Isolated Fictions: Group exhibition (FLUXspace, Philadelphia; AS220, Providence; and the Green Lantern Gallery, Chicago) featuring Amanda Browder, Nick Butcher, Jason Dunda, Rebecca Mir Grady, Devin King, Carmen Price, and Deb Sokolow. This show focuses on an historic incident of English sailors who, icebound for nine months in the Arctic in 1892, produced weekly plays for one another, and published a parodic newspaper of theater reviews, inside jokes, poems, and classified ads. The exhibit and affiliated publication, The North Georgia Gazette, (ed. Picard, Green Lantern Press, 2009) explores this historic example of an alternative art space. Here is the original curatorial statement from the 2012 Philadelphia iteration:
ANTENNAS in the middle of a snowstorm
curatorial statment about Isolated Fictions
It has been snowing for the last several hours. In the short time I’ve been in Philadelphia, anticipation for that snow has been the main subject of conversation. It was the anticipation of that storm that made me think about imagination and the way we project ourselves into the future, building and sharing expectations.
Three nights ago, a stranger crossed my path at midnight. He shook his head repeatedly, “Snow, snow, snow, snow, snow…” he said. That’s when I knew. That’s when I knew it was going to be a big storm.
It’s fitting that Isolated Fictions would open with a storm; 189 years ago a group of sailors who created the original North Georgia Gazette were very cold. They were cold and they sat in the dark for many months, waiting for the ice that locked their ships into the Arctic Circle to melt. It’s fitting that an exhibition inspired by the Gazette would coincide with a hazardous storm. There are a number of comparisons worth noting.
Due to preventative weather conditions, almost two feet of snow, we expect a small turnout. The sailors were cold on a ship; we’re cold in a warehouse. The sailors made work, imagining the possibility of a future audience. We put up an exhibition—Rebecca Grady and I came from Chicago, Amanda Browder came from New York. We anticipate someone other than ourselves and our hosts at FLUX will witness it. Further, Isolated Fictions takes place in North Kensington, an out-of-the-way neighborhood with narrow streets, families, an occasional bodega, a bar, a hair salon. FLUXspace is a destination venue for contemporary art enthusiasts. Most of those would come from elsewhere—other neighborhoods in other parts of the city. The North Pole is also a destination venue, though it’s enthusiasts are, perhaps, of a different sort.
Obviously, it is absurd to draw any literal comparisons between the inhospitable, natural Arctic North and a contemporary urban art gallery. Yet perhaps in this show, in this place, there are echoes and refractions which, having extended out of Parry’s experience, muting and deviating through time, suddenly, and oddly, reappear here as a kind of temporary eddy.
In 2009, The Green Lantern Press reprinted and re-contextualized that 1821 newspaper. In addition to excerpts from the Captain’s journal and the newspaper itself (featuring original poems, play reviews, classified ads, etc.), the text is punctuated with images of work by contemporary artists. Both the design of the book and the interjection of those artists creates a bridge from an historical event to our contemporary present; from the world of the sailor/expeditionist to that of the artist.
Those sailors wrote from a place without a guaranteed audience. They had no way of knowing whether the papers they wrote, the experiments they executed, journals kept, would ever find their way beyond the arctic landscape. Nevertheless, they put on plays for one another, wore sometimes girlish costumes, published writing—investing in the idea of posterity. Creating something for a hoped-for audience, an audience that would only exist if they were to survive their conditions and escape the ice. To believe in such an audience is as life-affirming as the fictions they made for one another. Both are hopeful. I would argue that such an investment was essential to their survival. Considering the odds they were up against, Parry’s expedition was an unprecedented success. Only one man died.
Isolated Fictions picks up on the idea of communication; focusing on the action of (art)work. That desire to make work, to be heard, in order to communicate something specific. Each piece is evidence of such work, an attempt for an individual to communicate. Each piece demands its own terms, using different formal vocabularies using found material. The necessary idea behind each work is that, despite its idiosyncratic aesthetic language, both (art)maker and audience believe its meaning can be communicated. Similarly, the everyday speaker assumes his or her thought can be expressed in words, while the listener assumes he or she can grasp that same speaker’s thought. It’s remarkable, really. Impossible. Absurd.
And yet. A suspension of disbelief is required in order to participate in the world. One must hope that the work can and will be heard, just as the work must hope that it is understandable. That hope is a kind of striving.
Jason Dunda’s The Tower, shows a painstaking care to brushstroke and detail; he shows us an impossible construction, cartoon-like with intricate pattern and color. The tower looks like it’s constructed with a variety of found and various two x fours. From far away, the tower looks believable. On closer inspection, however, one sees the individual pieces of the tower are not connected by any nail or screw. At best, they are dubious load-bearers. The Towerdemands a degree of imaginative participation from the viewer, asking that one imagine it can be used. It also points to a natural desire to climb above one’s perspective. Towers are erected to see from a higher vantage, for protection or knowledge. When creating a tower, one also creates a point of vulnerability, a place from which one is easily seen. The Tower is self-reflexive, in this way, pointing to the art making process—the illusory potential of materials, the demand of viewer participation (via imagination/projection), the desire to communicate and or see something greater than oneself. Even, the vulnerability of imagination.
Devin King’s 2 squared + 4 = 8 samples sentences from different sources. He gathers these and reforms them onto a page, creating a poem, or a space, or a narrative. He borrows characters from the Gazette, “Hooper” for instance, is captured as he might have been in the Arctic, performing on stage. Splice that image together with Kathryn on the telephone curling the chord, or Victor Hugo’s proverbial octopus (what Hugo called “killjoys of the contemplator,”) to mixtapes and aggressive historicizing. King’s work actively lays out various examples of communication-attempts. By re-contextualizing them he disrupts the specific meaning of each original phrase. By creating a new surface with those phrases, the words become flat objects, the disjointed and intuitive narrative a spectral projection who’s meaning is ultimately subjective.
