Sunday, June 18, 2017

As Above So Below

Installation View CSA Space
I am a stranger here. I have discovered a series of what I would call sculptures were it not for the instantaneousness with which I am projected onto them; which is to say, they don’t immediately present themselves as objects. Instead I will tentatively call them architectural structures. What makes them particularly unusual is that they are no larger than very large shoeboxes, yet they aren’t architectural models; which is to say they aren’t stand-ins for something larger. Neither are they parts of Lilliputian or Lewis Carroll worlds. At the same time that the structures are not representing anything they are also not non-representational. These aspects jostle as they present themselves, and it occurs to me that it’s not so much that they are a part of any world, as they are a reflection of a ritual one. In that world, these structures are locations at which rituals are performed. I am the one the structures are intended for, and the one meant to perform the rituals. The same is true for every other individual who looks at them. To religious people the experience of projection from the pedestrian to the ritual world is familiar. It happens in all variety of places of worship. It no doubt also happened in the caves at Lascaux, and in the chambers of the Neolithic passage mound at Newgrange. For the non-religious, popular culture provides its own versions of the kind of projection I’m talking about. Commonly assisted by a portal (round seems to be the preferred shape, and is usually depicted with a shimmery, undulating surface like water), passage through lands one, if not in a ritual world, then in some other place, time, or dimension.

Skidway 11
In explaining these structures, Richard Clements says, “Everything is there, everything you need to know about what these structures are and refer to.” I take him at his word, and I trust his belief that what he makes is as transparent (or has the potential to be as transparent) to others as it is to himself. In spite of how I feel, because of the structures’ wide ranging associations including the arcane knowledge of theosophy and alchemy, what these structures are and refer to might be all there, but it’s not all there to me. I know some of it, but in its minutia (and that is where the beauty of art and ritual lie), to know it all, one would have to know everything that Clements knows. One would have to be Clements. Into the gap created by the obvious impossibility of being Clements flows the frustration of the desire to know more about his structures, and the nagging certainty that there is always something being missed. This frustration and certainty is the price of art that doesn’t exhaust scrutiny and interest, and that persists in memory. It might be a stiff one, but its also an object lesson that makes us recognize that there is an inscrutable mystery that separates art and viewer (which is essentially the same as saying one person and another). If one trusts the artist enough, one accepts the price, and perseveres. For my part, I see the structures as deeply material, deeply religious, deeply about death, deeply about transcendence.

Skidway 80

The vocabulary of the structures’ forms and spaces is unmistakably that of ritual, particularly, but not exclusively, architectural: truncated pyramids, stacked and ramped platforms, tombs, burial chambers, ritual baths. Cruciform arrangements are prevalent: either as simple arrangements of two perpendicular rectangular blocks (Skidway 11), more complex arrangements comprising multiple blocks (Skidway 80); as a rectangular block placed over a rectangular void (Skidway 37); or as a perpendicular axes (Skidway 49). The outside dimensions of the structures are closely similar, and sometimes identical, as are internal dimensions like the widths of ramps, the lengths and depths of depressions, the thickness of walls, the wood and plaster blocks. All the dimensions are in half inch increments. The wooden blocks are all one inch by one inch by various lengths. 

Skidway 4

The structures are comparable in size, but the scale from one structure to the next is fluid and inconsistent. The same half an inch that represents one foot when I am projected onto Skidway 4, when I am projected onto Skidway 49 looks to represent six feet. 

Skidway 49

The specifics of what the structures look like (their dimensions, materials, forms) seem developed by permutations of a restricted number of possibilities. White plaster is one of them. Black walnut for the wood is another. Upper platforms are always smaller in area than lower ones. The ends of the independent wood and plaster blocks are always at ninety degrees to their sides. Like the architecture with which I associate them (Egyptian, Mayan, Neolithic, Christian) the architecture of these structures has the weight of being an encoded one. The proportions, alignments, combinations, and relationships of their individual elements have meaning, are purposeful and necessary in a way that those of secular architecture do not.

