Saturday, December 28, 2013
Wednesday, October 16, 2013
Wednesday, May 01, 2013
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.
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, a 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.
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 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?
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) 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.
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.
Friday, February 01, 2013
Rather choose rough work than smooth work, so only that the practical purpose be answered, and never imagine there is reason to be proud of anything that may be accomplished by patience and sand-paper.
John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, II, 1853.
Sonny Assu is a member of the We Wai Kai Nation, part of the Kwakwaka'wakw peoples of Northeastern Vancouver Island. It seems vaguely improper to begin an essay about art with a declaration about the artist's ethnicity, but in Assu's case it seems especially appropriate. Not only has he made his identity, and Aboriginal history in Canada, the focus of his entire body of work, but as Assu will tell you himself, his work would not be the same if made by anyone other than an Aboriginal artist; even if it were identical in every other sense. The emphasis that Assu puts on this blood relationship between the maker and the made is particularly resonant in the eighteen "masks" that constitute the heart of Longing because it is specifically through Assu's identity as Aboriginal that the "masks" gain added poignancy and a crisp irony. More than one hundred years after artists like Vlamink, Picasso, Matisse, and Braque found the formal inspiration to move Western art forwards by looking "back" at the Aboriginal arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas including Canada, Assu performs a reversal of early Twentieth century art history by looking at Western art to modernize Aboriginal aesthetic traditions of the Northwest Coast, and wrestle back their control in the context of contemporary art. He has done so using an object that is an icon of Aboriginal culture, and that marks the entrance of that culture into the consciousness of Western art.
As Assu's "masks" stare outwards from their pedestals, they enable us to look back through them, and through preceding movements in art, to the moment of contact and then co-option of Aboriginal formal values into Western art history. One of the most famous examples of this moment are the faces of the prostitutes in Picasso's 1907 painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Less well known, but showing much greater sculptural treatment and greater resemblance to Assu's "masks," is the face of Picasso's 1908 Dryad. As the lessons of Aboriginal cultural objects (most commonly masks and sculpture) were subsumed by successive movements of Western art, recognizable reference to the original objects became obscured and eventually invisible. Assu's "masks" bring the primacy of this stimulant to Modern art back to the fore.
The "masks" also bring to mind the period immediately before Aboriginal cultural objects became part of Western art history, to the time when they belonged to the history of expedition and colonialism and were seen by their collectors as ethnographic objects and displayed in ethnographic museums like the Trocadero in Paris where Picasso and other artists made their discoveries. To emphasize that the objects on display in Longing are indeed masks and are meant to be understood in relationship to traditional Aboriginal ones and to the way they've historically been displayed, Assu has mounted his on brass armatures that are identical in style and technique to those used by Vancouver's Museum of Anthropology. In fact, Assu hired one of the MOA's former armature technicians to do the work.
The off-cuts of raw cedar that Assu turned into the "masks" were collected at Quinsam, part of the reserve lands of the We Wai Kai Nation. They had been left as piles of debris from the production of luxury log homes by a now defunct company that had leased property there. Assu's M.O. isn't usually the type where an image or an object is simply recognized in the world as ready to show, so even though Assu already saw masks when he found them, he initially considered altering their rough-sawn forms to make them look more traditionally Kwakwaka'wakw. Considering pieces like his copper 1884-1951 and his collections of handmade and hand-painted drums, a considerable amount of labor usually accompanies whatever he makes. His idea was to either add other materials like copper, cedar bark and color; or to sand them down to remove the distinctive marks of the chain saw. He resisted that impulse for four years as he daily looked at them stacked in his crowded Vancouver studio. It took him that long to recognize that the "masks" were already finished when he found them. In this case, patience paid off, whereas sand-paper would have been a mistake.
In form, the "masks" are truncated wedges; concave in back, their flat frontal plane reads as forehead, bridge of the nose, and chin. Central growth rings and knots read as eyes. For those that have them, shakes and checks are mouths. Like faces smoothed and distorted by a stocking, they share a generalized form, but are individual enough to imagine them as having distinct personalities or as specific characters from Aboriginal mythology.
In the West Vancouver Museum installation they have been arranged to create an imaginary narrative. Entering the museum, one stands between opposing groups of "Anglos" and "Warriors," like the Sharks and Jets of West Side Story. Though they are grouped into what looks like a shared experience, each member faces in a different direction giving the impression that (like Rodin's Burgers of Calais) each is undergoing an individual drama. On a wall above them, a single large "Spirit" hangs, while in a back room three "Bureaucrats" huddle together.
