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Alyson Provax at Well Well Projects

In her new show, "There is so much I want to tell you," the artist builds upon her previous explorations with letterpress and hidden text with gossamer layers. The effect is anything but insubstantial.

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Untitled (I want to know that you know). Letterpress on Gampi (2022), 5” x 7” Photo by Mario Gallucci

There is a piece in Alyson Provax’s new show of text-based works, “There is so much I want to tell you,” that you can only read if the right gust of wind comes by. Toward the back of Well Well Projects you’ll find a stack of sepia paper pinned to the gallery wall, each piece as thin as onion skin. The phrase on the top-most leaf reads, “I want to know that you know” letterpressed in a crisp serif. The paper is translucent enough to indicate the presence of other messages, but not translucent enough to reveal what they are.

My grandfather, who was an art restorer, taught me to never, ever, ever touch anything in a gallery no matter how desperately I wanted to, and I am nothing if not his faithful student. But I will admit to having walked past this piece extra quickly to see if I could get the leaves to flutter. They did, but all I could glimpse was an upside down phrase on the second page. I have no idea what it said or what lies further beneath.

Untitled (I want to know that you know) is the crux piece in the show. For years, Provax has been playing with ways to occlude text—hiding it in the gutter of her artist book so that you have to break the spine to read it, layering it so densely on paper that it is nearly illegible—in order to delay the viewer’s understanding, to withhold something from us, to force us into disquieting uncertainty. But never like this. Never without the ultimate possibility of discovery.

This withholding brings out a longing in the viewer, a nearly insatiable desire for understanding and clarity. Provax elicits these feelings by toying with the imprecision of language. In her artist statement she writes, “At its best, imprecise language can be a way of pointing at a feeling that is too large or complex to truly share.” She adds, “I’ve been thinking about projection and interpretation: how much of the relationship between me and you is between us, and how much of it remains siloed within our individual selves.” Do we ever truly understand one another or is all communication subject to distortion?

(Untitled) There is so much I want to tell you. Letterpress on archival tissue paper (2022). 20” x 22” x 2” Photo by Mario Gallucci

Throughout the exhibition, Provax rides the edge of our frustration and longing in different ways. To create the show’s eponymous work, Provax crumpled a 24″ x 36″ piece of tissue paper, then letterpressed onto it the phrase “There is so much I want to tell you.” After printing, she pulled open the wrinkled mass until the letters could no longer be pieced together by the viewer. This is the most three-dimensional work in the show, teasing out the contours of our need to understand and to be understood.

Detail of (Untitled) There is so much I want to tell you. Photo by Mario Gallucci

Two works in the show feature a paper called Tengucho that archivists commonly use to protect old documents and prints. It is a paper that lives between other pieces of paper in sterile rooms, touched only by white-gloved hands. Its weight is somewhere between a cobweb and a tissue, so delicate that the tiny magnets Provax uses in her studio to affix in-progress works to the wall tore clean through it. By letterpressing onto it, Provax takes a material whose only value to the world is relational—it exists solely to preserve the life and meaning of other things—and gives it a purpose of its own.

Untitled (I want, you know, that). Letterpress on Tengucho (2022) 51” x 17” Photo by Mario Gallucci

One of these works is the diptych Untitled (I want, you know, that) in which overlaid sheets of Tengucho—printed using the aforementioned crumpling technique—create an echo that can be read in any direction: 

I want, you know, that. 

You know I want that. 

You know that I want you. 

Though Provax continues to push the limits of obfuscation in her 2D works—making pieces that are more textural than I’ve ever seen from her—it is these diaphanous 3D works that are the most exciting to me, in part because they are the greatest departure from her previous work. Letterpress, by its nature, is bounded, finite: inked type touches paper to make a discernible mark. These gossamer pieces are like vapor. They give the feeling of entering a room after someone has whispered a secret into it.

Provax’s 2021 show at Well Well, a two-person exhibition that she collaborated on with Seattle artist Serrah Russell, lingers in this one. Together the two artists created an entire body of work by correspondence. This was during the early days of the pandemic when we were all reaching out for one another, trying to find connection any way we could. Provax and Russell each made work and mailed it to the other without expectation for how it would arrive (the artists incorporated the “postal modifications” that happened en route into the final work) or what the other person would do with it. Provax letterpressed onto some of Russell’s collages. Russell created collages using elements of Provax’s letterpress pieces. Most of the works, though, were sent from one artist to the other, living in the recipient’s studio for months, unmodified. They both spent the entire period of collaboration surrounded by the other person’s work and none of their own, save for the piece that they were currently working on (Provax told me that she’d forgotten what she’d made until all the works were brought back to Portland for install). As such, the influence of each artist’s work was deeply apparent in that of the other, bridging the 175 miles between them.

 Untitled (I keep waiting to feel like I did). Letterpress on Tengucho (2022) 18.5” x 12” x 2” Photo by Mario Gallucci

This feeling of correspondence carries over into Provax’s current show—in the form of a ghost book (above) with one of its pages suspended in mid-turn, and in the aforementioned stack of papers that we’re not allowed to read—but instead of communicating over distance with Russell, she seems to be communicating with us through time, grappling with the limitations of expression.

To my mind, one of the hallmarks of a great artist is that each of their pieces is instantly identifiable. This doesn’t mean that they must continually repeat themselves, playing their greatest hits like aging rockstars. On the contrary, it demonstrates that the throughline of their vision is so distinct that it can be felt and seen regardless of how much their practice changes direction. Since I started following Provax’s work in 2016, she has hidden letterpress inside fortune cookies, splashed it onto bus benches and billboards, and woven it into blankets. Her materials constantly change. But every piece is unmistakably hers. 

Sponsor
Bag & Baggage Theater Productions The Vault Hillsboro Oregon

Often when we love an artist’s work, we want them to continue making it exactly as it is so that we can continue to love it exactly as we do. Provax’s work is virtuosic in that the more it changes the more inevitable it feels. And with every new turn, she brings us along with her in all of our grasping desire.

“There is so much I want to tell you” is on view at Well Well Projects through August 28th.
This article is co-published with OUT OF THE BOX.

Jennifer Rabin is a Portland-based writer, artist, and arts activist who fights for equity and increased funding for the arts. If you want to follow along, please visit https://jenniferrabin.substack.com/.

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One Response

  1. As a long time follower of her work, I am deeply grateful for her continued exploration. She’s a marvel. I am particularly struck by her capacity to illuminate and obscure simultaneously, and even in the obscuring provide further layers of illumination. I could just stand and stare at her work for hours. At this point I guess I actually have. It’s also worth noting that it is a rare gift to so capture and evoke such work the way Jennifer Rabin does. I am equally struck by Alyson Provax’s works and this beautiful writing about them. “They give the feeling of entering a room after someone has whispered a secret into it.” If ever there were an ode worthy of its subject!

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