It’s no accident that I use the language of language (the words “vocabulary” and “encoded”) to describe the structures. True that the same words could be applied to maybe all art, and true that the significance of language to all acts of seeing, through its power to form, modify, and distort what is seen, is equal, nevertheless, the relation of language to Clements' structures, especially a certain dodging of language that they attempt, is noteworthy. Naming the structures as I have, by using specific descriptors about them like “architecture” and “ritual,” irrevocably changes the way they are thought about, and therefore the way they are seen. Previous to the structures being organized through language into what is utterable and recognizable, something approaching an innocence as objects clings to them. During this period of innocence (and it may be a flash lasting seconds, or persist for years), the structures may be seen and understood in any number of ways, but as with most cases of innocence it is temporary. As a simple example, take Skidway 4. On top of a stepped platform, two rectangular blocks, equal in cross-section, but unequal in length, lay flat. The shorter of the two lays on the lower step, and the longer on the upper step in such a way that the long block rests across the shorter at right angles. Their intersection is at the center of the short block, and the very end of the long one, so that the end of the longer and the side of the shorter are flush. Even without any projection of the long block beyond the shorter, for most viewers, the arrangement is soon organized into “cross,” or even further into “crucifix,” which modifies the relationship of the two blocks into a sign with an even more complex meaning. This ability to see one thing in more than one way (not unlike the ability of one word to be seen to have more than one meaning) is an instance of the psychological phenomena discussed by Ludwig Wittgenstein as aspect seeing. Wittgenstein’s iconic example is the image of the duckrabbit. In this illustration the profile of a single head incorporates the heads of both animals (one looking to the right, one to the left) in such a way that they share a single eye. Whether one sees the duck or the rabbit is specific to the individual, and based on individual experience and memory. To see the one initially unseen, it’s only necessary to say the word “duck” or “rabbit,” to make it appear, but in so doing the one initially seen disappears. The problem of the governance of seeing by language is that it can block alternative readings, and make unseeing what has been seen impossible. To see freshly again takes a willful amnesia, a forgetting of oneself so that something else, call it the subconscious, chance, or the unexpected, can assert and insert itself. Clements purposefully configures his structures to keep seeing and thinking in flux to prevent them “settling” into any one reading. Are those blocks really a cross, just two blocks, or a third thing altogether different

Skidway 10
Incorporated throughout the structures with enough consistency that it can be thought of as an organizing principle, is the relationship of paired opposites; dualistic relationships that are linguistic (like “short” and “long”), and visual (like the opposition of objects along x-y axes). One of Clements' sources for this mode of thinking, as already mentioned, are the writings of Wittgenstein. Another source is the Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of literature purportedly assembled from Egyptian-Greek wisdom texts sometime between the second and third centuries C.E., and authored by Hermes Trismegistus. From the text known as the Emerald Tablet comes this aphorism, “As above, so below, as within, so without, as the universe, so the soul.” 

Skidway 37
In Skidway 10 and Skidway 37, the influence of the aphorism’s two “as, so” pairings containing prepositions is literally descriptive of the relationships of their elements. Remove the “as, so,” and the prepositions form a list that is generally descriptive of relations found in all of the structures, but is also a list of instructions for the development of relations in as yet unmade structures: above, below, within, without. Each structure, in its individual combination of forms and relations, is like a separate proposition in a series that when seen together, form a blueprint for other possible variations. Clements already knows the parameters of possible variations, and because of the structures’ seriality and adherence to a limited number of variables, I as a viewer believe I can extrapolate from this set of propositions and predict what is possible. But the blueprint offered is imperfect. Plans for over four hundred variations of structure have been drawn up, but only sixty have embodied the qualities necessary for Clements to make them. Why is that? And of the sixty, might there be one with wood cut at forty-five degrees, or a piece that is vertical? What about no wood and a cylindrical platform on top of a rectangular one? None of these seem likely, but when no more than a handful have ever been shown at once, it’s impossible to know for sure. It is, in a sense, an example of the parable of the six blind men and the elephant. In the Jainist version, each of the six touches an elephant in a different place: belly, tail, trunk, leg, tusk, and ear. When asked to describe what the creature looks like they say in turn: wall, rope, tree branch, pillar, solid pipe, and fan. The problem of deducing a totality from fragmentary examples is a vexing problem especially common to work that is made in large series from a small number of variables. From Clements might it be a further reminder that a single mode of seeing and thinking can’t be settled into?

Also found in the Emerald Tablet is the secret of the prima materia and its transmutation. In alchemy the prima materia is the urmaterial from which all matter is formed, and the required ingredient to create the philosopher’s stone, which is a substance capable of turning base metals into gold, and bestowing immortality. In their turn, ritual architectures like the Egyptian pyramids, Mayan temples and ball courts, and Christian cathedrals, are related to the philosopher’s stone as structures whereby the body of the deceased transcends its materiality (transformed from base metal into gold as it were) into an immortal, incorporeal being. They pose a puzzling contradiction though; all those enormous masses of stone, overwhelming and undeniable in their physical presence, all constructed for the housing and migration of an immaterial soul. 

Shrouded in their materiality of plaster, Clements’ structures are sculptural metaphors of the philosopher’s stone. In the sphere of sculpture, plaster is the transformative material. It is uniquely suited to take the form of any other material, any object. When used to make molds for casting materials other than itself, wax or bronze for instance, plaster is the vehicle, much like a cocoon, by which transformation is achieved. When plaster is cast into a plaster mold, the result is like a transformation of self into an alternate self. Plaster is also enduring and imperishable. Under the right conditions it will last without decay or change. This gives plaster a hint of immortality, but its color, reinforced by the forms Clements uses, gives the structures more than a whiff of death.     

