Lately, I’ve noticed myself noticing how I look at art – very much a metacognitive approach to viewing. Why do I spend so much time with this piece, but not the one next to it by the same artist? What about the piece pulls me in initially, and then compels me to take another look? Why am I indifferent to some work after the first look? What am I looking at? What am I seeing?
Dialogue, whether conscious or not, underpins the process of seeing. As the viewer, of course I am always a participant in the conversation and play a major role in shaping its direction because of my own interests. But the direction of the dialogue on any given day is always shifting -- it may focus on exchanges between the work of different artists in a group exhibit, or my own give and take with a single work of art. It may explore how several works in a solo exhibit inform one another, or why it is that a particular painting leaves me smiling (or indifferent). The exchange begins when the work beckons me in, whether demanding that I take notice of it, or coyly cajoling. My willingness to engage is not guaranteed—I’m opinionated and at times impatient. But when the impatience vanishes, the thoughts that follow help me better understand my own work.
In response to several recent exhibits along with (actual) conversations with friends, I've decided to write about what happens in my head when I look at and converse with art. Rather than focusing on whether I find work appealing or not, these posts will be about uncovering what I notice and why.
This series of posts begins with thoughts about TYPE OF ABSTRACTION @ Key Projects, an exhibit featuring the work of Anke Becker, Enrico Gomez, Heidi Neilson and Karen Schiff and curated by Patricia Zarate. Each of the artists integrate text or type (letter forms) in their work, transforming it in a manner that removes any expectation that text is there to be read. Although certainly, the specific texts being referenced have significance and one can analyze the intentions that motivate references to text, in this post my primary interest is visual.
First, an overview of the exhibit (for additional installation photos click here). Photos provided by Key Projects, Tamar Zinn, and artist websites.
|left to right: GOMEZ, NEILSON, GOMEZ|
After entering the exhibit, I immediately noticed pieces that were bold and graphic counterbalanced by works that were (at least from the distance) far quieter. Black, white, tan and grays were the predominant palette, punctuated by a few pieces that were more colorful, but still subdued. Much of the work was new to me.
After that initial look, my mind starting pinging around the room. I took notice of the high contrast, rectangular volumes in the work of Enrico Gomez across from the black and gray discs that covered the surface of Anke Becker's drawings. Straight / round. Forms hovering over a field / carpet page. Powerful dimensionality / flattened silhouettes. Additionally, I saw that these two artists were also connected by movement and rhythm across the page -- in Gomez's case, stepping down each drawing with an emphatic 'here I am' and with Becker's work, 'come with me as I move across the page.' Gomez deconstructs the letter E, while Becker obscures the text of Das Kapital with the silhouettes of coins. If you look closely at Becker's drawings, you can see the text it covers.
ENRICO GOMEZ, Beat Hope Alive I, 2014 18 x 14”compressed charcoal on paper
ANKE BECKER (l) Mein Kapital No29, 2014 (r) Mein Kapital No15, 2014
Each 8 x 11.25” indian ink on book pages of Karl Marx’ “Das Kapital”
In a corner adjacent to Becker's drawings was a suite of six small pieces by Karen Schiff. Unlike the more insistent presence of Gomez and Becker, this work quietly invited me over for a closer look. In each piece, the whitewashed text of a book is traversed by several lines of silk thread in pathways that zigzag down the page. The stitching appears to connect the ending punctuation of barely visible paragraphs as if to accentuate the pauses in the text. While at first the work seems visually subdued, the movement through it was active and angular.
KAREN SCHIFF Dots Connecting (Nancy Drew), study, 2015
7 ¼ x 31 ¾” (detail: 2 of 6 parts) latex paint & silk on book pages
Turning again, I moved from line and angularity back to dots and grids.
Hanging on the wall between the four drawings by Gomez was Heidi Neilson's airy scroll covered with a grid of dot-like notations. Before I even drew close to it, it looked like something I would want to touch--the surface appeared to be bumpy. And unlike the tight fields of dark discs in Becker's work, Neilson's dots were spaced apart and the grid laid down in an irregular weave. It wasn't until I moved in quite close that I understood why I wanted to touch the surface--each dot was collaged onto the paper (produced by hole-punching the sentence endings from Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward).
detail of above: HEIDI NEILSON Untitled, (Looking Backward) undated
Hanging directly across from Neilson's scroll piece were three intaglio prints, made up of horizontal bands. While this work was difficult to read from the distance, I could see that the images were structured in tightly packed rows. Moving in closer to investigate, the rows seemed to have the rhythm of written language -- each row a series of small packets of varying length punctuated by narrow vertical spaces. The white spaces were highly embossed and I could imagine reading across the surface with my fingertips. Not surprisingly, these prints are also the work of Heidi Neilson. Although the three prints and the scroll are made with different systems of mark-making, they were connected through Neilson's affinity for structure and the inclusion of tactile elements. Neilson made these prints by setting up metal type, letter by letter, tiny piece by tiny piece, then inking the back side and printing, only revealing the text through the title of each print.
HEIDI NEILSON Let me not to the marriage of true minds (Century Schoolbook 10pt), 2006
2.75 x 3.75” intaglio print
While Nielson's intaglio prints were made by with numerous carefully placed pieces of metal type, also on exhibit were several pieces by Karen Schiff printed using small inked rubber stamps. The only work in the exhibit that broke away from black, white, tan and gray (the typical palette for printed text), I also found that these pieces embraced pattern in a manner that was somewhat playful. The same letter or symbol is stamped repeatedly across the grid, but gradually disappears into the overall pattern of the page. Irregular forms then emerge from the grid after Schiff accentuates some areas of the page with colored inks. What was striking was the irregularity of the prints -- not what we might expect by making the same mark with the same tool numerous times.
KAREN SCHIFF (left to right) Oo (Ghost Shape), 2015 +x (Interlineal Ghosts), 2015 Xo (Aporia), 2015
Each 10 5/8 x 8” ink & graphite on stamp album paper
Installed by itself on a set of shelves emptied of books was one additional piece by Heidi Neilson. Set apart from the main exhibit area and the last thing I saw on my way out, it served to wrap up the conversation. The presentation was bold, but the piece sat patiently, waiting to be noticed. If you didn't read the title, the circle set in the square set on the horizontal bands of the shelves could have been a reference to typography, or not.
|HEIDI NEILSON Typography of the Period: A Brief Introduction, 2003 8.5 x 8.5 x .25"|
My exchange with the works in this exhibit led me to consider form, repetition, pattern, movement, rhythm, the density or airiness of the mark-making, and reinforced my delight in works that quietly reveal their tactile qualities. What thoughts went through your mind after seeing this work? How do your own preoccupations shape how you see?