By SARAH SENTILLES
WITH A CLEAR MIND, you can move the truth–the latest exhibit at the Lumber Room–is not to be missed. The brilliantly curated group show must be experienced in person (a screen won’t do) and features work from the Miller Meigs collection by Tacita Dean, Sol LeWitt, Agnes Martin, Chadwick Rantanen, Dorothea Rockburne, and Lynne Woods Turner. If you’ve ever been afraid of abstract art, if you’ve ever thought you don’t understand it or don’t like it or just don’t get it, this is the show that will change your mind.
I spent Saturday afternoon at the Lumber Room with Lynne Woods Turner, a Portland-based artist, and I made us spend most of our time looking at her art–21 gorgeous drawings, each measuring three inches by three inches. Because the drawings are small, all 21 of them can be hung in a single row on just two walls. As I walked along one of the walls, the drawings seemed animate, in motion, alive. There is tension within each drawing, places where lines almost touch, where the negative space becomes the positive space, and there is also tension between the drawings, as lines disappear, or shapes are turned upside down, or straight lines curve, or new lines materialize. The drawings feel like a dance, or like directions for a dance, choreography.
Turner has, in fact, been thinking about dance. Symmetry and balance shape the drawings in this show—forms double and multiply, mirror one another–but in dance, Turner noted, you can be asymmetrical and still have balance in the body, an idea she’s been engaging in her more recent paintings and drawings. “I’m thinking about the curve of the spine,” she said, “the shift of hips and shoulders.”
During our conversation Turner offered what she called a “defense of small works.” By working small, Turner can investigate how to make something expansive without resorting to “throwing materials at it.” She works in her studio every day, and the small size allows her to make a lot of work, to explore ideas fully without space or material limits. (In an earlier conversation at her studio, Turner confessed to having no patience for artists who feel blocked–Just stop talking about it and make something, she said–and I now hear her words in my mind every day as I sit at my desk to write, or as I don’t sit at my desk and don’t write.)
For her drawings, Turner uses scraps of old paper and very sharp pencils (.003), often sharpening her pencil after each line drawn. Turner has mastered mark making. When I commented on the perfection of her technique, she told me that she once spent so many days in a row drawing ellipses using a precise measuring system of dots and lines that she can now draw a perfect ellipse by hand.
The size of the paper Turner chose here (three inches by three inches) is connected to the size of her palms, and the colors–reds and pinks, the green hue of the paper–also allude to the body, to blood and chlorophyll, what Turner calls the primary forces of life. Turner’s work is precise and rigorous and yet remains organic. Nature works this way, she said. If you look at a branch and stem and leaves, their arrangement is precise, but there is immense variation and interest.
Turner is interested in the constraints of the body and said she understands art as a process of moving something from the body into the world. In her book The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry calls this transition from inside to outside “work.” By “work” Scarry is referring to the process of moving an idea from the “self-contained loop” of the imagination to an “equivalent loop now projected into the external world.” For Scarry, the expression out into the world–the making of a painting or sculpture or drawing–breaks the privacy of the imagination, so that what was once in your head is now shareable. Though the created object may not measure up to how you imagined it, the fact that it can be seen by others makes community, relationship, and collective action possible. It is, Scarry insists, world changing.
To call Turner’s 21 untitled drawings subtle or quiet would be a mistake. They are demanding. They are about the need for careful seeing, the imperative to look again and again. The longer I looked at a single drawing the more I could see, but then the drawing would change, become something else entirely, and I would be confronted with the limits of my sight. Turner’s drawings make me think that maybe I haven’t ever looked at anything carefully enough–not this drawing, not the one next to it, not the person standing next to me, not the bird singing on the branch outside my window, not the faces of the people I love. For me, now, in this time of drones and racially charged killings, anything that challenges sight–its dependability, its veracity–is a political act when sight is being used to kill. Turner’s abstract works remind me that art does not need to engage explicitly political content to have political effects.
Because the drawings are minimal, every line feels intentional. When I asked about the red lines in one of the drawings, Turner explained that she’d first drawn the line with a sharp graphite pencil, pressing down hard enough to score the paper. She then erased the graphite and filled it in with red colored pencil. Another drawing contains a pink color that Turner made by first filling the shape with red and then erasing it. Some of the drawings contain small dots seemingly made with a pencil tip, representing energy, pollen, light, and movement.
WITH A CLEAR MIND also includes Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #109, which was drawn by Turner, Nobuto Suga, Storm Tharp, and Sarah Miller Meigs over several days and is magnificent. There are 10,000 five-inch lines on the left wall and 10,000 ten-inch lines on the right. The walls seem to vibrate. Our shadows change the room. Though the walls are painted white, they appear slightly yellow then blue, due to sky and building and light. The walls were made according to LeWitt’s instructions and were supposed to have the texture of a fine orange peel to collect the graphite of each mark. I want to stay in that room for a long time. I’d sleep there if I could, watch the light shift, meditate on the lines. Developing a conceptual idea for an artwork and then having other people make it is alien to Turner’s own creative process, but Turner loves that LeWitt came up with a simple idea that could be executed with humble materials (a pencil, a straight edge, a wall) with minimal instruction by a group of people who learned to pay attention to each other’s bodies, to collaborate, to create something that doesn’t belong to them–and that will, soon, be painted over.
I could go on because there is so much more to see. Thirty screenprints by Agnes Martin. Two drawings by Dorothea Rockburne in which she uses blue carbon paper. A loop made with medical tubing by Chadwick Rantanen held in place by the room itself, columns and floor and ceiling. And a film by Tacita Dean. Like Turner’s drawings, all of the works assembled here–their lines and colors, their forms, their references to time and fragility and mortality and possibility–require careful viewing. They ask the viewer to stay awake and attentive, to look again and again, not just for the sake of art, but for each other.
This is the final week of WITH A CLEAR MIND. The Lumber Room will be open Friday, May 1 and Saturday, May 2 from 12-5. Don’t miss it.