PRINT April 1977

Magic of the Possible: Five California Artists

THERE CAN BE NO DOUBT that performance, process and environmental arts have established themselves firmly in Southern California. Such post-studio work challenges accepted notions of scale according to any external frame of reference. It has been significantly involved with the esthetics of such temporal modes as drama and narrative.

Beyond this general situation, however, certain artists appear to be diverting gains made in these areas of art investigation into the channels of what might seem to be more traditional formats. I hesitate to identify yet another new trend or category, but I should like to suggest that the spatial and temporal concerns of post-studio art are shared by these plastic artists, even if in their works such concerns are expressed virtually.

These and other theories and practices of post-studio art are condensed into small-scale, contained, intimate works that are recognizably “products,” which distinguishes them as sharply from the large-scale, high-art works of the ’60s as from the later anti-product forms from which they seem to draw an esthetic rationale. The new objects are no longer inert and stable, but reveal themselves as structures in a state of immanence, perceived in a process of spatial deconstitution and reconstitution. Typically, too, the information carried by these objects is not explicable in a self-contained way, but only by the work’s participation in an enactment process in the spatial context. As with performance art itself, the event is central; yet here the event is paradoxically extra-temporal, in the sense that its action is suspended. The narrative or dramatic element is essentially present, but in a virtual way. Further, such works cannot be approached as documentations of events, thanks to their clear self-sufficiency.

Similarly, as with environment artists, the space created is transparent in that it requires to be “read through” rather than “read”: its information is conveyed simultaneously in and from all points of reference, and is not limited to any particular one; it invites penetration and perambulation rather than apprehension. Indeed, the space often denies apprehension in normal physical terms. Here human scale is perceived not in terms of physical presence, but in the context of an internalized, mental activity. And the space is often ambiguous or paradoxical, simultaneously inviting and precluding entry. The process of viewing the works I am speaking about, then, leads further than to an understanding, in the absolutist sense, of formal or thematic problems and resolutions; it leads also into a continuing exchange with the viewer, offering an alteration or expansion of experience.

These works speak more immediately of human events and fantasies than of formal artistic problems. Rightly so, for their concern is more with the interaction between art (as an activity) and life (as the same) than with the internal solipsisms of art alone. Finally, unlike much of today’s purely narrative practitioners, these artists do not speak primarily of personal experience or of the individual consciousness (which might turn out to be nothing more than a refashioning of the old one-point perspective). Instead, they offer an esthetically distanced, objective view of the human experience.

Besides reduction in scale, there is much in Judith Miller’s Anaxamander Series, No.3 (1975) to remind us of the environmental work of James Turrell and Robert Irwin. Using a collage technique whose prime material is photographs of white spaces, Miller conjures into existence an altered and highly problematical space whose dimensions—despite the relatively small proportions of the work—are indeterminable. The distribution of light and shade would seem to set up a three-dimensional “corner” situation. Yet this information is contradicted both by a central, heavy horizontal line—which tails off inexplicably, apparently behind the lighter surface to the right—and by vellum “planks” which cut across, under and through the three surfaces of the corner. Such a feat of spatial disorientation would be scarcely available to an artist using the literal space of an environment—and Miller’s own experience has led to a rejection of that, on grounds, she says, that it might be “too small.”

The space here is analogous to that of an empty stage, inviting human presence. The viewer’s response is to enter the space and experience its disorientation—an action which is dizzying because it demands the suspension of our normal modes of apprehension of space, and of mass inside it. In a later series, Miller herself introduces the human presence: N/2 Rolling Horizontal (1975) is an example. Here the division is simpler and more severe (the vellum acts in much the same way as Robert Irwin’s scrims). But rather than resolving the spatial paradox, the figure tends to compound it, since it enacts our own disorientation: is the figure emerging, or receding, from one space into the next? Thus in the quasi-chronological (or -narrative) sequence, past, present and future fold into each other without becoming mutually exclusive. A temporal paradox then complicates the spatial one; and the image, along with the viewer’s mind, is caught in neither one possible situation nor the other but in the continuing process of reconstituting all the possibilities indicated by the shift of the body. The action, undefined and undefinable, suggests a pure, if purely virtual, energy.

