New York

David Askevold

John Gibson Gallery

It’s revealing David Askevold should use two philosophers like Descartes and Kepler as inspiration; for both Descartes with his mix of method and religion, and Kepler with his of observation and fantasy were in different ways genial fusers of apparently contradictory preexisting concepts into new wholes. And this is something Askevold aims to do. A scramble of diverse visual and verbal references, his work forbids the linear reading of ABC Conceptualists.

Seeing Askevold’s The Dream of Descartes and hearing his Kepler’s Music of The Spheres As If Played By Six Snakes, I was reminded of Susan Sontag’s warning against interpretation, made long before the days of ’60s Conceptual art, when interpretation really became an issue. Scoffing the idea, for example, that the tank rumbling down the empty street in The Silence was a phallic symbol, Sontag argued those who reach for such interpretation, Freudian or otherwise, are only expressing their lack of sensory response to what is there on the screen. Arguing against interpretation in both art and criticism, Sontag promotes “transparence” which for her means experiencing “the luminousness of things themselves.” And while it’s debatable just how much seeing itself is an interpretative act, Askevold’s diagrams, films, notes, and tape with their irreverent combination of philosophy, astronomy, mythology, humor, and self are an interesting paradox because they both invite and deny interpretation. Clearly having sensory appeal, they also have what is apparently anathema to Sontag—several layers of meaning. On the one hand, Askevold by using specific references like philosophy, dreams, and snakes invites interpretation. What do they mean? Yet, on the other, by the sensory nature of his imagery or by the sound of his celestially inspired music he titillates the senses. What do you see, hear, and feel?

Both The Dream of Descartes and Kepler’s Music of The Spheres As If Played By Six Snakes continue Askevold’s interest in the tension between the way something looks and what it means. Tension is exemplified by an early work also shown, Shoot, Don’t Shoot, a verbal/visual play on language and life structures—with life taking on a particular meaning. The Dream of Descartes is a visual reenactment of Askevold’s own dream after reading Descartes’ famous one about the evil genius. One of its forms is a simultaneous double projection of film loops next to each other on the dimly lit gallery wall—one image slightly larger than the other (although it’s also been shown with the films crossing). In Askevold’s other form of the dream, showing a set of stills from the film, there is also a text which is a clue to the film’s images. Containing part of the Descartes dream, really a philosophic story illustrating his most famous claim, “I think therefore I am,” leading Descartes to believe, as the mind works at night, dreaming was a form of thinking, the text also has Askevold’s own dream response to Descartes. This is part:

I half awoke, lying on my left side and looked around the room. I felt something pressing against my back. At first I thought it might be a half asleep exaggeration of the kitten, but saw her still asleep at the foot of the bed. The pressure increased and I was completely immobilized. I couldn’t move or speak. . . .

Interspersed with fragmentary images, this text figures in one film. You’re shown bits of Descartes, Askevold, and images. Jumping between the camera scanning words and showing images, the film mixes linear and nonlinear. A passage from Descartes, for example, about a “bent and unsteady” evil genius is what the anonymous legs grouped in a circle are all about. Visualized by Askevold in an ad hoc way in a contemporary setting, a group seen only from the waist down shows one man shifting unsteadily from one foot to another. Clothes and shoes—so obviously contemporary—add to the dislocating effect. The dream of a 17th-century philosophical iconoclast acted out in a 20th-century art-school scenario is just weird. So it is with the rest of the film. Images like showers of sparks, interspersed with text and repeated endlessly, take on Surreal overtones. This dreamlike quality is further accentuated by the other film showing grazing sheep, titled The Bristly Figure Sees The Sheep. Sheep come in and out of focus, and sporadic visual interruptions looking like gauze being dragged across the lens take place. Crazy, because you can’t in any empirical sense solve the film on the 2 + 2 = 4 level of so much tautological and analytical art to which Askevold’s position appears to contrast.

It is also true of his Kepler’s Music of The Spheres As If Played By Six Snakes, shown by one of a number of possible models (an interesting notion that a work of art can be expressed in a variety of different ways equally effectively, rather than by the one totalistic masterwork). You’re just shown an elusive, jokey diagram of a musical score with different notes for the planets Earth, Venus, Mercury, Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars on top of a box in which a tape plays celestial sounding music from instruments based on electrical/acoustical guitars. Kepler with his bent for combining fantastic ideas—leading him eventually, even by using the wrong model, to come up with his right theory of elliptical orbits—would no doubt have enjoyed such a fantasy. Ideally, Askevold would have had more fantasy. He would’ve liked snakes in sheepskin collars, suspended and fastened to musical instruments. Enigmatically Askevold says, “Kepler’s Celestial Harmonies are real but soundless, the snakes are real but invisible.” Seeing this piece in the context of his other works makes me realize I did Askevold an injustice by calling his use of snakes in the “Story Art” show “desperate.” I still have no special feeling for snakes, but as ambiguous subject matter—especially here in combination with Kepler—they extend the kinds of ambiguities and paradoxes Askevold clearly wants to set up. As the boredom and circularity of the purist wing of Conceptual art with its “What is the nature of art?” talk increases, the work of catholic artists like Askevold, which doesn’t suffer the kind of sensory deprivation Sontag complained about, not only looks increasingly attractive, but also, more important, generative of new ideas.

Generating new ideas also is the gradual erosion of watertight categories like photography and fine art. As absurd as the traditional division between the stereotype of machismo sculpture and effete painting, exemplified by schools giving sculpture and painting separate rooms, and museums giving one the floor and the other the wall, so is the division of photography and fine art. What’s the difference between photography in so-called photograph galleries, for want of a better term in a post-Stieglitz vein, and photography in “fine art” galleries of Conceptual “post-camera-as-dumb-copying-device” kind? As I know little of the rules and hierarchies of the first kind—of photography proper—I found three recent shows ostensibly in this area interesting as they related to recent art.

James Collins