Fresh out of the bag, plaster is white. If it is mixed with nothing but water, it will stay that way forever. White, or whiteness, is an age-old symbol of death, just as it is a symbol of purity. It is the color of terror, just as it is the color of innocence, divinity, and transcendence. Herman Melville tells us so in Moby Dick. And if that weren’t enough, white is the color of the shroud. It is the color of bone. It is the color of the light we see at the end of the tunnel. The architectures that the structures bring to mind are either places in which death is housed (tombs and archeologic sites), or death is a regular part of the ritual that occurs in them (temples and cathedrals). When combined, these symbols and structures present death, but as the necessary harbinger of transcendence and immortality. It precedes the birth into a new life for the deceased, or, in the context of ritual sacrifice, the continuation of life for the community.  

Skidway 2
When glass is incorporated into the structures, it has the potential of being seen architecturally as glass, imaginatively interpreted as water, or oscillating between the two. Whichever material supposition is made, the metaphors it embodies are the same; revelation, and transformation. In Skidway 2 and Skidway 6, when the glass is seen as glass, it is as a barrier. Familiarly seen at archeological sites and museums, glass is the separation between ordinary life involving physical contact, and something beyond contact, but attainable by sight. Once passed through, what is revealed on the other side is the realm of the extraordinary or extraordinarily valuable. When the glass is seen as being water, it is a ritual element of transformation. If the pool is interpreted as being a mikvah (the Jewish ritual bath), the water is an element of purification, and conversion. As a baptismal font, it is part of the initiation and adoption into Christianity. 

Skidway 6
The history of glass and water as materials fused in the imagination, and metaphor, is a long and culturally diverse one that has its origin in the apocryphal writings surrounding the Temple of King Solomon. Over the centuries, crystal replaced glass in some of the stories, and all three materials fused into what has come to be known as the Crystal Metaphor. Characterized by revelation, illumination, transmutation, and transformation, the Crystal Metaphor and its visual representations entered literature, architecture, alchemy, and art. It’s tempting to see it reflected in the ritual architecture of the Egyptians and Mayans; their pyramids and stepped temples looking like colossal crystals growing out of the earth. And is, without doubt, part of Modernism’s ritual architecture; the glass skyscraper.  As appealing as it is misleading to apply it too universally to the faceting of so much early Modernist painting and sculpture, it’s also true that if, in the case of Cezanne for instance, his intent was to show the truth of nature’s organization behind perception, or the truth of his perception of nature, then that intent is one of transforming and revealing. Closer to our own time we have the example of Minimal sculpture. In appearance, seriality, and adherence to strict, and limited patterns of development, it outwardly resembles the crystalline, but for sculptors like Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt, the very intent of the appearance was to vehemently separate their sculpture from any representation or sense of metaphor, crystal or otherwise.   

Though the faceted shapes of Clements’ structures bear a superficial resemblance to the kind of non-representational sculpture that is characterized by seriality and adherence to a limited number of variables, they share very few of what are usually considered the concerns of Minimal sculpture. They are not strictly self-referential, obviously not unitary geometrical forms, nor based on a grid. They are not predicated on numerical progressions, not fabricated mechanically or industrially, nor made from modern, industrial materials. Each of them is made by hand, in the studio, by the artist. Most importantly, appearance is not separated from metaphor. They are meant to be of their material, and go beyond it. For them to be made at all, they have to look right, which really means they have to feel right to Clements (They are also meant to make others feel). They do, however, share Minimalism’s interests in the nature of perception and experience (the phenomenological), and their influence on how and what we know of the world. As Clements explains it, his primary concern is “to seat transcendence within the visible.”           

The structures give the appearance of being simple, but they are devilishly difficult to make.They are produced by up to four separate pours of plaster using individual, interlocking molds. The technical difficulty is increased by variations in drying times and absorption rates that come from varying thicknesses of plaster, and casting around wood and glass elements. The discipline, precision of planning and execution, and extensive variation within a limited vocabulary of Clements' work finds its parallel in the work of J.S. Bach. Bach’s compositions are expressions of the heart (essentially religious as are Clements'), articulated through the precision of the mind. Glenn Gould’s humming, audible as he performs the Goldberg Variations, returns the music more fully to the heart by introducing what (much as I treasure them) could be called imperfections, but more forgivingly called counterpoints of intuition and improvisation. The illusory symmetry, and surface imperfections of Clements' structures, the sags, chips, accidental cavities, impressions of nails, and other imperfections of plaster introduce similar counterpoints. They are Clements' humming. 

