Artist Max Li at the Trapdoor Studio. (Photo by Jake Wiens)

The first pop-up exhibition at Trapdoor Studio, The Eight Excuses for Not Coming, features eight works by Max Li, an artist who graduated from University of Chicago in 2021.

This is Li’s first solo exhibition since 2018 and his first one outside of school. Trapdoor Studio at 1303 Chicago Ave. is also a new space. He admits that exhibiting in an unfamiliar space and catering to Evanston audience members – instead of the familiar faces of students, professors and friends who showed up at his university fine arts shows – wasn’t always easy.

A multimedia sculpture by Max Li now on view at Trapdoor Studio. (Photo provided)

Li and Trapdoor’s founder, Ava DeCapri, met through DeCapri’s partner, who also went to University of Chicago. It’s been a challenge understanding the space and getting a sense of orientation in the gallery, Li says, but he had the viewers in mind, using the space to his advantage  as he put several pieces in the immediate field of view, allowing viewers to make their discoveries. The gallery space is smaller than most others, making the positioning of works a challenging aspect for exhibitors.

Li produced eight multimedia works that reflect the arbitrariness of decision-making in our lives. Each piece offers an abstract look at an absurd or arbitrary scenario in life. The title piece features a large opaque film with eight pieces of paper stuck on it, representing eight excuses for not coming, the event left intentionally obscure. While the numbers one through eight are visible, the actual excuses are obscured with blue tape.

“First of all – why eight? In every culture, we always attach some sort of meaning to numbers,” says Li. “But it could be seven, or six. The number choice itself shows how arbitrary decisions can be.”

In preparing for the show, Li drew upon previous multicultural experiences. He has lived in both China and the United States and has had a range of religious experiences. In China, he has seen Buddhism at play. Moving to California in high school, he attended evangelical school, which gave him a glimpse into Western religions.

As a documentary filmmaker in college, Li traveled internationally and was intrigued by how people used readily available materials to construct objects. And these objects acted as  simple solutions to their needs, such as spiritual desire. 

Max Li’s work explores humans’ tendency to imbue symbols with spiritual meaning, (Photo provided)

“There is a universality in the way people use targets or objects to latch on to their faith or their conceptions of reality,” says Li, referring to physical objects such as crosses that suggest a deeper meaning in certain religious contexts. Human beings have decided to shine these objects in a new light, giving them an arbitrary role.

One of the pieces in the exhibition is a colorful Lego cross sitting in one corner of the gallery, defying expectations of traditional materials used in making religious objects.

Li also uses found objects such as unscratched lottery tickets. 

“The lottery tickets tickle a kind of curiosity in us,” says Li. The odds of winning the lottery are low, and the chances of winning big are even lower, but the slim possibilities don’t prevent us from trying again and again, making the decision to gamble.

Li’s pieces are constantly changing and evolving. One of the pieces on view at Trapdoor has partially collapsed from its original state, but Li loves it: he thinks that it shows the ephemeral nature of life. Previously, he made sculptures with balloons that deflated over time and evolved into different works altogether.

After the Trapdoor exhibition, Li will be working on surveying 60637, the zip code for his neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. He also hopes to write scripts from interviewing strangers and share those pieces in readings with members of his community.

The exhibition will be on view at Trapdoor Studio by appointment throughout March.

Daphne Yao is a freelance reporter for the Evanston RoundTable; she is also studying journalism at Northwestern University. Reach out and follow her on Twitter @daphnecyao.