each other as we discover fluid connections among disparate pictures, which then fall apart as quickly as they congeal.

Fractured, repeated, doubled, mirrored, slowed down, or sped up, the videos parallel the nature and structure of our ever-changing, image-based world of fast flowing information and faster flowing time. Attention and perception is both heightened and dispersed. An observation that might ordinarily flash by, such as the flickering of a candle flame, now becomes the subject of an extended meditation. But before long, the next flutter of movement occupies the space. The structure of the work and it’s interconnectedness to the sound creates a succession of vignettes in which our focus shifts, thoughts get lost, and time unhinges. Indeed, the understory takes its place within the larger context of multimedia or time-based installations by artists such as Doug Aitkin and Pierre Huyghe, whose works also avoid singular storylines in favor of a multiplicity (in screens, images, and meanings) that demands viewers’ active participation. 

If the nineteenth-century cyclorama encouraged viewers to project themselves into the depicted scene, then the understory achieves the opposite by making us aware that we are external from the encircling imagery. This insistent disconnection seems to be at the heart of Isaac’s artistic interest: she places us in the middle of her work and gives us the agency to decide what to watch and what to ignore, but she refuses to let us consume the work in full. The duality of this experience unfolds as a metaphor for the challenge we face in comprehending our role within a world that extends beyond ourselves. It suggests our state of separateness—from our everyday surroundings, from nature, from each other—prevents us from understanding our actions are not isolated; they ripple outward. Even as we may perceive ourselves to be at the center of the universe, we are, indeed, part of an interconnected ecosystem that feels, absorbs, and responds to every ripple.

Chele Isaac received her MFA in 2008 from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she focused her studies on multi-media installation. Her installation works have been shown locally and nationally in art centers, project galleries, and museums. Her short films have been screened in group shows and film festivals in the US and internationally. She was the Windgate Artist in Residence in the Spring of 2015 at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania which culminated in shows at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts in 2015 and Pittsburgh’s SPACE Gallery in 2016.

Generous funding, to date, for Chele Isaac: the understory has been provided by the David and Paula Kraemer Fund, Darcy Kind and Marc Vitale, Bell Laboratories, University Research Park, Gabriele Haberland and Willy Haeberli, a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts; and MMoCA Volunteers.


Housed in a soaring, iconic building on State Street, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art offers free admission to exhibitions and education programs that engage visitors in modern and contemporary art. The four galleries offer changing exhibitions that feature established and emerging artists. The Rooftop Sculpture Garden provides an urban oasis with an incredible view. The award-winning Museum Store offers contemporary American craft and fine jewelry, while Fresco, the museum’s rooftop restaurant, features local, seasonal ingredients in fine American cuisine.

Hours at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art are Tuesday–Thursday (noon–5 pm); Friday (noon–8 pm); Saturday (10 am–8 pm); and Sunday (noon–5 pm). The museum is closed on Mondays. 

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