Returning to the body of Trismegistus’ aphorism, the sets of dualistic relationships (above and below, within and without, universe and soul) are resolvable into the form, “neither this, nor that, but each and both,” (neither only above, nor only below, but above, below, and above and below.) What were three divided pairs can be re-formed as a single, all encompassing trinity, that, in effect, states, “everything is in everything.” Today, with our knowledge of physics, we know that on an atomic level it’s manifestly true, but is that the sense in which Trismegistus meant it? It’s possible. Coming as it does in the early centuries of the Common Era, it may be a belated reformulation of the much earlier atomist theories first proposed by the pre-Socratic philosopher Leucippus of Elea. Everything being in everything is an comforting, affirmative message, and yet, isn’t it also another expression for a kind of death? If achieved, if the physical barriers between everything in the universe were gradually broken down (if everything really were in everything else) it would represent the final outcome of the process of entropy, whereby an absolute uniformity of matter exists, a state of perfect stasis. 

In their complexity, as they turn from one thing to another, Clements is right to say about his structures that, “everything is there.” At the very least, he makes it incumbent on us to look on the other side of every assumption we make about them. To me, seeing them as ritual structures, they are places of awe and mystery. Places where we as humans go within ourselves as individuals, and beyond ourselves to the universal. To Clements they are “transformative objects, little training grounds to evoke something latent, something with intelligence - in looking at them you are brought into a particular set of rituals that, hopefully, map how everything is in everything else.”

For more information about the work of Richard Clements visit:

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

All That Glitters


A lure. A hook. Bait and switch. Each is a method of landing something: a fish, a person, a sucker.  And the results of each are distinctly unpleasant.  There is also something distinctly unpleasant about looking at the pictures of Michael Abraham, though that is also one of their strengths.  Abraham seems to do everything he can to alienate the viewer through his use of jellybean color and some cloyingly drawn forms.  But why?  Why work so hard to dare the viewer to like his work?  After many years of looking, I think I have just figured out why.  

In the fineness of their rendering, Abraham's paintings can be reminiscent of the Renaissance Masters from Italy and Northern Europe.  Even more so, they share with those earlier paintings the distinctive quality that every one of their rich details is chosen and placed with deliberation, and convey a similar heavy redolence of purposeful meaning.  Nothing seems as simple as it seems, and nothing can be taken for granted.  This is hardly less true than for any other painting;  even the most action oriented abstraction conveys some purposeful design, but with Abraham the intent to load every aspect of the painting, from image, to form, to color with meaning is overwhelming.  

What Abraham's paintings don't share with the earlier Masters, and this is obvious right off the bat, is any illusion of the ordinary world.  Proportion and perspective are frequently skewed, which makes the characters and scenarios whimsical and caricatured, like something one might associate with parables and fairy tales, and with the same intimations of a moralizing intention.  

They also don’t share with earlier painting epochs the certainty that any making sense of them is possible.  The paintings look as if they desperately desire to communicate, and are met by our desperate desire to understand, but the narrative pieces are so jumbled by the relativity of interpretation that it creates a frustration that is thoroughly contemporary, and makes them ideal metaphors for modern life.  The scenes take place in an all illuminating light (traditionally the light of knowledge and truth), but the darkness of the content, built up detail by disquieting detail, is best described as bucolic dystopia or psychotic realism.  The color wants to convince me of a happy ending, but the narrative never will.  The known is forever contradicting the seen.

Though looking nothing like the work of George Grosz, there is something of the willful bitterness and ugliness of it, but Abraham sugarcoats his so we can “stay positive,” “have a nice day,” and “not judge.”

Power Couple

The lure Abraham uses to deliver his message (decipherable or not) is to indulge our habitual construction of meaning and relations from any given set of circumstances, objects and characters.  This narrative push is forced so far forward that it would be easy for the paint to recede in importance in holding one's attention.  The dilemma is of a conflicted preacher torn between "the word," and delivering the performance of "the word," combined with the desire that the artifice of the performance be maintained.  Does Abraham want to preach, or does he want to paint?  He wants to do both.  Like the Old Masters, Abraham constantly and consistently obeys the Modernist credo that art should dispel illusion and call attention to itself.  But wait, how can the Old Masters have been obeying a Modernist credo?  The fact is, painters have been calling attention to the artifice of what they do, including the flatness of the support, for much longer than Modernism's relatively short reign.  For an interesting discussion of this see Leo Steinberg's essay "Other Criteria.”  Through his overall choice of color, areas of color and pattern that thrust forward to emphasize the surface (the checkered tablecloth in "Hook," the flat, brick red between the central figures in "Power Couple"), and contradictory lines of perspective, Abraham contradicts the illusion it looks like he meticulously crafts.  By jarringly inserting art, Abraham interrupts the even flow of his narrative and forces the performance of paint to hold itself narrative's equal.