In a remarkable new series not yet publicly exhibited, Miller consolidates the qualities of earlier works. She returns to a more abstract space—although erotic reference to the human body seems clear and intentional. The image (a black triangle caught in movement against a corner of white space) dances through the series in a manner that defies purely visual analysis, demanding that the viewer suspend learned notions of gravity and perspective. The paradoxical co-existence of “ins” and “outs” or “ups” and “downs,” of stasis and kinesis or physical appearance and dematerialization, recognizes a dimension of experience for which we have not as yet developed a proper language. The effect of the series is surprisingly erotic, despite its apparently abstract shapes; and the ec-stasis of the erotic experience is a powerful correlative for the disorientation of the senses in these works which transcend, or even contradict, the apprehension of purely physical information.

Greg S. Card’s work is, in some respects, analogous to Miller’s Frames of Reference, a recent series of three-dimensional works, creates similarly paradoxical or confusing spaces which, in a recent statement, Card has described as “interactions (acts) of energies, materials, situations, presentations, perceptions, logical-illogical illusions.” In Frame of Reference: 10th Scale (1976), a simple redwood box structure is set against the wall, which it reveals in its lower part; a mirror set at a 45-degree angle vertically to the wall reflects the lower half of the box and the wall area which it contains, creating for the viewer a new, paradoxical space which appears to recede physically into the wall. The rust-orange tint of the glass both picks up the color of the redwood and alters the newly perceived space, making it at once special and strange. While the viewer does not appear in this space, his passing presence is received into other works in the same series in which the viewer himself is the immanent and recessive image, conjured in and out of existence—his presence in virtually existent spaces alternately established and denied.

The effect of Card’s illusions is one of conjuring. While he insists that “nothing is hidden,” and that there is “no sleight of hand, no deception,” the very language of the denial establishes its kinship with the rhetoric of the performing magician. What the work paradoxically reveals is evidence that denies the logical perception of the senses, and can therefore only be perceived fully by the mind. Card’s procedure is performance, which is perhaps more clearly manifested in his two-dimensional works. In 3-Act Hand Cube Gesture (1975), for example, the hand is xeroxed in the act of sliding the small cut-out drawing of a cube across a surface, revealing a distortion of image and bringing into question our perception of the cube itself. The stable image at the top of the set is denied its stability by the process of perception itself, whose enactment becomes the subject of the work. It is interesting to note that Card is at pains to establish a plastic context for the action here, working in pastel both with and against the paradoxical flatness of the xerox reproduction.

David Ligare’s affinity with environmental and process art is most clearly manifested in a series of sand drawings, started around 1971. The works originate in an environment-altering process (they have been accurately described as “small earthworks”) and, even as finished drawings, inevitably refer us to their transient origins. Ligare, dissatisfied with their ephemerality, photographed them and subsequently reproduced the photographs, with extraordinary devotion to detail, on canvas or paper, using pencil, color pencil or acrylic, or a mixture of these media. Again, as in Miller’s work, the definition of scale is both inviting and problematical. In its original state, the sand drawing would have been relatively small—the tracks indicate the spread of the artist’s fingers. However, the wider landscape context (ocean, beach, etc.) is no longer available to us when we look at the finished works: rather, it is deliberately cut off. We can just as well see them as aerial views of much vaster spaces or as spaces of any intermediate dimension. Indeed, they seem to be legible in any and all dimensions, and the viewer’s perception of the image is engaged in continual expansion and contraction as he reads through the surface of the work.

