The book I read was in your eyes

Anne Hamilton at Elizabeth Leach, Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson Paulsen at PDX Contemporary Art

When I first thought to write this essay for ArtsWatch, the artists for the 2014 Whitney Biennial had not yet been announced. I mention this because now I cannot consider the Portland exhibits I wish to write about without contemplating the tenor of the Whitney curators’ choices for the upcoming Biennial. Much of the art chosen is by artists who also write about art, or artists who often use text in their work, or artists who only use text in their work, and to fill out this line of thought, publishers of texts. (See the breakdown here.)

Not that I want to make claims for being prescient or any such thing, but the art that caught my eye in Portland the last two months also had much to do with writing and reading. Never mind that I am often creatively geared this way and that my own predisposition may guide me toward this type of work—I have seen a lot lately. In the last year or so I have written essays about artists who use text as a central focus of their work: Lisa Radon’s sublime ἐπί ἡμέρα (epi hemera) and Sue Tompkins’ typewritten works at Portland Museum of Modern Art and part of this year’s TBA Festival.

Now, Elizabeth Leach has an exhibit by Ann Hamilton that runs for ten weeks through January 11, plus Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson Paulsen were around the corner at PDX Contemporary Art last month. Then there is an ongoing curatorial thrust of Yale Union. While I hesitate to call it a trend, I cannot brush it off as a coincidence. Something is afoot.

Whether text (and I mean this in the broadest possible sense) is finally getting its due as the inspiration for and an element of a fair amount of art we see these days, or that the worlds of the poet, philosopher, curator, critic and artist have irrevocably melded into a Leviathan of practice, it nevertheless has me thinking.

Does building a richer inner life, namely by reading, run the danger of becoming a form of hermeticism, thereby leaving something or someone behind?

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Hamilton’s show at Elizabeth Leach Gallery (through January 11) is a wide-ranging exhibit with a multitude of sculpture, video, drawing and photography elements, something we should expect from a multi-media installation artist with a career long enough to accumulate various competences. While a few pieces date to the 1990’s, most have been made in the past few years. Several of the works involve some aspect of reading and how that communication is archived and disseminated, and by extension, how the contained ideas enter a process of understanding.

Some of the most foundational pieces are sculpture made out of what used to be books, cut up, stacked and then photographed, or as fanned-out constructions. When the general idea of a book is transformed, for instance into a brick, what is elemental or fundamental gives us a point of departure from an idea of one object toward another for the purpose of contemplation. The same process occurs when we read: In our heads, we process the information in a book, much as we process information from objects. (It is therefore not too far of a stretch to have literary types in the next Whitney.)

But the cut-ups may best be a metaphor for much of the exhibit, because many of Hamilton’s works at Leach are pieces that have been employed in her larger installation projects. Granted, knowing this may skew my take on them as discrete objects. Can a line taken from a poem be beautiful or sublime presented in and of itself, or does it suffer the loss of a larger context of the poem or of a set of poems? I don’t want to use the word “artifact,” yet in many instances, the pieces may be too discrete.

Or, perhaps I am putting too fine of a point on it for this showcase. (What’s an artist or gallerist to do?) The embossings that comprise the 2012 series, “Elocution,” are handsome and make one think about the cacophony that language can become when laying out complex or multi-layered ideas. An early work, “Cinder” (a silver thimble is etched with Susan Stewart’s poem of the same name and encased in a book-like box) stands on its own as well. A number of concordances of literary works and newspapers from Hamilton’s 2012 Park Avenue Armory installation “the event of a thread” are presented. Those of William James’s “The Varieties of Religious Experience” and Aristotle’s “De Anima” are the ones that retain an element of monumentality apart from the event for which they were made.

reading... Art and Ventriloquism by David Goldblatt p. 80-81/Elizabeth Leach Gallery

reading… Art and Ventriloquism by David Goldblatt p. 80-81/Elizabeth Leach Gallery

“Reading Prints,” a series of inkjet prints from 2008, while fairly straightforward, take us in a tangential direction that pays closer attention to the how of understanding when we read. “Reading Prints” are color-manipulated, photographed pages from books the artist has read; but more significantly, these pages have annotations made by the artist. Words are underlined, sentences and phrases circled or starred. We are allowed to see what the artist thought was important in these writings while also seeing them as drawings of a sort, helped by the coloration and the medium. We have all made such “drawings” at one time or another, often with our own, distinct set of symbols, yet is this shared experience less quixotic than quotidian, beyond, that is, the fact they are framed on the gallery wall?

With the enhanced value of this commonality, this exaltation of a shared experience—even with its variations still recognizable as each individual’s need to internally clarify and highlight—I still find myself interested in the text first. Never mind that the artist read these books and what that tells me about the artist, along with the types of marks made, for this seems more like voyeuristic celebrity gazing, and provides an impression of Hamilton at best second-guessed. This leaves me with a surety consisting only of the marks made on the page and the way the pages have been displayed, and I’m not sure that is enough. But that may just be me.

Still, this frustration with getting a “good read” can lead one to explore where gaps and traces still manage a conveyance, albeit as something ambiguous; but we can also see where a communication of ideas in art becomes so exclusionary within a specific context that it risks failure.

