Thursday, November 06, 2014


For the better part of the past fifteen years I have been pushing around on paper the importance of quality to art.  To be sure, I haven't worked on it everyday, and sometimes haven't written anything about it for months, even years.  Still, I've thought about quality continuously.  Half the time I don't even do so consciously anymore, but every time I see a piece of art, somewhere in my brain, quality excites a neuron and jumps across a synapse.  After all those years, all I have to show is what is below.  After all those years I've also realized that I could be at this forever, as much more of forever as I've got left, so it's best not to wait any longer.  I might as well show what I have and continue from there.              

Post-Mortem and the Neo-Supine

Of all the things that are of which I can be certain, no one thing is more certain than this, quality matters.  If you can't talk about quality when you're talking about art, you're not talking about art.  You may be talking about life, but that's not art.  You may be talking about politics or ethics or personal history, but that's not art either.  Or at least that's not quality.  Quality is not only the ability to make value judgments of the good and the bad, but the basis on which these judgments are made.  We are well beyond the need of any intelligent debate about what is or is not art.  After being bludgeoned, in New York, with a plumbing fixture, by Mr. Duchamp and his ilk (Alphonse Allais, for one), that treaty was signed almost a century ago.  Let it all be art.  That's proved an empty concession.  We are left with the much harder question of good and bad.  Bad art should be worth just as much of our time as if it weren't art at all.  But in the case of the non-art object, at least it has something else (its utility if nothing else) to fall back on.  
In 1999 I was still living in New York and working at Dia, and this is what I thought:
It’s a melancholy object looking at art some days.  Galleries, especially in Chelsea (but also in so many of the look alike galleries Chelsea has spawned all over the world), often resemble morgues.  With their white walls, cement floors, and cold clinical light, the only thing missing are drains in the floor.  On a good day you can almost smell the formaldehyde, it smells like art.  In this environment it's no wonder that artists, curators, gallerists, and gallery goers seem like morticians sprucing up a corpse for another public viewing.  Where are the shaking canes and black eyes that art used to be able to engender?  Where is the vitalness?   Its loss is the loss of the convictions, the assurances, and the expectations of art.  It’s the inevitable running down of the clock.  Death of art?  No.  That would be a relief.  Too dramatic.  It’s worse than that.  It’s simply stagnation.  
In the years since, nothing has happened to change my mind.   
Nothing affirms the vitalness of art more than its supposed death.  Every time an artist has tried to kill it, every piece that is supposed to be the last piece, every declaration that art is dead has only produced one more great piece of art and added another chapter to its history.  It's a distinguished list.  Rodchenko and Malevich tried.  The Futurists tried.  Mondrian tried.  Reinhardt tried.  All failed.  Contemporary artists should give it a whirl.  Instead a concerted effort is made to fill art with life, and nothing kills the vitalness of art more surely than the addition of life.  Like the nightmarish world of Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron, art continues to be expanded to make room for everyone no matter their ability, and everything no matter its quality; an attempt at inclusiveness that puts a perverse, arty twist on the phrase popularized by Karl Marx.  Now that Communism is dead, the contemporary art world has decided to reinvigorate it in an obscene manifestation.  After decades of chipping away at the corners, the red flag has finally been turned into the red dot and found its final resting place in museums and galleries.   
I’d like to make a modest suggestion, call it a proposal.  No, not what you’re thinking.  I don’t want to talk about eating at all.  If you want to think of Jonathan Swift that’s fine, but don’t think of the cannibal Swift, think rather of the scatological Swift, the swift kick in the ass.  

What I'd like to propose is a reinvigoration of... No.  I can't say it.  Not yet.  Let me say something else first.  

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Al McWilliams: Stone Drawings

Stone Drawings, Installation View, Equinox Gallery

After an unexplainable absence of over ten years from the Equinox Gallery's exhibition schedule, Al McWilliams returns with a quiet vengeance.  Standing in the center of "Stone Drawings" the predominant experience is of harmony, a coherent, beautiful totality.  

Seen as a single sustained gesture, "Stone Drawings" revolves like the expansion and contraction of the lungs, the continuous cycle of inhalation, exhalation, and the beginning of a new inhalation of breath.  From in the round, through relief, to flat, and back up to relief, the ease and naturalness with which one set of works leads inexorability to the next, it's easy to end up walking the exhibition in circles following the endless round of rising and falling.

Stone Drawings, Installation View, Equinox Gallery
"Stone Drawings" begins with Sculpture #1 - Sculpture #5, five identical aluminum casts of a small, biomorphic sculpture, set in a line on a long, thin, steel table.  They are the fullness of sculpture in the round, akin to that momentary holding of breath just before the contraction of exhalation.

