Issue 24, p. 58-59
September, 1995
Groping around with the almost invisible
By Nancy Spector

I do not know which to prefer 
the beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes
the blackbird whistling
Or just after

-Wallace Stevens (1)

Siobhan Liddell brokers in innuendoes and inflections; hers is an art that approaches from an angle, quietly and obliquely inviting perception. At first, it looks like nothing – a strip of white paper, a string of plastic straws, a splash of watercolour, a tenuous barrier of thread – but gradually it comes into focus, intimating the prospect of aesthetic experiences. Liddell’s aesthetic, however, is one of disappearance, one that embraces the nuance of shadows, the space between objects, the quietude of emptiness. Her work is not ungenerous in its reticence though; a universe of poetic associations and phenomenological stimuli are embodied in her almost imperceptible gestures. Trying to ‘make sense of a sense’ is one of her pronounced goals.(2) These allusions to phenomenology are not, however, part of a studied recuperation of classic Minimalist art, though comparisons have frequently been made to the work of Richard Tuttle, Dan Flavin, and Fred Sandback. Rather, Liddell weaves subtle metaphors, using the attenuated fibres of her art to fashion a narrative of desire much in the spirit of contemporary artists like Roni Horn and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, whose abbreviated, yet elegant, abstract forms whisper the presence of sensuality.

In a review of Liddell’s most recent one- person show at the Craig Cornelius Gallery in New York, the New York Times described her concurrent installation at the Whitney Biennial as one of the exhibition’s hidden pleasures.’ A strange comment, given that Liddell’s work occupied the same amount of space allotted to the other artists in the exhibition. By using the adjective hidden’, did the reviewer mean that the work was clandestine or intentionally camouflaged? Perhaps without intending to, this comment evoked thoughts of veiled imagery – concealed, erotic depictions like those closeted in Pompeii’s Cabinet of Secret Objects. While barely visible, Liddell’s installation was, nonetheless, determined to communicate meaning, albeit in the most hushed of tones. Thin strips of aluminium and copper wire were affixed to the wall with straight pins to form a series of transparent words, an enigmatic phrase, the tenor of which was decidedly fervent: In your exquisite light caught in the throat made from fear after fear after loss between two breaths.’ The words extended along the wall at eye level, crept around a corner, and stretched horizontally across the adjacent wall. Suddenly shifting orientation, they formed a vertical cascade of letters, the impact of which was almost kinetic. In order to decipher the last few words, you were compelled to bend down and sway a bit to avoid the shadows cast by the museum’s down-lighting. A similarly linguistic work by Lawrence Weiner could be found in an adjoining room. Painted directly onto the wall it read: PEARLS ROLLED ACROSS THE FLOOR/CANNON- BALLS STACKED AS HIGH AS THEY WILL GO/BURNT CORK RUBBED UPON THE GARDEN WALL/CONCRETE PUMMELED TO SAND UNDERFOOT/GLASS SCRATCHED BY DIAMONDS. Between each of these statements, cruciform shapes were gouged right into the drywall. This piece functioned as a perfect counterpoint to Liddell’s diaphanous wall-mounted phrase. The express materiality of Weiner’s various textual delineations operated in inverse proportion to the visceral and seemingly personal inflection of Liddell’s poetry. While Weiner’s text invoked specific images, even sounds, Liddell’s denied access to the visual. It alluded, instead, to profound, but possibly, inexplicable emotions. 

