Effortlessly dispersed on an otherwise blank sheet, words ‘mother’, ‘father’, ‘all sons and daughters’ and ‘regardless of age or place’ utter in the viewers’ mouths, debuting a startling poem brimming with countless untold tales of new territories and fresh beginnings.
In On Paper, her first exhibition at SoHo’s Spencer Brownstone Gallery, the Brooklyn-based artist Jesse Chun introduces a serene ambiance composed of two series, Landscape and Form, as well as blueprints, a wall-spanning installation of vellum paper blueprints that at first sight seems to be solely composed of arbitrary geometric forms. Akin to other works on view, the said piece stems from immigration forms the artist collected over the years to strip them off from their utilitarian aspects and decontextualize their raison d’être. Freed from the burden of words asking personal questions or dictating requirements, elegantly orchestrated abstract and minimal forms illustrate lurking possibilities beneath these visa forms.
Furthering the depiction of such narrative possibilities and unexplored territories is a series of landscapes in mild tones of pink, green and blue, illustrating otherworldly panoramas—snowy peaks piercingly erecting towards the sky, tempestuous waterfalls bursting with potency or voluminous branches blanketed by blooming flowers. Perplexing charm of these utopian views emerge from pages of passports showcasing landmarks from the countries they belong to. Blown out to striking dimensions, these landscapes of archival pigment prints allow viewers enjoy their unique patterns originally created to serve as watermarks in order to reduce the risk of forging.
Paper no longer simply is the bearer of information regarding one’s immigration status or travels abroad, yet molds into a platform to further experiment for Chun. Indicating the separation between that of actuality and of the officially stated, the expression on paper aids the artist to depict this duality. Under the helm of her re-contextualizing project, papers, each originating from a bureaucratic core, ask questions about belonging, alienation and drifting—to a place, to an identity and to a story. Pursuing a home that is ephemeral, fluid and ubiquitous, the artist invents poems, both verbal and pictorial, embedded in unintended structures.
Jesse Chun: On Paper will remain on view at Spencer Brownstone Gallery until September 17, 2016.
*All images Courtesy of the Artist.
Erica Baum is one of the most intriguing photography artists working today. Baum’s scrutinizing of optic limitations images and words perpetuate bears riveting results, in which their commonly attributed potentials shatter to unravel new territories for ‘looking’. Experiencing her Naked Eye, Dog Ear or Card Catalogue series, viewers discover new scenarios, where the notion of gazing is redefined.
Using found sources including paper back books or index cards, Baum charges existing materials with uninvented narratives. Gestures such as folding or flipping aid the artist to build these alternate possibilities: a poem comes to light from the folded corner of a book revealing the otherwise covered next page or two curious eyes staring from a black and white noir with beamingly colored edges catch a sight of their onlooker. I’ve had the privilege to ask Baum a few questions about her striking practice:
— In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes separates photographic experience into two categories: studium and punctum, comparing the shift from the first towards the latter to an arrow piercing into his chest. Your works seem to stem from studium, which refers to firsthand informative or documentary photography, and transform into what Barthes would define as the subjective and capturing state, which is punctum. How do you see your creative process in response to Barthes’ concept?
My source materials, printed matter, linguistic and typographic traces of systems and structures reflect the circulation and dissemination of information in our shared popular culture. This is the ‘studium’.
I navigate intuitively, trying to corral and align my designated variables harnessing moments that suggest meanings beyond their original situations. The act of selecting and partially de-contextualizing the images could be considered the ‘punctum’. This is when the encounter with the subject transcends the ‘studium’. But there’s always a dialogue between the two.
— Naked Eye Anthology, Dog Ear and Newspaper Clippings series all manifest performative associations with paper, involving various acts such as flipping, folding or cutting. In other words, you engage with the tactile quality of paper as much as you do with its utilitarian component of storing information or image. What does paper mean to you in terms of signifying a territory to constantly revisit?
I’m looking for language in a visual field and most often it’s paper that provides that field. In one of my earliest series, ‘Card Catalogues’ I became aware of the hands behind the system. The librarians’ hand shaping and organizing and the researchers’ hand, pulling out files and rifling through cards. When I started that project in the mid 1990’s, it was intended to reflect a quotidian relationship to the library. But very quickly it became clear to me that libraries were decommissioning the card catalogues replacing them with computers.
In the ‘Dog Ear’ series I draw attention to the act of folding down a corner to save your place in a book. These moments spontaneously generate new experiences of language and meaning. They are specific to physical books rather than ebooks. Paper in both these cases provides a space for a physical encounter that can be captured photographically.