Stone Drawing #5

Big Paper #7
Next they are squeezed through the marble slabs of the Stone Drawings, to the single sheets of paper of the Big Paper drawings, to expand again, transformed into the stacked offcuts of the Stacked Paper (Heads).  Each of the Stone Drawings is made from a single line drawing of the cast which is then used as a template to cut the marble.  Two overlapped Stone Drawings are the template for the cuts of the Big Paper drawings.  Finally, the offcuts from the sheets of 400 pound paper of the Big Paper drawings are stacked to make the Stacked Paper (Heads).

As the work in "Stone Drawings" is progressing from in the round, through flatness, and up to relief, it also makes its way between multiple and single views, and from "head" through abstraction and back to "Heads."  Through these simultaneous movements, McWilliams makes "Stone Drawings" a brief history of sculpture of the past six hundred years.

From the fifteenth through the sixteenth centuries, even though sculpture was being finished in the round throughout this period, debate arose on the fundamental point of sculpture being either single or multisided.  Opinions divided between sculpture being essentially flat and pictorial with a single privileged vantage point from which a passive viewer regarded the sculpture, versus sculpture having multiple sides with views of equal value and an infinite number of vantage points with the viewer an active participant in the life of the sculpture by having to walk around it.  Not surprisingly, debate extended to the number of studies needed of a subject to produce a convincing sculpture in the round.  Leonardo da Vinci was of the opinion that if properly executed, two would suffice, one from either side.  Others, like Benvenuto Cellini, believed in the necessity of multiple studies depicting a subject's multiple views.  By the second half of the sixteenth century the debate was settled, Mannerist sculpture was the vogue, and multifaciality the dominant practice.

The gradual compression of the work from sculptures #1 - #5 through the Big Paper drawings reflects the movement of sculpture from object to idea in the twentieth century.  The early part of the century was characterized by the Cubist distillation of three dimensional reality to simultaneous, multiple views flattened to two dimensions.  By the late 1960's, sculpture had been pressed so hard by Conceptualism that the object was squeezed out altogether and replaced by "idea."  In an odd way, sculpture in the sixties saw a reemergence of Leonardo's belief in being able to fully understand an object from only two views.  An idea with great currency amongst many of the founders of Minimal sculpture (and seen in the predilection for cubes and rectangular solids) was "sculptural gestalt;" the ability of grasping the entirety of a sculptural form from a single view.
Sculpture #1

After the aesthetic severity of the two preceding decades, the eighties saw a general reintroduction of the figure into progressive sculpture, and the Stacked Paper (Heads) reintroduces the figurative into "Stone Drawings" after its own progression through abstraction.  I say "reintroduces" because as much as sculptures #1 - #5 look nonrepresentational, their feeling is of more than a record of something squeezed in McWilliams's hand.  For me it's a head (specifically Boccione's Futurist sculpture, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space), a feeling reinforced, I think, by the cycle of "Stone Drawings" finally being complete only when McWilliams recognizes a head in the Stacked Paper (Heads).  References to other artists and their work, both representational and abstract, continue and include Arp's biomorphic sculptures and flat, painted reliefs in wood; Noguchi's flat marble sculptures; Matisse's paper cut outs; Brice Marden's loping lines; and finally, allusions to the contorted heads of Francis Bacon.    

Stacked Paper (Heads) #13

In an exhibition that otherwise proceeds in clear, rational steps, McWilliams has mysteriously chosen not to show the plasticene original from which the rest of the exhibition flows.  His decision breaks with the transparency he establishes, but also signals that what is unseen (or maybe just not usually paid attention to) plays as large a part as what is seen.  Sculptures #1 - #5 are each turned slightly, giving simultaneous multiple views similar to the overlapping views used to make the Big Paper drawings.  The grayish veining of the marble Stone Drawings echoes the aluminum of #1 - #5.  The sinuous, meandering cuts of the Stone Drawings contradict the veining, and the rigidity that we know the marble possesses.  The edges of the Big Paper drawings are subtly discolored from the heat of the laser used to make the cuts.  The offcuts from the Big Paper drawings were stacked until McWilliams recognized a head. 

