“Problems with Reading/Rereading”

In this show, guest curators Jeanne Dunning and Hirsch Perlman presented work that balks, stutters, or is painfully shy; that is plugged, reversed, or on idle; work that gets stuck in the throat, caught in the filter; that flaps and makes a noise—rackety, rackety, rackety—and won’t go down. Rather than ably and dutifully “communicating,” i.e. presenting solutions to esthetic problems, this work problematizes the very idea of esthetic solutions, and gives the lie to the notion of linguistic or textual transparency. By resisting an easy read, the work transfers the reader’s attention to the material nature of the text; to the text as obstacle and obfuscator rather than as vehicle.

The exhibition occupied the two small front rooms of the gallery and was visible from the street through the floor-to-ceiling plate glass on the front of the building. Seen from outside, Ken Lum’s two upended couches, one black and one off-white, highlighted the installation plan—one room was arranged as the mirror image of the other, with each of the eight featured artists contributing two similar, but different works. Doubling both exaggerates and dislocates importance; in this case, the imposition of such a formal and arbitrary symmetry, rather than clarifying meaning, produced a hollow echo effect.

Some of this work might be seen as infuriatingly empty—Gaylen Gerber’s fainthearted sketches in graphite of the same floral still life, almost invisible on the page, or Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs of empty theaters, the stage a vacant glowing rectangle of white. In the context of this show, however, the work seems less an arrogant refusal to divulge information than a collective fessing up—not that there is nothing to say, but that the process of saying anything is difficult, in part because the text and the systems by which it is framed get in the way. This show frames these complications as its subject.

In Undamaged, 1989, Dan Peterman has taken plastic carrying cases and replaced the appliances that once fit into them with form-fitting fiberglass objects. In a double reversal of terms, the interior shape of the case now dictates its contents, which have lost their original function/meaning. Jin Lee’s framed captions lifted from a book of Walker Evans photographs pretend a dutiful translation of image into text: “Factory plant with multiple smokestacks seen from across river. Large cloud of smoke rising diagnonally in the sky. Railroad tracks in foreground.” On one hand, her work exposes the absurd limitations of such descriptions; on another, her texts begin to offer their own poetics, once the expectation of a certain kind of visual pleasure is relinquished. Kay Rosen’s painted stuttered utterances turn syllables into stones. Their implications of urgency and orientation on the paper turns banality into high drama, and vice versa. Raymond Pettibon and Richard House present more lyrical voices, pleasurably allusive but without direction. Pettibon’s black and white calligraphic drawings are paired with statements in assumed voices—“I, came as a pilgrim/ But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly”—that both do and don’t make sense. House’s pages, drenched in olive oil and bolted to the wall (they are meant to be torn off) leave a pernicious residue on your fingers, while frustrating attempts to construct a coherent story from their repeated paragraphs. The “stories”—one of soldiers on a bus drinking water, another of tourists tempted by children at the beach—are loaded with the textual pleasure of a rich descriptive voice and sexually laden language, but they take you nowhere; they are moments prickly with potential narrative directions, none of which are followed through.

Printed on the announcement card for the show was a dictionary key to the pronunciation of the words “reading and rereading,” and at the gallery desk were long collaged definitions of those same words: both deliberately futile lines for how to “read” the show. If these directions fail, superficially, they succeed in directing our attention to our own processes of interpretation. Because of the curatorial framework, the viewer, rather than feeling ignored by this work, can feel, if not satisfied, at least addressed—which is often a missing link in the art equation.

Laurie Palmer