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In her book, “The Poetics of Indeterminacy,” critic Marjorie Perloff states, “…if the poet regards the landscape as external to himself, he reads meanings into it.” A remark she made at YU while commenting on the thoughts of Ian Hamilton Finlay a few weeks ago echoes the idea: “That which we cannot speak, we must construct.”

If we must allow for an ambiguous space—lesson number one in any linguistic or critical analysis— then there is always an external that calls to be reconstructed in order to be internalized, or for that matter, made into art as much as accumulated as knowledge. Or, put another way, that which is external is that of which we cannot speak but nevertheless must construct, for the need to read meaning into it starts with the recognition that there is an external and acts as the engine for the construction. That would certainly hold true for any understanding the viewer of an art object would make, even if one does not at first necessarily think of the object as an art object per se.

Certainly an illustrated manuscript is a work of art. And if we disregard the words contained in any other book, whether open or closed, and that book is used as a material to make a piece of art, we can readily see its value as such. Yet, there is a sort of double-distancing when certain presuppositions are involved, say, when a poem appears both as an image and words on the page. How then do we bring meaning to art based on the words of the book we have never opened?

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This was a problem posed in the photographs of collected objects in a series of photographs by Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson Paulsen last month at PDX Contemporary Art. Part of their exhibit “A Series of Rectangles,” the photos are collectively titled “Object Lessons” (i.e. “Object Lesson: Friendship by Simone Weil,” and “Object Lesson: Means Without End by Giorgio Agamben”), and are of items mentioned in the philosophical writings of the authors in the titles. Some of the the photos have very few objects while in others over 40 things have been laid out for the camera. Most of the items are readily identifiable found objects and a few are remnants of the artists’ earlier works.

Object Lesson: Means without End by Giorgio Agaben/PDX Contemporary Art

Object Lesson: Means without End by Giorgio Agaben/PDX Contemporary Art

However, in that I have never read these authors, how the catalogued objects relate to the titles, the concepts or writers in the titles remains beyond me. And had I not read a recent interview about these photographs by the artists on the online publication “Bad at Sports,” I don’t know that I would have been able to make an exact connection.

And now that I can, what am I left with? In the interview, Anna Gray tries to answer:

“Looking at the objects authors use was particularly interesting in terms of reading philosophy. Scavenging for philosophical object lessons became really interesting to us because of the difficulty of reading that kind of material—there’s a certain level of abstraction. I would feel myself really grasping for those material examples to try and understand, and sometimes they wouldn’t be really actually be that palpable—they’re imagined or metaphorical things, and that’s where the interest in doing the object indexes and also the drawings emerged.”

The objects in the photos are stand-ins for their original context, and while the groupings may imply some connectivity, they falter in the attempt to concretize, or rather, create a new and sustainable narrative from the abstractions of philosophical thought. They come across as somewhat arbitrary and are thus stripped of their capacity for metaphor. On the other hand, the drawings she mentions succeed because the metaphor is contained within the image itself.

The “Object Lessons” mark a departure from earlier work by this duo (the drawings do not and there is plenty of other work in this show that continues along the more familiar trajectory) and would seem out of place were it not for the exhibit’s title, “A Series of Rectangles.” Yet, even the title harkens to a strategy that has been successful for these artists, and might be the problem: Weary of a ready “I get it” from those who are all too familiar with their tropes, no matter how appreciated they might be by viewers (myself included), the “Object Lessons” may be first steps into new territory, but for now, it is to be their leap alone into the void to see what happens. I have faith they’ll figure it out.

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After a while, what satisfaction (aside from a possible paycheck) is there in making wholly accessible art work? We even level it as a criticism, self or otherwise, that leads to more obscure pursuits, less commercially viable, and therefore, so the thinking might go, more successful at avoiding or forestalling cooptation.

There is considerable precedence for this perspective, particularly within the history of Modernism, and viewers have come to accept (if not embrace) the strategy. The time when we consider the approach innovative or controversial has passed, though, as Modernist practices are joined by artists who stress activism on one end of the spectrum or else choose a type of mysticism on the other. Granted, this is a coarse model I am constructing, evidenced by relying on a continuum to make my point (along with the understanding that this is an essay and not a book or five). If you prefer, we could call these manifestations “tendencies.”

With this thought dangling, let’s focus more on the two exhibits in question, on the relationship we have with reading, and what may come from that individual experience in making and viewing art. Which is more than enough.

There is a kind of pragmatism behind much of what many artists read. The same may be said for people interested in writing about art, and for this particular discussion, artists who make art about reading and writing. We look for inspiration, and sometimes from those special moments for an idea we can apply, whether a new way of looking at the world or a specific problem within our art practice. But here’s the hard part: While reading is of this world (and is considered an art form by many), it is also displaced, and the more esoteric the reading, the more difficult it is to translate into something concrete, just as the more internal a dialogue, the more mysterious it becomes for others if verbalized. Even as a form of mysticism with a ritualized technique, it still doesn’t guarantee accessibility or resonance, though the viewer might be grateful for this structure in an artwork.

Of course, the artist can say the work, sitting there external to the viewer, is open-ended, the disconnects more unavoidable ambiguities than opaque obscurity. (I do not believe we want to begin a discussion about dada or abstraction.) Passions being what they are, I’m not so sure the artist can be faulted in their own disconnect; not initially, anyway.

 

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