As programmatic as McWilliams has made the generation of one work from the next, the works themselves are not.  Evocative and complex, they demonstrate that the tighter the restrictions, the greater the potential for subtle individual expression in their interpretation and execution.  "Stone Drawings" is what might be called an artist's exhibition.  It shows that appreciation of restraint and economy of means that comes with experience, and the knowledge of how small a gesture can be and yet still be meaningful.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Gerald Janssen: The Mythic Mind

Barcelona, 1998

In the winter of 2002 I had the pleasure of writing about the work of Gerald Janssen.  It was refreshing, and a relief, to see a contemporary artist, especially a photographer, so unlike his contemporaries.  Janssen’s photography defied the then current genre of “here are my friends or here's what I did on my summer vacation;” the type Dave Hickey referred to as “another giant photograph of two German tourists standing beside a mailbox.”  Revisiting those photographs now, I find it no less so.

In "The Mythic Mind," Janssen turned to photographs of his dark suited and masked self in the landscape as his modus operandi.  Ubiquitous and enduring, the mask expresses something fundamental about our grasp of visual reality; that there are other realities just beyond its veil.  Staring into a mirror we are all transcendentalists. Confronted by the physical reality of our faces, we acknowledge the lurking insubstantiality of the mind's presence.  The gulf that separates these creates in Janssen a kind of terror that is palpable.

South Africa, 2000

The mask and the mirror (the self-portrait), show us that only by masking can we see ourselves.  When looking in a mirror we immediately compose ourselves into the self we want or expect.  We rarely if ever see the person others do.  Witness our dismay at photographs taken when caught off guard.  When masked we don't look at ourselves, but search through our eyes and into the minds which are the seats of ourselves.  This is one of the things which distinguishes Janssen's work.  While others are concentrating on the outward appearance of how things look or are manufactured to look, Janssen is trying to catch glimpses of the inward and how things are or may be.  This gives to his work a necessity, and necessity is crucial.  Taken early in the morning, just after sunrise, a fleeting performance is caught in 1/250th of a second.  It's about furtiveness, of light, of time, of identity, of the moment.  Contrasting the furtiveness and the glimpses and the momentariness, the compositions make the light and the action solid and immovable, a momentary stillness of a mind in flux.

Venice, 1998

At heart it doesn't matter who Janssen's strange character with the shifting face is because the photographs are compelling and evocative.  Their scale is right.  There is a modesty about it just as there is a modesty in Janssen's choice of black and white film.  The scale of spectacle to which so much contemporary photography has been reduced is both bigger than, but less than the scale of the mythic.  The mythic is human, spectacle not.  More than anything, it's about the light, the way if flows and pools and eddies, making the real visible, but intangible.  It's always been about the light.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Lyse Lemieux: Shaped Drawings: something wrong about the mouth

Red and Yellow Figure with Orange Fabric
Red with Open Mouth

When John Singer Sargent said, "A portrait is a painting with a little something wrong about the mouth," he made a complex, puzzling statement.  Was he simply making a neutral observation, or was he talking about their relative value as art?  Was it that a portrait is a slightly degraded form of art from a painting; or that a portrait is the more accurate picture of reality, and a painting a corrected, hence idealized, abstracted version?  What he definitely did was identify how minute the distinction could be between representation and abstraction.  On a continuum between the two, Sargent would be at the representative end.  Lemieux plays in that small space where abstraction, process and materiality leans into representation.  Helped along by suggestive titles like Red with Open Mouth, and Red and Yellow Figure with Orange Fabric, what look at first like large abstract shapes slowly resolve themselves into loose figuration.   

A collection of drawings, most from 2010 and 2011 and mainly framed, show where Lemieux's current drawings come from.  The restraint of the earlier work in size and material is dramatically changed in the new which are generally increased in scale, out of their frames, colorful, and partially peeled from the wall, making their backsides accessible.  These are either painted or covered in various fabrics, the colors mixing with the shadows on the wall behind.  Partially revealing the rear teasingly accentuates the fact that there is another side or view, and is given to producing the same sort of frustration as trying to see the backside of sculpture in the round when it's pushed to a wall or placed in a niche.
Lyse Lemieux, Installation view, REPUBLIC gallery
Philip Guston and Louise Bourgeois are two strong influences on Lemieux and both are represented.  Two versions of Guston's large, roaming head of the artist (HEAD LINES: Looking left at P. Guston and HEAD LINES: Looking right at P. Guston) come right off the wall and stand propped up like signboards in the middle of the room.  Both sides are readily accessible, but there is no mistaking which is the dominant view because one, the subordinate, is painted a single color and is partially obstructed by the support.  The material thickness of these drawings is the same thin foam core as the large drawings on the wall, but the props are made of angle-iron.  Using so unnecessarily robust a material to support something so light makes its discovery comical and Gustonesque, the more so if it's the weight of metaphor that they're carrying.

