Saturday, September 01, 2012

Nairy Baghramian: Class Reunion

For North America's first exposure to the art of Nairy Baghramian the  Contemporary Art Gallery has chosen Class Reunion (2008), a collection of eighteen individual sculptures made of cast rubber, metal, and epoxy resin that are witty and intelligent.  Reminiscent of early to mid-century Modernism (with a nostalgic tip of the hat to sculptors like Noguchi and Arp) it is equally reminiscent of that outdated vision of the future that tends to black and white biomorphic abstraction in design (Woody Allen's "Sleeper" for example). 

By the ensemble's title (and the titles of the individual sculptures) we are encouraged to see the gathering as a quirky cast of characters.  Baghramian succeeds in engendering her forms with personality through precise and elegant formal decisions including the elimination of almost any regularity of outline.  Bulbous upper portions of sculptures are smooth and glossy, with slender lower portions that swell and taper, terminating in feet or flat plates, some of which support or are surrounded by slabs of translucent blackish, purplish rubber that look like jello.  Other sculptures are irregularly cut and folded plate metal.

It is interesting how naturally and definitively we as sentient beings associate form with personality.  A straight line is serious; a diagonal less so; and a curving loop the loop humorous.  Considering balance, symmetry is serious, asymmetry not (Part of the joy of Laurel and Hardy).

By their distribution we are encouraged to form a narrative:  For instance, a husband, "Slacker 1" (the only piece without a rigid armature), lays drunk on the floor.  Standing nearby his wife, "Flamingo," blushes pink.  "Knucklehead Hither," the AWOL appendage from Gogol's The Nose, scurries past.  And leaning in the corner distinct from all the others by amongst other things its symmetry and enclosed volume is "Tomcat," the petulant loner.

Given her attention to detail in form, Baghramian has been surprisingly casual in fabrication and upkeep.  Cast forms are pitted and chipped, there are cracks and sags in painted surfaces, and what look like ill considered gaps at joints where sections meet.  An explanation may be in the gallery notes which say that like much of Baghramian's other work, Class Reunion comments "on current issues of materiality, manufacture and display while examining aspects of social and political relationships."  May be, but sometimes, rather than engage in conversation, it's a lot more fun to sit on the couch and make up stories about the guests.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

James Nizam: Trace Heavens

Shard of Light

   Open are the double doors of the horizon
   Unlocked are its bolts
       Utterance 220, from the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom Egypt

In approximately 3200 BCE an enormous passage mound was completed in the Boyne Valley on the east coast of Ireland.  At sunrise on the winter solstice a shaft of light penetrates the mound through a light box at its entrance to illuminate a cruciform-shaped chamber 62 feet within. 

Sometime between 650 - 900 CE a cylindrical shaft was cut from the ceiling of a cave to the surface above at Xochicalco in the Mexican state of Morelos so that on the solar equinox an intense circular beam of light shines directly onto its floor.  If a screen containing a small aperture is fitted at the top of the shaft it is possible for the cave to operate as a pinhole camera obscura. 

No written records are extant to interpret these light directing constructions.  Exactly what they were for is speculation.  One thing is certain, at the moment the sun's light entered their darkened chambers a door opened between worlds.

   Open are the double doors of the horizon
   Unlocked are its bolts

Trace Heavens
Since the early twentieth century humanity has been held between the infinite exteriority of the cosmos described by Einstein and Hubble and it's mirror image in the infinite interiority of the psyche described by Freud.  For Nizam it is particularly the domestic architecture of the house that is the physical threshold in the world between "out there" and "in here," the site of ritualized action and liminal experience where for a moment we have a foot in both. 

Trace Heavens is an illumination of thresholds.  It is an overlapping of worlds.  It's complexity and beauty is that Nizam has drawn a picture of ancient celestial world upon perceptual world upon art world in a tangle of lines like the black chromed rebar of Interminable Structure.  The photographs and sculpture are an expression of the poetic similitude that exists along two axes of metaphor:  cosmos/architecture/mind and photographic apparatuses/architecture/eye.  Light is the vehicle of transport along these axes, but they bend into orbits like Einstein rings.  For an example, bringing light into a room is like bringing light into an ancient solar observatory, is like bringing light into a camera, or light into the skull and the vitreous chamber of the eye, which again is like bringing light into a solar observatory.  Looking at Trace Heavens inevitably leads in these circular patterns, and not only in its metaphors.  There are also internal gyrations between the works (as the image of Fan (a beam of light bounced from mirror to mirror to make the illusion of the partially opened leaves of a book) is like the image of Disc (an isolated set of ruined concrete stairs), is like the stepped mats surrounding the Illuminations) and beyond.  Follow the spectral lines of Fan and they lead to Robert Smithson's sculpture Pointless Vanishing Point, a truncated segment of perspectival lines.  By withholding the resolution of whether those lines will eventually meet at a single location or unexpectedly veer off, they could point anywhere, it might be inwards towards the self, the imaginary, and the mechanics of perception; or it might be out into the world, to the past and the architecture of stepped pyramids, or to the future and back around to Disc. 

