Art on Paper
Young Girl Slipping
By Nancy Princenthal
The front cover of Siobhan Liddell’s Young Girl Slipping (Kitakyushu, Center for Contemporary Art and Korinsha Press, 1998, $25) is a wordless web, white lines against black with a bright orange core. Too spare to be the work of a spider, the network of lines is meant to evoke aerial views of roads at night, in relationship to which the orange center could be a throbbing city, pulling hard against the threads that connect it to other places. In fact, the very fabric of the page has begun to come undone, leaving four irregular holes that go right through the heavy, coated paper. Inside, the cover folds out to reveal a massive volcanic explosion, the four holes hurled up from its core like rocky debris. Every sequence in this book is that carefully considered, and that full of subterranean power. Produced during a residency at a new art school in Japan, the book also reflects Liddell’s recent study of geology, but obliquely, since she was more interested in the inhumanly slow progress of geologic time than in the moments of cataclysmic rupture pictured at both ends of the book. But globe-spanning movement, social as well as physical, and at every scale from particle physics to paperback page to intercontinental travel, is a unifying theme.
The book’s title appears on the first page in handwritten English and Japanese, the i in “Girl dotted with a small round hole, drilled through this and three succeeding pages. On the first of these, the hole serves as the “o in the word “atom (in the phrase … nothing more charged than an atom). The next two spreads are spanned by frail lines that connect the holes, at first inconclusively, then in a completed arc, the shadow of a slightly silly smile. The young girl of the title does not appear-is she slipping or sleeping? Or is one the slightly mispronounced version of the other, an example of the inadvertently poetic malapropisms sometimes produced by speakers of a second language? Losing a foothold, dreaming, and otherwise sliding away from conscious grasp do seem, at any rate, to be metaphors for the book’s prevailing mechanisms. Its remaining pages continue to make use of die-cut holes, foldout elements, and other features emphasizing the third and fourth dimensions of page art. Several sequences juxtapose drawings on the page, drawings photographed from installations, and Liddell’s sculptures, which are made of paper and seem peculiarly at home between the covers of a book. Other imagery includes photographs shot from an airplane (on the trip to Japan), the hazy, blue ridges of mountains looking remarkably like folded paper, immutable and fragile as a dormant volcano.
The catastrophes that lurk beneath surfaces of polished beauty is something of a signature theme for Ross Bleckner. And he, too, is a seasoned traveler: working, as he does habitually, in the elegiac mode allows Bleckner to seem quite faultlessly respectful as he visits places other artists have already been. The cover of his lavish, wide-screen Page Three (Santa Fe, Twin Palms, 1998, design by Tony Payne and Jack Woody, edition of 3,000, $60; signed and numbered slip-cased edition of 100, $151), and deluxe edition of 50 containing an original watercolor, $2,000) is pitch-black, illuminated only by a frail scatter of light that could be the dying trail of fireworks, or of a terrorist bomb. Endpapers are in the ominous pattern of bubbled airbrush strokes found in Bleckner’s latest paintings; on canvas as here the pattern suggests malignantly blooming cancer cells. The book proper begins with a blown-up fragment of orotund text (“He who learns must suffer…), after which comes a pause enforced by a page of inkiest black, and then a slightly out-of- focus photograph of a man’s buttocks, shot, it seems, from only inches away. Further original photos include equally unflinching images of male genitalia and also of big, gorgeous flowers, all evoking the work of Robert Mapplethorpe so strongly as to seem a gesture of open, ardent eulogy. This body of· work, along with additional excerpted texts (sources are not given), flanks the heart of the book, identified by its title. Page Three refers to the position in the New York Times where the lead international story appears (apart from any deemed worthy of the front page); but on this page the Times also always runs an ad for Tiffany’s. Here massacres and famines in faraway places daily compete for attention with diamonds as big as the Ritz. For Bleckner this seems a chancy strategy, since his work has often been seen as occupying a position of stylish, high-end commodity with respect to AIDS and other mortal issues it (arguably) engages. But Bleckner is nothing if not a master at calculating the risks of elegance. The juxtapositions he presents-it’s not clear whether they’ve been found or created are gut-wrenching: an elderly man with plastic gallon-jugs of water slung over his bent back, toiling up a hill in a group exodus (Serbia? Honduras?), is paired with an ad for a sterling silver “Picnic in the Park, complete with miniature basket, champagne bottle, flutes, and cheese ($375); an unforgettable photograph of a vulture