— In your work, you celebrate the power of words; however, you also strip them off of their traditional raison d’être. They no longer stand to ‘define’ or ‘mean’ what they originally did. Elena Ferrante calls prose a chain that pulls water up from the bottom of a well. Do you think you break this chain or rearrange its rings?
Often I’m treating words as things to be rearranged and repositioned exacting new meanings, not nonsense but a different sense. I always include enough photographic description, texture dimension, to allow an aspect of the original source to linger consciously.
— Your practice involves peeling off an image or text in order to juxtapose undiscovered narratives. Do you think those narratives are already embedded in there or you create them anew? In other words, how do you define the difference between looking and seeing?
I’m often drawn to photographs of people expressing an emotion, appearing to think and consider. In the ‘Naked Eye’ series this collection of images becomes a kind of indexical typology of narrative types, incomplete and non comprehensive, suggesting narrative rather than creating specific narratives and in that sense relates to narrative as a structure composed of types similar to the collection of types of art in my ‘Frick’ series and types of categories and subjects in my ‘Card Catalogue’ series. Hopefully the ‘looking’ and the ‘seeing’ are inextricably tangled up.
— As an artistic practice, photography is already far from solely ‘capturing’ the moment. In line to its merger with Conceptualism, photography is susceptible to issues surrounding conceptual art—visual narrative, practical execution and aesthetic challenges just to name a few. How do you see this dialogue between two disciplines?
Conceptualism is a part of all artistic practice. Whether consciously by intent or consciously in it’s reception there is always a platform where meaning resides.
*All images are Courtesy of Bureau and the artist.
Solemn, contemplative and evasive; the arresting art of Bas Jan Ader—the Dutch-born and Los Angeles-based artist who sailed to an eternal journey at the age of thirty-three from Massachusetts in attempt to orchestrate what would be his grandest work of art—is not an easy one to immerse in.
Still comparatively foreign to the U.S. audience, Ader delivered a modest yet profound body of work in his short career before its premature conclusion upon his vanishing in open seas in 1975. In this sense, Metro Pictures’ compact exhibition dedicated to the artist’s black and white photographs as well as his videos and installation works comes as a startling surprise during the lazy summer season.
While autobiographies play crucial roles in understanding and interpreting artists’ works, Ader’s is a unique case. Witnessing his Calvinist minister father’s execution by the Nazis at the age of two for housing Jewish refugees during WWII, Ader grew up with the breath of death and loss on his neck. Eventually, coming in terms with what life had in store for him, the artist utilized his art as a meditative force, peeling off the layers of mundane rituals to unveil embedded peculiarities of the human condition.
Until his grand finale, which still remains a mystery in many aspects (Here Is Always Somewhere Else is a 2007 documentary investigating Ader’s disappearance), Ader contemplated issues of existence, loss and, whatever stands in between through subtle gestures, eliminating the distinction of art from reality. Thus, his Fall series, in which he releases himself from rooftops while sitting on a chair or plunges into the Amsterdam canal on his bicycle, expands both directions: scornful and giddy akin to Chaplin slapsticks, these videos emphasize the ridicule beneath the mundane; however, in contrast, there lies a severe portrayal of agony and juxtaposition of nihilism experienced by a distressed mind. When observed as an act of despair and surrender, Ader’s performances and their documentations guide their audience through the gnarly paths of an artist’s struggles to survive while facing existentialist angst. Furthermore, these works are pure manifestations of the ability to feel blue amidst an order that constantly facilitates gaiety.
I’m too sad to tell you, arguably his most iconic piece in terms of delivering his artistic voice in the simplest yet grasping sense, boldly claims one’s inherent right to be sad opposed to tireless efforts generated by society for beguilement. In this video Ader is seen profoundly sobbing, omitting any explanation that triggers such profound heartache. Rather, he simply embraces the act of crying as coping mechanism while the definition of video art was beginning to shape in the early 70s and other artists were chasing convoluted methods to strike. Eventually, condemnation of crying by masculinity norms receives its share of ridicule, so do the time’s heated arguments on the nature and content of video art.
Bas Jan Ader remains on view at Metro Pictures until August 5, 2016
Above image: Dillon DeWaters, from the series Ocean/Ocean, 2010
you are unsheltered,
cut with the weight of wind—
you shudder when it strikes,
then lift, swelled with the blast—
you sink as the tide sinks,
you shrill under hail, and sound
thunder when thunder sounds
– H.D. “The Shrine” from Sea Garden
The sea, the sea.