Since antiquity the optical principles of the camera obscura have been well known.  In the decades around 1600 the optical camera obscura became the definitive model for the eye and the mechanics of sight; light from the object of the eyes' focus passes through its lens, the image is projected on the retina, and is then transmitted to the brain.  The seeming directness of the optical camera obscura's transference of visual information came to stand for the veracity of the images of human sight.   Early in the nineteenth century the objectivity of visual perception faltered; how to account for the problem of optical illusions?  What of the persistence of the afterimage of a spot of light once its been extinguished (the same way we might see light from a star that long ago ceased to exist); or the appearance of a three-dimensional object or drawing reversing perspective, as in the well known figures of the Necker Cube and Schroeder's Staircase (geometries adopted a century later by artists and seen in the paintings of Joseph Albers, the sculpture of Smithson, and now in several of Nizam's Thought Forms)?  Artists, philosophers and religious mystics had long talked of a veil separating humanity from what was real, but now a physical threshold within ourselves was being confirmed by physiological evidence.  Color and light, rather than being causes of vision, were discovered to be effects inseparable from the tissue of our nervous system.  A subjective neurological threshold, like the liquidy sheet of a waterfall at the mouth of a cave, separated us from external reality. 

Following the boom of university art departments and magazines devoted to art in the 1950’s, an analogous threshold was recognized in the way art was experienced.  Contact with art that mattered changed and was mainly restricted to university lecture halls and art magazines.  On their screens and in their pages a curious thing happened; art as different as the Mona Lisa and the pyramids could exist alongside one another of equal size, their dimensions determined by the frame that held them.  In the minds of some of the young artists looking, this novel way of perceiving art registered and contributed to a growing sense of art away from the object.  By the latter part of the 1960's new types of art emerged that concentrated either on the idea as art, or on the idea of art.  In certain cases art was being made not to be experienced directly, but to be seen through a record of its existence as a reproduction in photographs.  For some artists this included the manipulation of architecture and light as subjects to be photographed, but in the 1960's the field of sculpture was expanded to include their direct manipulation and display as sculptural materials.

Inspired by the ancient solar architecture of Europe and the Americas, as much as by the artists of the late 1960's, Nizam performed a series of architectural slicings and piercings made to channel light, and to be experienced only indirectly as photographs.  For Shard of Light Nizam cut a slit up the wall and across a section of ceiling of a house in Delta at the edge of the Fraser river.  The circular pattern of Drill Holes Through Studio Wall is what a starry sky might have looked like through the shaft at Xochicalco.  By the simplest of means Nizam has created a complex illusion. Through the arrangement of holes of different sizes, the circle bellies out into an orb and hangs there.  A beam of sunlight through a darkened window creates the glowing geometries of the Thought Forms.  In each of these, we see Nizam's manipulation of light across an architectural threshold transform nondescript rooms into containers of radiant ideal forms. 

Whereas Shard of Light and Drill Holes Through Studio Wall could be experienced directly if imperfectly in the world, the Thought Forms can only exist as photographs or ideas in the mind; they are illusions produced by a bit of photographic sleight of hand.  To make them appear Nizam had to use the magician's props of smoke and mirrors.  Smoke made the beam of light visible as Nizam bounced it from mirror to mirror.  Because the light could only be bounced three times from its source at the window before becoming too diffuse to continue, each form was composed in camera through a process of multiple exposures.  After waiting patiently, anticipating the moment the sun would finally appear through the hole in the blind, Nizam had to work quickly in sets of triads always starting at the source before the sun progressed too far; 1-2-3, 1-2-3, the rhythm of a waltz.