Upside Down Spiral Woman (LB), acrylic and fabric on archival foamcore, 41 x 81 inches

Lemieux's tip of the hat to Bourgeois is her Upside Down Spiral Woman (LB) drawn from the many variations Borgeois did of her Spiral Woman.  Like most the rest of the new drawings, aside from the suggestion of eyes on the HEAD LINESthere are no internal figurative indicators, just outlines; and in the case of Guston and Bourgeois, unmistakable.           

Lemieux's use of fabric on the backs of some drawings (Upside Down Spiral Woman (LB) has a pale blue chenile with fuzzy, raised polka dots), and as connective tissues between others (gauze connects the circular front with the rear plane of Red with Open Mouth), introduces a physicality and tactility that is slightly at odds, and hence creates a tension with, the rather flat, graphic, nature of Lemieux's painting.

Though the show makes the round from drawings that are framed and flat, through unframed and peeling from the wall, to freestanding on the floor, the feeling is not one of a strong impulse towards sculpture on the part of Lemieux; that impulse remains resolutely in the field of drawing.        

The cuts of the knife which define the outlines of the shapes are lines in space, the same as drawn lines.  Where drawn lines give definition against a two dimensional background of paper, for instance, the cut lines give definition against the background of the physical world.  This might be splitting hairs, but they're hairs that Lemieux wants to split, as seen in her consistent reference to her work as "drawings."   
Giving support to her new drawings as drawings, and not paintings, is Lemieux's application of materials which is more graphic than painterly.  The color is broadly and briskly applied, and her overlay of heavy black strokes of ink give the effect of illustrations of giant brush strokes.  

Lemiux describes Bourgeois's work as helping us "travecomfortably between what we know, what we think we know and what we think she wants us to know."  Lemieux's new drawings do the same for the gap between figure and abstraction, and drawing and sculpture, but with a pleasant frisson that I'm sure Bourgeois would appreciate.

First published with

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Etienne Zack: Aforementioned

Papers I, oil on canvas, 37 x 33 inches, 2013

All history is redacted history (Papers I), which is to say that all history is manufactured history (Classified).  This is as true of objects as it is for events. Some things survive, others don't; at least as far as our knowledge of them is concerned.  What enters the story is sometimes a matter not of quality or value, but merely what has the good fortune to survive.  Time is the adversary over which those who write history are victors.  
Classified, oil on canvas, 48.25 x 42 inches, 2013

In the realms of art and artifacts, some come to us intact, others do not.  The reconstructions that we provide for missing sections (as in the sections of vase of Classified) are equivalent to the redacted portions of documents (as in the blacked out sections of Papers I).  They are the blank spaces, realms of and for speculation; so much so, that (as I was once told by a preparator at the American Museum of Natural History) when it comes to reconstructions, science and fiction are in equal balance.  Wholeness existed and was known, but is now lost, although hope for recovery remains.

Regiments, oil on canvas, 74 x 66 inches, 2013

History, no less than art, can be a window that gives a view of what has come before, and in this sense can be nourishing and generative for what will follow. Regiments is part giant store room reminiscent of the final scene of "Citizen Kane" (or the storage of any museum) and part warren.  Loosely buried in the clutter of crates, tables and objects stand enormous carrots connected by radiating timbers like the hubs of spoked wooden wheels, and the spoked space stations of Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey."

Like nodes on a cladogram the carrots provide some semblance of relationship in what would otherwise be chaos.  The transparency of some of the objects, especially the timbers connecting the carrots, gives a sense of motion, as if the process of whatever is happening is happening before our eyes.  It may be an expression of the optimism that if we plant in the soil of history we will be nourished by it.  Yet the leafy green of the carrots has been cut, so growth has been truncated.

Calibration, oil on canvas, 74 x 66 inches, 2013
If history can be generative and a window, it can also be a gate or screen, even if beautifully filigreed, and in that sense can 
stunt growth.  Composed of different types of figurative sculptures (Greek-ish, Aftrican-ish, Paleolithic-ish) assembled into such a barricade, Calibration suggests this darker view.  History offers no passage to the other side (the future), and what we can see of it through the small gaps between the figures is blank.

