Paul Sietsema explores what it means to be an artist today – amid a barrage of images, instant access to information, and the alternate realities presented by digital technology – in his exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago on view September 7, 2013 to January 5, 2014. Paul Sietsema is the most comprehensive exhibition to date for the artist, who lives and works in Los Angeles. It brings together three films -- Figure 3 (2008), Anticultural Positions (2009), and the recently completed At the hour of tea (2013) -- along with drawings, paintings, and other works on paper.

Sietsema begins with traditional media, such as photographs and other items, including cast-off paintings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries that refer to specific bodies of knowledge (such as art history), realistically rendering them in meticulously worked drawings and sculptures. He then films these various works, a process that can span two to five years, arranging, layering, and comparing the original images and objects with the ideas, information, and knowledge associated with them to explore how imagery and material affect our understanding of culture and history.

Sietsema’s efforts are focused on returning significance to the activity of image-making. His complex working method reflects his belief that the purpose of an artwork is to mediate information or meaning in a way that matches its cultural context. This flattening out of history makes the subjects of his work accessible to the viewer in unexpected ways, suggesting new stories and connections over time.

Since the late 1990s, Sietsema has created several in-depth, multimedia investigations, each combining a 16mm film presentation with other artworks. For example, in the film Figure 3, Sietsema chose precolonial ethnographic objects and tools, primarily from the South Pacific, as his subject. These objects served as inspiration for a series of highly detailed sculptures -- incorporating materials such as plaster and printing ink -- which Sietsema then captured on 16mm film. In its presentation of the sculptures, the film resembles an ethnographic documentary, highlighting Sietsema’s fascination with methods of cataloguing and classification while blurring the line between different eras of cultural and historical authorship. Sietsema describes this as memories being delivered to the viewer.

Another film, Anticultural Positions, originally presented as a “lecture” at the New School in New York, intersperses close-ups of the working surfaces in Sietsema’s studio with original and appropriated text, emphasizing the site of production in his practice.

The exhibition is organized by the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio, and curated by Christopher Bedford, director of the Rose Art Museum, Waltham, Massachusetts. The Chicago presentation is coordinated by Lynne Warren, Curator at the MCA Chicago.