It’s probably true that when I’m thinking about something, I’m more likely to see examples of it around me or see the world through that lens. It’s possibly true that when I think about something I call examples of that thing into being (I think therefore I SEE).
I think in the case of Shawn Creeden’s solo exhibition, Of Things Disturbed That Had Been Sleeping, at the Manuel Izquierdo Sculpture Gallery, we can say that there is a combination of the exhibition calling to mind certain ideas, and those ideas in turn filtering how I see that exhibition. I’d have been less puzzled by the embroidered map of a gridded “Texas” in this show if I’d read Cormac McCarthy’s novels which inspired this body of work. Often (always?) set in West Texas or borderlands between Texas and Northern Mexico, these novels feature almost feral humans in wild lands. But it’s Creeden’s ulterior motive for including this map in the exhibition that is compelling: the illustration of man’s compulsion to divide things up, to draw arbitrary lines, to control nature, or just to control.
Me, I feel a pull between wanting to understand by way of figuring out, analysing, which often means separating this from that, making distinctions, identifying, identifying qualitative differences, categorizing, and yes, drawing lines and on the other hand trying to understand by crossing my eyes (metaphorically), blurring the distinctions to get closer to a sense of the whole, the sense that everything is one thing. You make take that in a metaphysical sense if you are inclined, and if not, you may think of the lowly atom.
Lucretius paraphrased Epicurus’ thoughts on the nature of all things as being comprised of the atom and the void, all difference reduced to one difference. We may know more now about the subatomic when Lucretius merely speculated, but the more finely we identify the particles, the more that we realize that there are very few ingredients that make up everything we know in the physical world. Moving from the material to the metaphorical, Lucretius also identified in the falling atoms, the possibility of the clinamen or swerve, the genesis of variation, evolution, of difference, of distinction.
Creeden’s show is made up of works of sculpture, readymade, and embroidery: another map of Northern Mexico on muslin, a large embroidery of two airedales which illustrates a scene from a McCarthy novel in which the baddest fighting dogs stare out from the back of a shed where they are chained as the wild embodied in the domesticated. There are two rope sculptures—I think of them as drawings in spiky sisal rope—”War Bridle, First Form” is a simple lariat that Creeden says is all a skilled handler needs to bring a wild horse under control. It is a thin thing. Doesn’t take much to impose a man’s will on a beast, it seems to say, or on the land, witness those delicate dotted lines dividing West Texas counties. Doesn’t take much.
But I wonder if the man wielding that lariat might feel more of a oneness with the horse rather than separateness; that the horse might be to him or become more than a conveyance or companion, but an extension of himself.
Among the other pieces in the exhibition are metal small animal traps; “Conocemos Por Lo Largo De Las Sombras Que Tardio Es El Dia (We Know The Lateness Of The Day by The Length Of The Shadows)” is a beautiful radial star like a giant starfish on concrete floor, each rusty steel trap at the end of its chain set to strike. And there is a scent lure, “La Matriz,” a clear bottle filled with a dark blood-hued substance, pulverized bits of all the parts of an animal, glands and the like, that give off a scent other animals can’t resist. The perfect lure. Finally, there are rattle snake rattles in mason jars (or ceramic facsimiles of the rattles) as the only trophy in the midst of this potential for domination and death. The exhibition is lit with red kerosene hurricane lamps hung from the walls; Let there be Light, they say and why wait for God to make light when you can make it on your own?
The lanterns cast the exhibition further as one about control, about making light in darkness, about turning a wild horse into a work horse; control that once meant survival but turned into something else along the way, maybe about the time the first dotted line was drawn on a map. Control in the wild once meant the best possibility for food, warmth, and mobility. But the will to control moved well beyond survival. And in the process, separations between us and them, man and animal made us forget any sense of oneness. And the more lines were drawn, the more distinctions were made, across the west, with borders, boundaries, and fences. [“Give me land, lots of land under stormy skies above…don’t fence me in.”]
There’s something productive, too, about Creeden bringing together the ultra-masculine world of the frontier, the rusting tools of death, the rope of control, and the traditionally feminine art of embroidery in a kind of reconciliation or detente, …it has the effect of butching up embroidery, and softening the edges of what otherwise would be an almost too-easy critique. In is statement on the show, Creeden asks, “What does it mean to impose a semi-arbitrary logic on an often featureless landscape (West Texas, The Great Plains, etc)? How does it feel to come face to face with the deceptively and cruelly simple apparatus used to control and dominate animals, both the ones we make use of and live with, and those we loath and seek to destroy? Can a looped length of ¾” rope really bring under control a wildly bucking feral mustang?” The questions (and the larger ideas they invite one to consider) are worth asking and these works leave just enough room for the mind to wander over them unfettered.