Circa, oil on canvas, 74 x 66 inches, 2013

At the core of "Aforementioned" is our use and manipulation of history.  Circa shows a group of cases containing a collection of specimens and artifacts: dinosaur, mummy, meteor.  The glass and casework should give a clear and organized view of what's within, but they don't.  Instead the view is fractured and confused into magnified and diminished scales that give an approximate view of the contents, but a close reflection of the fact that no matter how well organized our knowledge, it is incomplete and conditional at best in our manufacture of meaning and history.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Darcy Mann: Into the Forest

Balagan, oil on canvas, 48 x 54 inches, 2012

The German author Goethe wrote, “Men must retire from the world from time to time, for the worldwith its lewd and superficial activity interferes with the awakening of the best.”  The site of that retreat is the wilderness; desert, ocean, but very often forest.  Revered when sublime, feared when dark and unknown, mourned when pillaged, forests are the content laden backdrop to our culture.  From the time we climbed down from the trees, forests have lain deep in our arboreal ancestry, memories of which are stirred by Mann's work.

Scapegoat Bush, oil on canvas, 54 x 48 inches, 2014
Peering into a forest from the outside can trigger the age old response so ingrained in our psyches "don’t go into the forest alone," yet from the British Columbia rain forests of Mann's childhood she knows firsthand that alone inside a forest the anxiety can vanish as the fable-ridden fear is replaced by a sheltering calm. 

80 Miles Per Hour, charcoal on paper, 32 x 48 inches, 2013
Interestingly, the effect of her work operates oppositely; from a calm certainty at a distance, to a confused apprehension up close.  Standing away from paintings like Balagan and Scapegoat Bush, and drawings like  80 Miles Per Hour, they appear clear and defined, giving a convincing illusion of depth; so much so that they look like photographs.  On approach, a kind of joyous confusion replaces depth and illusion as one becomes lost in the minutia of Mann's process and material. 

Each piece, like its referent from Mann's arboreal wanderings, is a tangle of layers: in the drawings, it’s the soft, rich black solids of charcoal, and the dry, scratchy marks of willow stick; in the paintings, its watery washes and stains, thick impasto, and blank canvas.  

Some of the materials Mann draws with are the carboniferous remains of forest fires, but this isn't of overriding importance to her.  Mann's relationship to her shrubs and trees is frustratingly complex.

"My thinking about this work," she says, "is similar to a reporter parachuting in to find some truth in the aftermath of a situation .  A stand of trees or a bush are my pretexts to draw, nothing more that I can be certain of.  Although they come saturated with descriptive and cultural references, that's not my meaning, it was there when I found them.  Much as it might be hoped for or expected, the images divulge no insight.  In fact, they go far to omit information.  Looking at my bushes and trees, there's no way of telling that somewhere in the back of my mind is a cache of far more poignant images, images that could lend deeper understanding into despair and longing." 

As familiar as representations of forests are, Mann paints the way all original painters do; not looking like anybody else.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Day Treadeth On Night

          DAY TREADS ON NIGHT (After Gill), 2012, plaster, clay, 11cm x 21cm x7cm (each)                                                                                                                                              


What do you see when you look out at the world?  Is it primarily material or is it concept?  An underlying organization of ordered elements, or a whirling chaotic randomness?  However we see our world, it is very much through the acquisition and use of language, especially speech, that we individually make our peace with it.

Even though speech seems to be deeply, consciously organized and controlled it also contains the unconscious, the spontaneous and the unpredictable.  One of the mysteries of speech is that we can begin a sentence expressing a thought without being able to find within ourselves evidence of having worked out in advance how that sentence will end.  Yet to have begun, to have been able to correctly place one word after the next to build a coherent thought, we must have done precisely that.  When pointed out, it seems such a small, obvious observation, and yet it's completely astounding.  I was first brought to these thoughts by Meyer Schapiro in his essay "Abstract Art" of 1957, and I am brought to them again by the recent sculpture of Richard Clements. 

Highly organized, conceptually and formally, Clements's work demands language, but is also deeply engaged with mystery and arcane knowledge, even magic.  The problem with language in regards to art, is that because I can call things by words like "sculpture," "formal," "minimal," etc., I can be lazy and don't have to do the work of seeing and experiencing it.  With the work in "Day Treadeth on Night," that would be a pity because I'd only be seeing language, and be cleaving the magic from the object and its material.  It would be like being given every sentence with its end already attached and without the possibility for the kind of mystery that Shapiro points to.  Animated by those same qualities of speech (the unconscious, the spontaneous and the unpredictable) that surpass language, Clements's work wants to reanimate us who have become dull to experience.  It is an appeal to see not just with our eyes, but with our bodies; to reconnect with the material world and really have a look, and feel what's going on.  Language is important, but not more so than material; things like the hard shine of copper, the roughness of sand cast aluminum, and the soft slumpiness of string.    