Even the most abstract’ of Liddell’s work bespeaks a certain anthropomorphism – a whisper of the corporeal – or, at least, a suggestion of sentience. In a sculpture from 1992, for instance, a thin pole leaning against the wall droops provocatively, succumbing to gravity like the slow slide of a relaxing body. The shadows it casts against the wall multiply its presence, accentuating its linearity while dissolving its singularity as a lone object. Most of Liddell’s works, in fact, are encountered in seemingly nonchalant groupings: spare clusters of small paper cut-outs, clumps of papier mâché, and hanging paper curls, all tenuously linked together by looping and dangling strands of thread. Such is the ambiance recorded in a photograph of the artist’s studio reproduced in the catalogue accompanying her 1993 exhibition at New York’s Thread Waxing Space. Once again, hints of the body surface here, this time quite explicitly – the photograph includes a cropped image of (the artist’s?) shoulder and arm. ‘Holding a hand. Drawing a line, emotions in the making,’ writes Liddell in this catalogue-cum-artist’s book, succinctly intimating the simultaneity of form, feeling, and sensuality in her art.’ (4)

Much of Liddell’s work defies the still- operative distinctions between sculpture as a structural entity, colour as an applied element, and light as an ancillary component of the gallery environment. While the same may be said about the illuminated works of James Turrell or Robert Irwin, Liddell’s art is so low- tech, so humble, that light itself is experienced metaphorically, as a poetic device rather than as a physical element. This is particularly the case with her delicate, hand-rolled curls of white paper, which appear to caress the walls on which they are mounted. Painted on their inverse sides with different monochromatic hues, these subtly curving, nearly invisible forms emanate the essences of particular colours. Granted, such effects have previously been achieved by a generation of Minimalist artists who perfected the use of tinted fluorescents and neon tubes. But the elegant poverty of Liddell’s aesthetic – the utter simplicity of her vision – situates her art entirely in the present. It corresponds to work being produced by a circle of younger artists, who, in their resistance to the material (and theoretical) excesses of 8os visual culture, are exploring more subdued, unpretentious artistic strategies. The artist describes her approach to the work as ‘groping around with the almost invisible.’ (5)

Liddell creates her elusive and allusive forms – visions of glowing colour or chromatic light – by orchestrating an ever-oscillating experience of deflection and reflection. And it is this strategy that constitutes the crux of her art. Liddell strives to defer vision; colour, light, form and text are glimpsed only peripherally or furtively. In a curious way, you look at one thing to see, or sense, another. Her friend and collaborator Paul Steen explains the impulse behind Liddell’s method as such: ‘Every time you try to get closer to what it is that you think you see, you realize you are still not quite able to say exactly what it is. This is good.’ (6)

The continual transposition in Liddell’s art between deflection and reflection, between deferral and reverberation, echoes the uneasy rhythm of human relationships, particularly ones driven by desire. Doesn’t it seem that love is always approached along a circuitous path? Passion can be expressed, but not need. Desire can be acted upon, but not quenched. This bittersweet truth pervades Liddell’s art, and is especially manifest in her recent film, Glint, created in collaboration with Tom Paine. As a montage of continuously shifting scenes depicting sites of reflection, such as windows, mirrors and water, as well as states of deflection such as blurred passages, shadows and fragmented images, the film explores the intricacies and complications of romantic attachments. Women recount stories to each other about first loves, failed relationships and unrequited affection; a telephone answering machine records random and meaningless messages; two women dance together, tenderly learning the tango. The erotic interchange between women is clear, though understated throughout the film, as are glimpses of pain, frustration, and loneliness. While this project marks a new direction in Liddell’s increasingly textual and narrative art, it confirms that, in all her work, she is a poet of human desire. There is great depth, even pathos, in the most deliberately negligible of her gestures. Nothing will ever be expressed directly, especially the sensuality at the core of the work. For that, according to Steen, ‘would destroy it as words can ruin poetry’. (7)

1 From Wallace Stevens, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ in The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, New York: Vintage Books, 1990 p.93 2. Quoted from a text by the artist published in: Siobhan Liddell and Fiona Templeton, Siobhan Liddell, New York, Thread Waxing Space, 1993, n.p. 3. Holland Cotter, Art in Review: Siobhan Liddell’ The New York Times, May 19,1995, Section C 4. Liddell and Templeton, op. cit. 5. Ibid. 6. From a statement by Paul Steen written after discussions with Liddell. See Klaus Kertess et al. 1995 Biennial Exhibition exh, cat., New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1995, pp. 138-9 7. Ibid.