While the sand drawings might seem to be documentary in nature, certain distinctions are readily apparent. In the first place, the documentation of an event would tend to place its emphasis on the process and context of that event, while here we are left only with traces—and highly selective traces—of the process, rendered all the more permanent through the evident and painstaking effort of reproduction. In addition, what we are dealing with here is clearly not a by-product, but an end-product whose importance is manifest in itself rather than in its outside reference. The artist has absented himself from the work and we are invited, I think, to concern ourselves not with his means but with the created image. Even so, the idea of process is vital in our approach to the work: the sand of the original process is itself an ancient metaphor for change, and the finger marks convey a sense of improvisation or tentativeness—an effect which stands in ironical relationship with the finished, controlled quality of the work.

The relevance of the idea of enactment in space may perhaps be more readily perceived in Ligare’s most recent works—drawings of draperies, captured as they float, drift, or hover in space above the ocean. The space is quasi-dramatic in its simple juxtaposition of image and background, but it nonetheless remains shallow, even flat. This tendency for the depth of focus to flatten contradicts our normal experience of expanses of sea and sky. This complication is in turn compounded by the tilt of the horizon in each of the drawings, which sets us off balance, denies the possibility of normal perception, and at the same time energizes the space and the virtual movement of the drapery. In the example shown here, an untitled drawing of 1976, the emergence of a rock at bottom right acts as a counterweight that heightens our sense of the weightlessness of the cloth. Much as in Miller’s and Card’s work, the piece asserts a complex and changing relationship between the time implied in its virtual movement and the timelessness in which the drapery appears to be caught—and, by the same token, between space and infinity, movement and stasis, weight and weightlessness. Reminiscent, perhaps, of Magritte or of other Surrealist artists, its concerns are yet radically different from Surrealism. It is not the subconscious mind that is activated here, but the conscious, perceiving mind; the reality presented us is, so to speak, a literal reality (there are no deceptions, nothing is hidden), and the image does not surprise or shock us. What strikes us here again is the quality I have described as a perpetual immanence. Beyond the static appearance of the work is a drama of unfolding, a performance whose spatial and temporal dimensions are defined and redefined by the work itself and by the eye and mind which it sets in motion.

Such severe juxtaposition of image and ground is typical also of Scott Grieger’s works. The appearance, for example, of prancing hooves, arrested in their movement through space against an ethereal blue-wash background, carries out not only the suggestion of mythical beasts, whose forms we are left to imagine, but also of some movement which affects the space of the entire painting. In other works, Grieger uses the twist of a body—the angle of a needle on which one of his beasts may be precariously and tentatively perched—to set the viewer’s imagination in motion. The paintings deny straight narrative: their whole story is never told. But the temporal dimension, in and through its very suspension, permeates each work. Aware that most artistic dissemination takes place through photographic reproduction, Grieger is also at pains to reproduce not only the work itself in its full dimensions, but also (through serial print sheets of details, irregularly masked transparencies, and so on) to indicate approaches to the work, allowing for the viewer’s movement in his space as well as for the virtual movement within the work itself. The art work, then, is to some extent “performed” even after its apparently final stage of creation.

Scale, again, constitutes an important paradox here. The use of a needle suggests the scale of a fantasy beast, at once inviting and frustrating the viewer’s inquiry, for the beast becomes too tiny, through this point of reference, to be imaginable. Our minds are then persuaded to imagine the unimaginable, since the artist has unarguably presented us with it. Once again, the process liberates us from preconceptions about real scale, and moves us into a space where we are required to “suspend disbelief,” and radically to question our normal modes of perception. Grieger’s fantasy spaces realize impossible worlds that contradict rational conceptions of time and space; their impossibility is emphasized by the curious, rather awkward—although paradoxically graceful—and explicitly artificial quality of his assembled beasts and other images.