Perhaps it is because we are surrounded by water from the moment we emerge – is it a pop? a burst? a transformation? a transfiguration? – from non-existence to existence, from no-breath to breath, we all come into the world this way, surrounded by the waters, hearing echoing voices amid a rush of fluid, still, fast-flowing, gurgling with air.
I grew up near the sea, was rarely more that five miles away from it at any given time, and have never spent much time far inland. The sea is an ironic comfort – that sublime and terrifying body – but, nevertheless. The sea is hugely occupying for so many artists across time, visual artists, writers, dancers, musicians. The way the sea holds, reflects and carries light, its sounds, its relationship to memory. One summer, my husband, the artist Dillon DeWaters, carried his camera into the waves and let them wash away layers of film emulsion as he shot away – an existential exercise, to see what if anything would survive. Let’s even expand this idea to other bodies of water, to rivers, lakes, bays, harbors, even puddles. Some are still, some roiling, some rushing, some comforting, some a horror.
Virginia Woolf played the sea into her narratives as a player ever in the present. That is, the sea is so of the now, so happening exactly in time that it causes us to gasp in our realization of our own imminent future, of aging and death, the sea becomes an avatar for that particular nostalgia-for-the-present that seems to happen most particularly in the summertime, but also, even more harshly, perhaps, in the other seasons. The waves of the sea are a constant reminder of time’s unapologetic march into the future, driven by tides, guided by lunar cycles, high to low and back again. I think, too, of Woolf’s future (that is, once the future, then the present and quickly the past), filling her pockets with stones and walking into the River Ouse to create an ending. At the outset of The Waves she writes (in the present, as though she is always writing):
The sun had not yet risen. The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it. Gradually as the sky whitened a dark line lay on the horizon dividing the sea from the sky and the grey cloth became barred with thick strokes moving, one after another, beneath the surface, following each other, pursuing each other, perpetually.
This slowly appearing and disappearing line of the horizon leads me to think of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Seascapes, a series that sets the concept of time in the foreground. Beyond the obvious aesthetic sensibility of the images – we can’t but help feel something in response, they are beautiful, serene, sublime, the silver gelatin prints themselves luscious in their perfection of whites and greys and blacks – there is also a clear connection to the pre- (or post-) history of humankind. These “landscapes” could represent the earth 200 million years ago or 5,000 years into the future. They truly present time – several hours of exposure – and yet also exist utterly outside of time, could be any time, any place, on this planet that is covered 71 percent by water.
I spend my July on an island which smells of sea and honeysuckle and privet – sweet and salt – and am continuously conscious of being surrounded by water. The sea plays a central role in daily life here, my days spent working punctuated by long swims in cold, salty water. This one-twelfth of my year – which combines intense work and daily negotiations of currents and fish, sand, stones and salt – somehow shapes the remaining eleven-twelfths. Without this, taking away this month of daily baptisms, I am a different person.
Roni Horn has a vibrant relationship to water. I think in particular of Still Water (The River Thames, for Example) and You Are the Weather. In her PBS Art21 segment (from Structures), she describes her relationship to her practice as one in which “I like to keep my feet in the moving water” and describes water itself as “everything and nothing,” going on to say, “I almost feel like I rediscover water again and again.” She discussed being drawn to the Thames (a river guided by tides, which rises and falls up to 24 feet in places), not just because of the “visual darkness” of the waters but also “a psychological darkness,” in the Thames’ role as the most appealing river to foreign suicides. You Are the Weather presents “a person as a multitude,” the same person, always partially immersed in water, confronting the viewer directly. This is an erotic gaze, full and yet ambiguous. Interestingly Horn describes her photographs of the Thames as portrait and the portraits of the subject in You Are the Weather in these terms: “I was curious to see if I could elicit a place from her face, almost as a landscape.” I find these contradictions exciting. As Horn concludes the interview: “You use metaphor to make yourself at home in the world. You use metaphor to extinguish the unknown.”
Roni Horn, detail of You Are the Weather, 1994-1995, 36 gelatin silver prints and 64 chromogenic prints, 10½ x 8½ each. Detail from the 2009-2010 exhibition Roni Horn aka Roni Horn at the Whitney Museum.
Finally, I was struck quite recently in the new Met Breuer’s exhibit, Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, by J.M.W. Turner’s very late seascape paintings. These are unfinished or ambiguous, quiet or screaming. Something about these paintings – I cannot pinpoint quite what – seems out-of-time, more akin to avant garde music, perhaps, as they float between abstraction and pure perfect representation – the feeling of the sea.