at Vedanta Gallery V-2, through June 25
Pamela Golden: You Know I've Been at Sea Before
at Fassbender, through July 10
Nicholas Sistler: The Confounded Eye
at Printworks, through July 10
By Fred Camper
"The next time I write a poem," Jean Cocteau wryly noted on the advent of CinemaScope, "I'm going to use a big piece of paper."
While size may not matter for a poet, it certainly is important in visual art. Though there are exceptions, art that occupies a lot of space will have a very different effect, and implication, than works of more modest scale.
Joel Ross's installations dwarf the viewer. Measuring Texas, the principal installation in his show at Vedanta V-2, consists of 881 photos stretching across two walls in a grid. Size does matter here, since Ross set out to photograph every mile marker on the stretch of Interstate 10 that runs across Texas from New Mexico to Louisiana. And that's exactly what he did. When a marker was missing, he photographed the spot where it should have been. The pictures share the rough-and-ready carelessness of a tourist snapshot, with each sign casually centered in the composition.
Few viewers are going to look at every photo in order. But doing so produces a kind of irritated impatience, not unlike the actual experience of driving on this road, which traverses a rather repetitious terrain. The viewer starts focusing on little details--the way a distant hill in one photo grows closer in the next; the mile marker that's defaced with graffiti; the commencement of rain around mile 724. That seems to be at least part of the point; the photos are taken with no more artistry than the signs are placed, so we're left reflecting only on their content. Eventually I thought about the way our interstates represent a brutalizing homogenization of the landscape: supposedly drawing us closer together, they also isolate us, as we travel in metal cocoons, surrounded by familiar median strips and road signs. By focusing on mile markers, Ross, a Texas native who now lives in Chicago, highlights the arbitrariness of human measuring systems. His snapshots' indifferent pictorial qualities are a perfect match for the mindless consistency of highway landscaping and signage. The scale and repetitiveness of Ross's photographic journey make the deadening boredom of a road trip almost palpable.
The exhibit also includes nine blowups of individual photos in Measuring Texas and another installation, Room 28, that is far more disturbing. We see 50 suitcases stacked in a three-by-three grid; the open ones at the top of each stack are filled with things like TV parts, bedsprings, and a plastic wastebasket. On the wall label, Ross tells us that on an earlier Texas road trip he checked into a motel "under an alias," and at night "cut down and packed the entire contents of the room...into the suitcases."
Obviously this was an inexcusable act of vandalism. But it is the very transgressive nature of the documented act that gives the piece its power. This is no longer symbolic expression; this is a work potentially punishable by jail time--it may have seriously damaged someone's economic well-being.
But in the context of Measuring Texas, it's not simply an act of punkish destructiveness--this room demolishment is only a more extreme version of what we humans have long been doing to the land. Cutting, dividing, categorizing, and even storing are acts of the surveyor, the developer, the road builder, and the motel proprietor--a Native American cliff dwelling is a chamber connected to the world, while a motel room, by contrast, is a cubicle walled off from it. Ross has taken our "civilized" building process one step further; by parsing the contents of the room into suitcases, he points out how close creation--at least the Western variety of it--is to destruction.
The scale of Room 28 is as important as that of Measuring Texas. One's awareness of the amount of space the suitcases both occupy and contain adds an imposing, real-world actuality to the wall label's description. The size and scope of each piece convinces us that these activities actually occurred.
Photographs are physical documents of events that once occurred. Pamela Golden, a Chicago-area native who now lives in England, buys anonymous old snapshots at such places as thrift stores and then paints over them. Sometimes she completely obscures the original composition, she told me, but more often she re-creates existing forms in oil and encaustic, altering the arrangement only if the picture doesn't "work" as a composition.
Golden starts with a print or photocopy of one of these photos; her 17 paintings at Fassbender all involve sea travel, whether in the navy or on a passenger liner. She might be said to make photo-based travel documents like Ross, but there are key differences. Golden's images are very small, measuring only a few inches on each side; they focus on figures and human actions; and they are painted entirely by hand. Their tiny scale offers an instructive contrast to the macho "I did it" quality of Ross's installations: they're presented as fantasy worlds, less as recollections of events recorded in the original photos than as creations of imagination and memory made in the artist's studio.
Many of the compositions retain some of the random quality of the snapshot. A couple poses in the foreground of Parrots Are Noisy Before Rain, but the top of the man's hat has been lopped off, as in an amateur photo, though this is Golden's invention. Her gentle, almost tactile colors are mostly pale tans and greens, suggesting the look of old-fashioned tinted photos, even though the originals have been covered over.
Golden's attitude toward travel is very different from Ross's monumental visions of dehumanization and destruction. Focusing on the human dimension, she is not as interested in the geography or overall significance of travel as in the tiny moments it occasions. The act of first crossing the equator was long an excuse for rituals among sailors; Golden's Crossing the Equator shows a man wearing a grass skirt, apparently dancing. The green of his skirt contrasts with the more neutral colors of the ship, isolating this one small instance of happiness.
Golden's paint brings sometimes stiff compositions to life, reminding me of the way memories can color one's viewing of old black-and-white photos of family and friends.
Nicholas Sistler's 21 exquisite miniature paintings on paper at Printworks (there's also one print) are deceptively simple. With their absence of human figures and heavy use of geometrical shapes and optical illusions, they represent the triumph of the imagination over the material world, pointing toward transcendence while never effacing their constructed nature. Their size is important: we're forced to peer into them, as if looking through a tiny window or even a peephole, into a shadow world of fantasy rooms and infinite seas and skies. These jewel-like scenes are presented as artifices--we know they are imagined spaces, not photographic imprints of actual events--even as they suggest a passage out of materiality.
Sistler chooses mostly rectilinear rooms, expanding on the rectangular shapes of his images. In Still Life With Shopping Bag and Pencils, a rectangular table in the foreground recedes toward the edge of a window, through which lie a beach and the sea. The pencils, open sketchbook, and ruler on the table remind us that this could be the location for creating such scenes; the wall's yellow resembles the beach's color. Everything we see is a human construct: the beach and sea are mostly undifferentiated solid colors, underlining the picture's nature as a fantasy of creation and escape. A diagram on the wall shows how a combination of incomplete shapes can cause one to see geometrical figures that aren't actually there.
Sistler has seeded each picture with a reference to a different optical illusion, documented in a notebook the gallery will show on request. These references are more than just games--they emphasize the way images are artificially created magic, made as much in the mind's eye as on the paper. After looking at the picture's wall diagram, with its partial triangle and other shapes, I noticed how other objects only visible in part, such as a wastebasket, also are completed in the mind.
The notebook tells us that Room With Fracture Illustration shows how straight lines can appear crooked when partially obscured by other shapes. Sistler demonstrates this by having the frame of a door partly hidden behind a diamond shape. But instead of painting the door frame straight, which would make it look displaced in the picture, he deliberately sets it off, making the line look straight--you have to hold a straightedge in front of the glass to verify this.
The role of the painter here is less to unmask illusions than to create enchantment, though Sistler does both. A picture of a fractured bone to the left of the door reminds us that his optical tricks can also serve as a metaphor for healing--his illusion of a continuous line might be compared to the mending of a broken bone. A twilight view of water and hills is seen through the open door; as in many of his pictures, the composition leads the viewer to a mysterious, luminous place.
Sistler's images are filled with realistic details, such as a fold in the rug or a faint reflection of distant yellow light on the bottom of the electrical plug in Green Room With Electrical Outlet and Candle. By giving these fantasy images a maximum of verisimilitude--by painting them as if he believes in their reality--Sistler brings them to life.