Because of the history of the West Vancouver Museum, there is a poetic symmetry between the building and Assu's work inside. It's the kind of coincidence that makes for such conceptual harmony that the term "site-specific" is inadequate. The building and the "masks" are both made from what are essentially the waste products of utilitarian purpose turned to an aesthetic end. Before the wedges of cedar were collected by Assu, they were nothing more than byproducts from the production of log homes. The old Gertrude Lawson House, which the museum occupies, was built in 1940 from stones originally used as ship's ballast. Piles of debris to make a house, the making of a house creating piles of debris. All those stones, just like those cedar off-cuts, sat in an enormous heap until being stumbled upon and their potential for becoming something other than what they are was realized. The "masks" only partially leave their nascent stage of becoming. Like kernels, or the hard center of their own development, they retain the memory of themselves even as we imagine what they could have become had they been developed with more carving, color, and ornament.
Augmenting the "masks" is a trio of photographs produced in collaboration with Eric Deis and collectively titled Artifacts of Authenticity. Meant as a critique of the voices of authority that confer value and authenticity on Aboriginal artifacts, they show an Assu "mask" installed in: a museum display case; a commercial gallery; and a tourist gift shop. Before Assu decided on "Longing" as the title for this collection of sculpture and photographs he was calling it "Faceless," an unambiguous indictment of the invisibility that Aboriginal communities experience in Canadian society with a parallel in the disappearance of recognizable reference to Aboriginal cultural objects from Western art. Assu renamed the exhibition when he was struck by the narrative created in the photograph Museum of Anthropology, and it is the keystone to understanding the "masks." Surrounded by traditional Kwakwaka'wakw masks and artifacts, Assu understood his "mask" as looking at the others, longing to become them. This simple act pushed the tenor and comprehension of the exhibition in another direction, from accusatory and outwards, to melancholy and inwards, and made room for readings that broaden Assu's intentions.
References to things outside the issues of concern to Assu aren't meant to minimize them. As successful as Assu is in directing his work towards issues of Aboriginal status and history in Canada, and the wastes of consumer culture, it is equally compelling to see the "masks" as stand-ins for "the artist," and as an echo of the history of sculpture.
As much as a chunk of cedar might embody a yearning to belong to the valued objects that surround it, or to the era, or cultural place from which its neighbors in the display case come, it also stands as a personification of artistic longing; not necessarily Assu's, but any artist's. That longing may be for a time, future or past, of perceived authenticity (for Assu that may be before the contact with Europeans that destroyed his ancestral culture; for others a time without irony). It may also be an expression of that overwhelming artistic longing to transform one's experience of the world into art.
Of particular interest in Assu's decision not to alter the surface of the "masks" with additional finish is the denial of his own artistic longing and his ability to say "these are enough;" that the "masks" already answered their purpose when he found them. By doing so, Assu acknowledges that sometimes, no matter how great our longing, we have to remain humble in the face of our world and admit that it cannot be made better by our transformations. But, of course, in the choosing, Assu has transformed the cedar already.
I say "echo" regarding the "masks'" as referents to the history of sculpture because the sculptures that resonate in them are more felt in the whole body (like a vibration in the ear) than seen and understood by the eye. The "masks" push the history of sculpture to which they refer further back than their entrance at the turn of the Twentieth century to times and places to which they don't belong at all except as they can be put together in the imagination. When I look at the "masks," I feel the hollow head of Seated Boxer of Lysippos, the unfinished sculptures of Michelangelo, the fragments of Rodin (especially Rodin's Mask of the Man with the Broken Nose), the found and readymade objects of Duchamp, and the traditional Northwest Coast masks of anonymous carvers deep in history, and those more contemporary like Robert Davidson and Henry Hunt.
In its restraint and earnestness, Assu's work reclaims some of that authenticity compromised by the ruination of earlier Aboriginal culture. Longing is simultaneously a confounding of the primary stereotype of Northwest Coast Aboriginal art; a return to the culturally significant moment when Aboriginal masks entered Western art; and an act of cultural repatriation. By adding a contemporary aesthetic parallel to its traditional expression, Assu is on the frontier of cultural transformation. It puts him on a path that never existed in the past.