An exemplar of Clements's amalgam of language and feeling, and a keystone to one understanding of the exhibition as a meditation on the way the mind inscribes itself on the material of the world, are the two brick-like, DAY TREADS ON NIGHT (After Gill), in clay, and cast plaster.  Imprinted with a contemporized version of the titular "Day Treadeth on Night," they can be read as the mind stamped on the body, or concept imposed on material.  They look like Carl Andres after Lawerence Weiner has gotten his hands on them, but their form and text are an inverted variation of the carved stone Night Treadeth on Day by the English sculptor, printmaker, author, and typeface designer Eric Gill (1882-1940).  Gill had in turn borrowed the text from a poem by the English poet William Morris.  For the profoundly disturbed psyche of Gill (who practiced a form of ascetic Catholicism in between bouts of incest, adultery and bestiality), night, with all the intimations that darkness possesses, may indeed have treadeth on day.  Clements sees things the other way; not only in the inversion of the text, but in its sentiment and its method of production.     

Whereas Gill's "brick" is carved stone and unique, Clements's are clay and cast plaster, and infinitely reproducible.  In terms of sculptural material and process, they are separated by materiality vs immateriality; the latter pale ghosts of the former.  Clements recognizes their disparity in his method of acquiring and reproducing their common font:

I took Gill's exact fonts and made a computer document of them.  His fonts which were once very material in essence, are now immaterial.  I got the text laser cut out of Plexiglas, made a wooden brick, placed the text on the brick, took a vacuum mold of it, made a plaster positive, made a negative cast of that, then used it as a mold.

Clements's description of the complex process he followed to achieve something that Gill did so directly is honest, but still contains a deception; which is that for all its procedural roundaboutness, there is more that connects Clements and Gill in their processes and the work that results, than divides them.  Leaving aside subject matter, for Gill's "direct carving" one could substitute Clements's "direct fabrication."  Both sculptors make work that is elemental: spare, direct, and unadorned; that concerns itself with process and the way material is handled, but doesn't make them subjects.  And like the Christianity that Gill practiced (albeit disastrously) as a worshipper and in his work (more successfully) there is in Clements's work a latent Christianity.

In The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, Gian Lorenzo Bernini created the meeting of body and spirit in a baroque tableau of marble and gilt bronze.  Teresa lies in the foreground, the marks of her ecstasy inscribed on her body; eyes closed, lips parted, her figure dematerialized in a cloud of drapery.  An angel stands above her holding the arrow that has repeatedly pierced her body and caused her transformation.  Behind them hard shafts of sculpted sunlight stream down from above.  We stand in front, as witnesses to her transverberation as a reward for the strength of her faith and the quality of her spirit; and to the mystery of her passion.

There is an interesting association with Franz Kafka's short story In The Penal Colony.  Here the needles of a vengeful secularized and mechanized angel, called "the apparatus," are used to write whatever commandment has been disobeyed upon the bodies of the prisoners.  At the story's end, however, the explorer, the soldier and the condemned man stand as witnesses to the suicide of the officer on "the apparatus," and any reward for the faith that the officer showed in "the apparatus," or its promise of redemption, never comes. 

gutter/trough, 2012, copper, mahogany, 10cm x 15 cm x 350cm

I know that part of Clements's inspiration for gutter/trough was the aisle running between the pews, and the light filling St. Paul's Cathedral in London.  But even before I knew, I was thinking of his work's relation to Christianity and Teresa.  gutter/trough reminds me of that "light" behind Teresa and so many other saints; like a trough of hard light brought down and made manifest, like the spirit being made manifest in the flesh.  This may seem a stretch, but there is something in Clements's work that warrants it, and that bears explanation.

The Kabbalah of Rabbi Isaac Luria contains the particularly  evocative story of the Breaking of the Vessels.  According to Luria, ten vessels, meant to contain the emanation of God's light, were unable to do so and six were shattered.  As their pieces fell through the void, they trapped within themselves sparks of the divine light which became shrouded in layers of darkness.  These "husks,"or "complexes" as they're called, compose the world in which we live.  Our task, and opportunity, is to extract the sparks from their husks and thereby redeem the world.  The thought is beautiful and poetic.  The quality that relates Clements's work   is the way it so readily offers itself up to projection.  In this way it's a redemption.  It can happen very quickly while looking at it; you're already not in this world, you're beyond it.  You're seeing all the other art, and all the other things it reminds you of.  Like seeing all the vessels already restored and full of light.
gutter/trough is a "U" shaped length of copper, a section of round pipe that Clements cut in half by hand.  The elements of directness, engagement, and craftsmanship are important.  Open on one end and capped on the other, the capped end is lifted up off the floor on two mahogany wedges.  In terms of transporting a flow it gives the sense of being unidirectional, of having a beginning and an end.  Or at least it makes me want to believe it has a beginning.  It makes me aware of how I've been conditioned to read subtle cues to natural forces like gravity and the flow of liquid, but also to read the form in terms of its resemblance to its prosaic relatives with a use.             