The quality of enactment in Grieger’s work is essentially ritualistic, or, again, magical, in reference. Animals drilled into the wooden floor of his studio remind us of the creations (and spells?) of ancient cave painters. And Grieger’s painted hoofed and horned beasts and birds carry the emblematic weight of those creatures that inhabit the enchanted woods and gardens of medieval works. With such references in mind, it seems that the artist is more interested in the power of art to project and manipulate a reality than in mundane reproduction. In a recent painting Grieger works this magic with an everyday object—an image which, he hopes, “everyone will recognize” (another notion suggestive of stage conjuring). Against a highly textured green background, a “match man” is caught in the act of climbing out of a matchbook. The background is physically built up with paint, in a kind of negative relief, so that the image actually recedes into the surface of the work. The act of climbing out—the image’s projection into the viewer’s space is extraordinary, even startling—then becomes doubly paradoxical: it contradicts the literal claims of both the two-dimensional surface and, through the process of animation, the accepted separation between “art” and “life.” Grieger further insists on this priority by having the image reproduced in an edition of 5,000 on actual matchbooks, which he is currently in the process of distributing.

The works of Roland Reiss may well remind us of the novels of Robbe-Grillet. The transparency of their structure is reflected in the use of interpenetrating horizontal or vertical plexiglass dividers. Like the French novelist, the artist creates a complex, quasi-narrative (Robbe-Grillet refers to it as a “disnarrative”) situation, to the mystery of which we are not provided with the key. Indeed, there is no key. The subtitle of Easy Turns, Happy Trails: A Murder Mystery (1974–75) asks us to sift through apparent evidence and examine “clues”—boots, a hat, an axe (the murder weapon?), a still-burning campfire—but one finds no answers to the questions it appears to pose. The extraordinary, minute detail remains pure evidence and resists the very interpretation it pro: yokes us to seek, continuing to exist in its own virtual state. Without absolute resolution, the possibilities multiply indefinitely and the process of “reading through” becomes an endless one.

Like the other artists in question here, Reiss presents us only apparently with a frozen moment in time. Actually, in approaching the work, a linear conception of time would be merely confusing. Time must be perceived as moving both backwards and forwards from a shifting center, without ever achieving a point of fixity. Reiss compares his work to “force fields,” in which an infinite number of possibilities are made provisionally concrete, only to be dissolved as new ones begin to formulate themselves. What is being enacted is indeed a mystery, but a mystery presence which reflects the constitutive process of reality itself. The viewer’s participation, then, is not simply that of putting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle (whose final piece may be missing), since all the necessary elements are present. The process is rather one of continuing reconstitution, with the realization that each reconstituted structure is a provisional one. And, beyond the fantasy of the work, it thus becomes a model for our experience of reality itself.

The transparency of space in Reiss’ work is effected not merely by the plexiglass dividers, but also by the miniaturization of objects. A detail from Adventure in the Painted Desert: A Murder Mystery (1975–76) illustrates the extraordinary completeness of this process. Plants, boots, a letter and envelope, even a cigarette butt lying in the lower left-hand corner, are all reduced to infinitesimal proportions (the cacti, to give an example, are about 2 inches high, the cigarette butt perhaps 3/16 inch long). But there is more at stake here than the simple reduction in size. The tinyness is so complete as to preclude reasonable reference to human scale. In the artist’s studio, trays filled with miniaturized objects await inclusion in future works: crumpled cigarette packs, scarcely larger than the head of a match, cold cuts of meat for canapes (proportionately sized), books, bottles, plants and shoes. The array calls to mind the image of miniaturized electronic computer elements—an appropriate reminder of their function within the “force field,” and of the fact that the idea of smallness today has lost significance in the context of function. The result is what Reiss himself refers to as a “dephysicalization,” with a concomitant deactualization of the space in which these objects are enclosed. Reiss—in much the same words as Judith Miller—expresses reservations about making full-scale environments, on grounds that they would be “much smaller” than his current work. Here again, we are invited to contemplate the possibility of an impossible world—and perhaps, in the same sense as the others, really a magical one—where imagination alone can function.

What brings these artists together, then, is more than superficial resemblances between their works. What they have in common is their demonstrated ability to work within the apparent limitations of fairly conventional—and static—artistic forms while bringing into service temporal ideas that until recently might have seemed antithetical. Along with others working with less traditional structures, these artists seem to extend the magic of the possible.

Peter Clothier, a poet, is currently Dean of the College at Otis Art Institute.