attentively awaiting the death of an emaciated African child, bent double on the ground, appears next to an ad for a bauble in the form of a bejeweled elephant. Other artists have been here, too-Sarah Charles- worth, Nancy Chunn, Robert Gober, and Suzanne McClelland are just a few of those who have made similar ideological and formal use of New York’s newspaper of record- but a combination of unerring visual acumen and unquestionable conviction makes this as mesmerizing as any work Bleckner has recently made. If a certain amount of sensual abandon is promised by the crushed red velvet covers of Helen Douglas’s Between the Two (Yarrow, Weproductions, 1997, $30), the body of this wordless book at first seems fairly austere. The opening spread is all white, its concluding counterpart all black; between the two (see title) are, in the book’s first half, predominantly white fields in which slender stalks of vegetation make, initially, only the most tentative of incursions; several are easily mistaken for spare pen- and-ink drawings. The book’s second half contains, by contrast, mostly black fields, illuminated by the light- struck details of tender flora. Generally the images are printed borderless and one to a page, but toward the middle the breaks shift, allowing photos to drift across the gutter. Douglas works this passage with great subtlety editing and splicing single photos, cropping others to near extinction, and, in a few cases, causing the finely ruled stems of dry grass to read, at first, as image frames. One image, of a spectacular, dew- bedecked spider web, spans two full pages with all the bright-light, nighttime dazzle of an old-fashioned Broadway marquee. A little further on, there is a very different bit of theatrics, in the form of a series of soft-focus, close-up images of a cabbage rose, interleaved with petal-soft translucent tissue; demanding an act of unveiling that is more tactile than visual, the flower sequence is as shamelessly sexualized as any in O’Keeffe or Hallmark. Read from here, as a series of images radiating from its right-of-center heart, Between the Two becomes a wordless, inside-out valentine every bit as romantic as its covers suggest, and much more canny.
On the other hand, the quiet of Richard Tuttle’s work has always suggested a monk like renunciation so rigorous that even text can’t disturb it. This sense of discipline is sustained in Small Sculptures of the 70s (Zurich, Anne Marie Verna Gallery, 1998, edition of 1,000, $25; signed and numbered edition of 20 with an object, $1,500); its short texts have a gnomic density that doesn’t prevent some of them from being quite funny. The occasion for the book was the cleaning, prior to moving, of a New York studio Tuttle had used for 30 years, which led to the discovery of a box of small sculptures almost that old. Roughly half the newfound work-20 of 39 objects-were exhibited at the Kunsthaus Zug. The book began as a way of providing the sculptures not shown with sometimes indulgent, sometimes quite caustic retrospective analysis. Such were the satisfactions of the exercise that Tuttle wound up submitting the exhibited sculptures to the same treatment. The result is a publication that reads like an illuminated book of hours for a devout but searching minimalist. Each object is represented by a two-page spread: on the left, a simple descriptive line drawing in which color, size, and intended position are cursorily labeled; on the right, a photograph (often in color) of the actual object and a short, handwritten critique. These are some of Tuttle’s smallest and least prepossessing works, fashioned out of wood and metal scraps, bent wire, rolled cardboard, even folded paper. The operations performed are equally simple and without finesse: a curve applied to a collar-size strip of galvanized metal, the formation of a cardboard elbow from what looks like toilet paper rolls. Throughout, Tuttle’s tone is fond but detached. He is not afraid to name some sculptures failures, nor to claim big things for them; indeed, it is the consideration of what counts as success in this line of work that elicits some of the most arresting meditations. Describing Swept One, a curving strip of metal under eight inches long that might, he speculates, be a model for a larger sculpture, Tuttle begins, “This is, again, a very simple-almost~. too simple- work, which could lead to great drama larger in scale. But, this final entry concludes, “Rather than being made large, where one would run into the issues of context, it’s better to imagine it large in the mind? Of course, it is in the space of the mind that Tuttle’s work has always lived most expansively. Imaginary space certainly provides the most likely accommodation for Bend, a tiny painted plywood rectangle with one turned-down corner, which Tuttle describes in the following words: “It is, of course, a failure, but meant to be, and may be metaphorical. But it is failed on that level, too, because it can’t be seen frontally, hence, it is a failed metaphor, which may be a successful metaphor, because I like it. After a pitch like that, who wouldn’t?
Nancy Princenthal writes this column regularly for Art On Paper.