In his short essay about an abstract painting by Richard Diebenkorn, John Updike says:

Turning the pages of a book or magazine, we expect meaning; but in an actual environment, museum or an opulent home, we settle for thereness.  Abstraction removes painting from the secondary realm of imitation and enrolls it in the primary order of mute objects.
If you invert St. Paul's vaulted Nave with its gilt detailing, it's possible to imagine it as a copper trough.  Bernini gives us predominantly meaning, Clements opts for abstraction and gives us a vision of thereness.  Beyond Clements's gutter lies another gutter full of light.
The Olympics, 2012, steel, sandstone, 46cm x 31cm x 46cm

Untitled (The Olympics) is obviously not a representation of the Olympic symbol, even if that's where our thinking is pushed.  There are three circles not five, and the rings are not shown flat.  The games are brought to mind (the circle is doing something of a little gymnastics routine, showing itself in three positions to its fullest effect; and the games are more of a three ring circus than athletic competition), but so are the Chinese Linking Rings.  The magic of the Chinese Rings is the mystery of how they fit together and come apart.  (Untitled) The Olympics reveals there is no magic by revealing its construction.  We can see the legs that hold the rings aloft and the seams where the steel is cut and joined.  What Clements is really giving are the three most obvious ways to show a circle: flat, upright, and receding at forty-five degrees.  If careful we can imaginatively reconstruct the experience of how the rings are made.  What we cannot experience, though our minds tell us otherwise, is that perfect geometric figure called a circle.  In Sartre, Iris Murdoch says:

The circle does not exist; but neither does what is named by 'black' or 'table' or 'cold.'  The relation of these words to their context of application is shifting and arbitrary.  What does exist is brute and nameless, it escapes from the scheme of relations in which we imagine it to be rigidly enclosed, it escapes from language and science, it is more than and other than our description of it.

This is the claim throughout "Day Treadeth On Night," that there is what is elemental in the world, and there is what our minds inscribe upon it.  Clements feels the same about death as he does about circles, but goes one step further.  Death is something we believe we see (like a magic trick, or a circle), but it's not truly an experience because we never have it.  We can be brought right to very edge of experiencing them, but always fall short.  And because we can't experience them, they don't exist.
The Judge, 2012, sand cast aluminium, 25cm x 17cm x 1cm (each)

The Judge is a cryptic work that focuses on the direct transference of experience into a language, and is as close to a literal amalgam of reading the marks inscribed on a body (in this case the body of the earth), language, and mystery as Clements presents.  The title is related to geomancy, or "earth divination," an arcane method of obtaining information and inquiring about the future.  The method that Clements draws from is based on the interpretation of groupings of marks drawn randomly on the ground.  Arranged into a chart of sixteen figures, the Judge, the final figure, generally represents the answer to whatever has been asked.    

Displayed on the wall like two pages of an open book, The Judge is made of two tablets covered in a language of symbols (comparable to Tarot or the I Ching) unknown except to initiates.  On their surfaces are a series of raised, diamond shaped spots.  The surface from which they protrude is covered with rows of diagonal lines, like rays of raking light or sunshine, and bring back to mind the light of The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, and the slant of gutter/trough.  But the shape of the spots and the diagonal lines are not decisions by Clements, but the results of their fabrication; The Judge being first cut in plastic on a CNC machine and then sand cast in aluminum.   

The tablet on the left reproduces the patterns of single and paired spots that represent fourteen of the sixteen geomantic figures.  It's absurd to say that geomancy's binary code of ones and twos anticipated our own system of zeros and ones used by computers, but from its figures the future was foretold and information gleaned by the translation of digital language to analog experience. 

On the right, Clements has mimicked the geomantic table on the left with one of his own design made up of corresponding sets of twos and threes.  The two sides mirror one another so that if the tablets were folded together, for every single spot on the left there is a corresponding pair on the right, and for every left side pair, a right side triad.

