In order to visit Mariah Dekkenga’s current show, “Non-Zero Sum,” at Situations on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, one has to make a series of choices. What time to leave to get there? At the metro station, running to catch the train? Wait for the walk sign at the crosswalk or crosswalk? Say hello to old friends on the sidewalk?
Inside the compact gallery are three large bright abstract paintings and, on a wooden table, a pair of dice and multicolored blocks. Two people are sitting on compact stools, casually playing some sort of game. The printed instructions provide only the most minimal rules, but you can figure them out by looking at them. Players take turns rolling the two dice and placing small, brightly colored cubes on a gridded game board. The numbers they roll correspond to the total number of cubes they can put down during their turn. And they continue until the board is full.
This is known in game theory as a non-zero-sum game, where one player’s decision does not necessarily result in the other player gaining or losing. Wins and losses of all players do not add up to zero. Everyone can win, in other words: a win-win game. This philosophy seems out of step with our current culture. Why play a game just for fun?
This isn’t the first time Dekkenga has experimented with games that have no definite winners. Previously, she created a deck of painted cards – a multiple object – with tones declined in complementary colors: red/green, orange/blue and yellow/violet. This simple game has no set game rules – only suggestions, printed on cards, are included. You could see it as a tarot deck for color theory, a playful step beyond Josef Albers and Johannes Itten.
Dekkenga, who is based in Randolph, Vermont, and Doha, Qatar, is adept at using programs like Photoshop and Illustrator to generate paint compositions and color schemes, and although his paintings use his own rules and strategies, there is no victory over the arbitrary logic of abstraction.
His playing could be understood as a manual for interpreting these intricate paintings – graphic tableaux of hard edges and soft-focus curves – to make sense of these open performances of form and information. Of the three paintings on display, the largest seems to have the strictest rules: cubes push and pull against an impasto background. The other two paintings have a more informal internal order, with stairs and blocks blending into strongly curved forms, moving away from pure geometric abstraction.
Dekkenga once said that, for her, an optimal space to view her work is a place of contemplation, such as a library or museum, where one can spend time reflecting on philosophical thought or theory. She achieves this in her exposition through her game – “A Two-Player Game Without Opponents”, she titled it – where playing the back-and-forth action slows down the show’s playback. Without mediation by a digital device (this game could easily have been an application), it forces the viewer to interact at leisure with physical objects (game pieces and paintings) in order to fully experience the exhibition.
We leave the show thinking about other choices: how we navigate the ever-changing world we live in and how that affects our communities. One might intentionally buy local rather than at a big company, intentionally walk or take public transportation instead of driving a car, intentionally seek human interaction instead of using the cash register or ATM.
One might intentionally seek out an exhibition by an emerging artist in a compact gallery and spend an afternoon playing a game that doesn’t necessarily have a winner in order to look and contemplate abstract paintings that don’t necessarily reveal their answers. easily. These intentional choices could lead us somewhere or nowhere.
“Mariah Dekkenga: Non-Zero Sum” is streaming at Situations in New York City through December 1.