No Floe (2005), by Carmen Price, operates similarly, providing a space—revealing more than anything the work of an introspective process. The care of the graphite coloring, its texture, its soft mottled-ness—like fur almost—provides a means to measure time taken in the drawing’s completion. It seems almost like a landscape painted of a very particular inner space, one inaccessible to a larger audience beyond its present form, as a representation of that space, not a literal depiction of it. There are three distinct forms of mark-making or color that used. The first operates like a kind of wash, or pale blue sky. The ground is the graphite–a solid field of grey, textured by the directional lines its comprised by. Then too there is a floating overlay of triangular marks–these combine to read as a single structure, appearing in one sense like a floating iceberg. Yet her too, the combined meaning of these marks is projected, a result of the viewer making assumption, assuming even that each constituent family of mark making can be associated with the literal, physical world out the window. While the marriage is successful in composition, they could simply be doodles, a collection of found lines.
Iceberg is a soft sculpture by New York artist, Amanda Browder. In some way Browder creates a three-dimensional, tactile experience of what Price hints at in his drawing. Stitching one-dimensional fabric surfaces together, Browder creates a sense of depth, abstracted from the variant kinds of ice and surface that make up icebergs. Here too, she uses found, donated materials and the coalescent patterns, the gingham print on one facet of the structure, abutting the polyester pants-suit leg of another facet, topped with a crag of white stuffed animal fur, recontextualize mass-produced, factory materials into a singular object that mimics nature. Here too, the form points beneath itself, to the space it theoretically occupies underneath the floor, extending into the well-known metaphor that the tip of any given iceberg represents one tenth of its true size. Using this three-dimensional structure, Browder defines a phsyical space of abstraction. One which the viewer must then negotiate.
Deb Sokolow’s work creates a different kind of space for the viewer. While integrating text and images, she always uses the second person, teasing out paranoid fantasies. In this instance, however, she projects a specific relationship onto that viewer, controlling the viewer’s position by way of suggestion. “Is there a draft in the room?” she asks, imposing on you the role of Captain Parry. “Odd. There shouldn’t be.” Imposing on you again the beginnings of concern. Integrating historical events with rumor and suspicion, Sokolow builds a narrative as one might a house—composing her narrative around your head. It is as though she cannot be sure that you will understand her work as it might take place in her eyes. Instead, she controls what you see through your own eyes.
Rebecca Grady has a number of pieces in this exhibition. She made the framed grid at the bottom of the stairs. She also made the Arctic Map, where again, one sees the result of interpretation and fantasy projected onto an existing landscape—the earth. Her most curious piece is comprised of sheets of paper that hang straight down from a pipe parallel to the floor. The sheets curl under themselves. They are crinkled in places with devising topographies. It is likely the most cryptic piece in the show. The most demanding. And for all it’s simplicity, the most inaccessible. Here one must ask what the piece is asking; what the (art)maker is trying to communicate. A Fraction of an Instant Where Water and Human Ambition Collide creates a wall upon which we look, through which we cannot pass. It is constructed of usable material, material humanity can manipulate to express other things. And yet its largess, its emotional inexpressiveness is daunting. Reminiscent of sheets of ice or a waterfall, the paper becomes a metaphor for natural elements beyond human control. The ice that locked Parry’s ships into a winter season of darkness.
Finally, Nick Butcher’s piece Grain Advance is a mirror replica of an original, vintage historic record. Butcher pours woodglue on the record, applies paper to the back and, when dry, the paper pulls the woodglue cast. That cast is then played. The sound is ghostly, full of pops and static. The needle gets stuck in tracks and loops over and over itself. Here too the meaning of the original record is lost. A shadow remains and that shadow creates a new audio space, one the viewer inhabits. The audio space, the way it repeats itself, is also a measure of time, whereby the repetition, the tireless monotony, influences our experience of progression. I always find myself imagining that the record is very old. I project myself into a past that presumably exists, in as much as the record is evidence of it. And yet. That record is false evidence. It has been fabricated.
Each piece reflects a process of making just as much as it reveals an earnest intention to communicate. We are here now, standing in an idiosyncratic space, in a part of the city generally overlooked by upwardly mobile denizens with annual subscriptions to the New Yorker. Nevertheless it is such bizarre and focused and marginalized activities as these that make life interesting. As a final note on communication, I thought I’d pull a quote that Devin sitedduring the book launch for the Gazette. At one point, Victor Hugo spoke to the ocean. Hugo asked it to write a piece of music that described itself for the flute. This is what it said, rapping on a table:
“Your flute pierced with little holes like the ass of a shitting brat disgusts me. Bring me an orchestra and I’ll make you a song. Take all the great noises, all the tumults, all the fracases, all the rages that float free in space, the morning breeze, the evening breeze, the wind of the night, the wind of the grave, storms, simoons, nor-easters that run their violent fingers through the hair of trees like desperate beings, rising tide on the beaches, rivers plunging into seas, cataracts, waterpouts, vomitings of the enormous breast of the world, what lions roar, what elephants bellow with their trunks, what impregnable snakes hiss in their convolutions, what whales low through their humid nostrils, what mastodons pant in the entrails of the earth, what the horses of the sun neigh in the depths of the sky, what the entire menagerie of the wind thunders in its aerial cages, what insults fire and water throw at each other, one from the bottom of his volcanic yap the other from the bottom of his abysmal yap, and tell me: here is your orchestra—make harmony from this din, make love from these hates, make peace from these battle, be the maestro of that which has no master.”