Given how important Nizam's experience of time, anticipation and patience were to his experiencing the light and making the photographs (as it must likewise have been to the ancient astronomers marking the passage of the sun on its yearly return) Nizam's decision to fix the light in photographs is curious, but consider its effects.  Experiencing the work as photographs encourages an engagement with the history of photography, and propels the metaphor photographic apparatuses/ architecture/eye forward.  The deeper effect is distancing the work from a specific physical location, and more importantly, from time.  What we don't see when we're looking at Shard of Light, Drill Holes Through Studio Wall, and Thought Forms is that the house in Delta was abandoned and waiting for demolition; that the holes drilled in the sheetrock wall of the studio are ragged; or that the hole in the window covering is torn and that the basement is dingy.  Standing in their presence as installations, location and detail would anchor the work, and ourselves, too firmly in the temporal world.  Draining our experience of time, and the associated conditions of anticipation and patience, the photographs push us away to a distance that allows the work to operate in a manner distinct from the ordinary; the light, and our experience of it, become eternal.

A fragment and a photograph are the same:  An architectural fragment is a piece isolated from the original totality of the architecture; a photograph is a piece isolated from the architecture of the world.  If we look for the connection between fragment and photograph in Trace Heavens besides their fundamental similarity as fragments, we find it in the effect they have on their subjects; they create distance.  Fragments of demolished homes retain a residue of their original function.  The entry stairs etched on the round copper plate of Disc still lead, the empty foundations of the Illuminations could still carry a home, but separated from their specific material destination they are freed to be thresholds to the immaterial and the imaginary.  After the general mysteriousness of references to ancient architecture, at the top of Disc's stairs I imagine one of those liquidy mirror-like portals favored by time travelers in science fiction.

Untethering these architectural elements as fragments is the equivalent of making the light eternal through photography.  The Illuminations gain additional distance from the ordinary by the strangeness of their appearance.  It's not only the difficulty of picking them out of their isolation in what looks like a landscape, but through their treatment as solarizations.  By flashing the photograph with light while it's being developed the lights and darks of the image are reversed so that it ends up looking like something in between a positive and a negative, and giving it it's silvery effect.  Released from the specifics of time and place Nizam moves light and architecture across the threshold from profane to the sacred world.  Turning full circle, when the ancients built their astronomical architectures, they did so to fix the light and make it as predictable as they could; like a photograph. 

The way Nizam has formed the light in immaterial pieces like Shard of Light and Thought Forms makes them truly liminal works on the threshold between photography and sculpture.  Firmly on the other side, the side of sculpture, are the works that Nizam lets us experience directly, Interminable Structure and Door Slab.  As fragments of architecture they share a subject with  a number of the photographs, but in many ways they're the photographs' reverse: white to black; light to the absence of light; straight to crooked; image to solid. 

The familiar diagram of the way perception works is of a pyramid leading away from its base at an object to an apex at an eye.  The diagram for the mechanics of a pinhole camera and camera obscura are the same, with the eye replaced by a small hole or lens.  The straight lines of the pyramid represent light, so it's not too much to say that perception is light.  Photography being an art of light, it is also the art of straight lines.  Interminable Structure is made of bent lines, photography's opposite, therefore sculpture.  The rebar from which it's made comes from the demolished buildings of the Little Mountain housing project, the site of Nizam's previous series Memorandoms.  In its present arrangement it resembles a ball or basket, but its individual pieces are infinitely variable.  As architectural wreckage it is similar to Disc and Illuminations. 

Door Slab is the clearest representation of a threshold or doorway.  Calling it a "slab" is a bit ironic since that usually implies a thickness.  It's a sculpture, but barely so; a thin film of Cinefoil (a matte black aluminum material used in photography and cinema) pressed into the mere imprint of a door.  With just more dimension than an image, it looks like it's working itself away from being a photograph towards an object.  Rather than reflecting light it leans against the wall, a wispy, dark shadow absorbing it.   

The awareness of existing at a threshold, whether within ourselves, in the world, or between this one and the next, is uniquely human, as is the desire to cross.  In the hubbub of the ordinary world, that awareness is often dampened.  Through photographs, sculpture, architecture, and light, especially light, Trace Heavens shows us that doorways between here and there abound, located right in front of us or deep in the primitive portion of our brains.  Through the poetry of its revolving metaphors it gives us a gentle, whispered reminder of the relationships between worlds.  By creating distance from the ordinary, Trace Heavens brings the recognition of our liminal state back to the threshold of consciousness and thereby takes its place as part of the fundamental expression of what it means to be human.