In both cases Clements has aestheticized the table and its fancies of prognostication, removing it from the realm of language and the cerebral, and returning it to visceral experience.  This is made clear by his decision to omit the two figures from the geomantic table that he considers less visually interesting, a row of single spots, and a row of pairs.  He does so because his interest in geomancy is as a language used as a tool to bring order to experience, and what that language looks like, rather than the specifics of how to use it.  Geomancy may be nonsense, but is it any more so than the systems we write on top of the world?  Do we have any more surety that ours are right?
Untitled (spinning beads), 2012, archival inkjet print, 39cm x 29cm 

So many of our daily activities are composed of simple gestures that when noticed are those of making art or can be of making art.  Untitled (spinning beads) is a photograph of Clements spinning a string of beads, which aren't discernible at all.  The beads, which only read as lines, draw a picture of an amorphous ovoid through which we see the ovoid of Clements's face and head.  Close to identical in shape, the registration of the ovoids is slightly off.  The shape made by the beads is also the shape of Brancusi's polished ovoid heads in marble and bronze.  What this creates is an overlay of ways of understanding ovoids: a reference, over a concept, over an experience.  In a paraphrase of Camille Paglia, every time we describe an experience, we are fingering our worry beads like a rosary, saying a prayer that the world as we see it is really there.

Untitled (cut leek), 2012, brass, leek, 37cm x 12cm x 9cm

Untitled (cut leek) is made of a simple sculptural gesture, a cut. One half of the leek is then rotated 180 degrees and the two pieces put back together to create an angle; the whole thing laid over a short, brass heptahedron that reinforces the angle.  A leek is an interesting object all by itself: in its transition in color from white (a color that has sculptural associations with marble and plaster, including their memorializing function of death) to green (which is vegetative and life); and in its transition from a circle to a flat, fan shape.  With the appearance of the head of the leek being "thrown back" over the peak of the brass, it's possible to make the connection with Alberto Giacometti's Woman with Her Throat Cut (a singular sculptural example of the subject), and from there to The Ecstasy of St. Teresa insofar as both have been described for their combination of eroticism and pain.

Untitled (horseshoe), 2012, string, steel, dimensions variable

Two circles of string, one long and under tension, one short and at rest.  Untitled (horseshoe) is as simple and direct as a demonstration.  But the long circle isn't really a circle, it's been stretched and held wall to wall in the shape of a rectangle, like the beginning of the string game Cat's Cradle before the string is looped onto the middle fingers to create the cradle.  Draped over the top length of string, the small circle slumps there at the mercy of gravity, its lower section resting on the string below so that it flattens out, and runs parallel with it.   

Given the repetitive theme of language and writing, the rectilinear string could be a reference to the area extending across a newspaper, or to the lines of a child's primer that guide their writing.  The string at its center could be an image of some kind.  It looks like a fanciful animal with ears (I think of Jonathan Borofsky's self-portrait with big ear drawings) or a bull, less so the folded circle that it is.  Maybe its a humorous take on an attempted "O" that got outside the lines and couldn't support itself.  It also looks like a horseshoe.

Often hung over a doorway, the symbolism of a horseshoe is as a charm, an attempt to control the vagaries of fortune.  Presented open side up, it is a vessel, so that good luck is captured and held for those within; open side down, luck spills out blessing those that pass beneath it. 

Untitled (horseshoe) is a vessel, a portable horseshoe and lintel assemblable anywhere.  In the iconography of "Day Treadeth on Night," it is also a sagging "O" of Untitled (The Olympics), a linear section of gutter/trough, or a string of beads at rest.  More broadly, it's the one pliable material in the show, the one on which ideas are most easily imposed.  It gives a simple demonstration that beneath the many ways we may organize the world, there is an unchanging material on which our ideas work.

When I began thinking of Day Treadeth on Night, I was confronted with two mysteries: there was no evidence within myself that I could find of where I would end up; and as a whole, the work posed a very constant frustrating of my desire to organize it into a narrative.  Yet at an end I am, having finally stamped myself onto Clements's material through perception and language.  Perception, that wall that separates humans from everything outside of us, is the primary example of our minds inscribing themselves on the elemental materiality of the world.  It is built up of individual bricks like Night Treadeth on Day, and Day Treads on Night (After Gill).  Onto this wall are inscribed our individual concepts of organization, utility and understanding, like graffiti, each of us with our personalized tag.  Through language we make known to ourselves what we perceive.  

When Clements looks out at the world, he understands that he sees it as his mind arranges it, and overwritten by language.  His response is to find what is essential and enduring in materials including the mysteries of which language falls short.