New York

Fiona Banner

Tracy Williams, Ltd.

As if Bouvard and Pécuchet (1881) rewound, Fiona Banner’s work of the past twelve years has generally begun with copying and ended with epistemological inquiry. The profusion of words in earlier projects—which have included voluminous transcriptions of films such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Don’t Look Back (1967), and a “totally unedited” thousand-page book, Nam, 1997, chronicling the on-screen action in six Vietnam movies—recalled Gustave Flaubert’s assiduous copyists, who don’t discriminate between “the good and the evil” and “the farcical and the sublime” because, as they conclude, “The page must be filled.” For her recent dual-venue show at Tracy Williams, Ltd., Banner aimed to master two disparate, if thematically linked, bodies of knowledge. In a rented space in TriBeCa, “Parade” took on the military, specifically all of the world’s fighter planes, while the subject under consideration at the gallery’s West Village quarters was the nude, specifically the problem of its verbal approximation.

It’s tempting to tag “Parade” as the boy’s show and “Nude” as the girl’s show, but the gender-politics undercurrents are ultimately less resonant than her taxonomic investigations of them. As in her “still films,” she is fascinated with what can and cannot be put into words, with the subjectivity resident in the ostensibly objective formats of the list and the catalogue, with what goes missing in the acts of describing or naming. The TriBeCa show’s multimedia installation effected the conceptual distinction between an object, its linguistic signifier, and its representation. Sixty of Banner’s Fighter Plane drawings, which she has been working on since 1986, were tacked to two abutting walls; nearby, Parade, 2006, a set of models of all 159 fighter jets currently in commission anywhere in the world hung from the ceiling, bathed in a projected list of their names. This surfeit of information shored up its own lacunae: Several of the accomplished drawings feature representations of newspaper headlines, but the words (AIRSTRIKE, 48 HOURS OF FIGHTING) are fragmented and often reversed, and the models, monochrome miniatures stirring gently in errant drafts, are devoid of any legible text relating their provenance or purpose: Which one of these is the Bronco, the Enforcer, the Superstallion? (For identification one must turn to Banner’s book, All the World’s Fighter Planes, 2006—launched at Printed Matter to coincide with the exhibition—which comprises found-newspaper images of the aircraft, their names listed on the volume’s front and back covers.)

Banner muddled this Top Gun machismo in the West Village show’s seven works. At once assuming and thwarting the viewpoint of the male artist, she substitutes her own streams of words detailing her model’s appearance and movement for a real, physical body. In Nude Reclining, 2006, ninety tightly packed lines of graphite text, mostly block capitals, stretch horizontally across a nearly-nine-foot-wide paper surface, while the words in Nude Standing, 2006, are partially backdropped by spray-paint haze. There are multiple misspellings and no punctuation, and little of the prose is especially lyrical (HER ARMPIT MAKES A KIND OF ‘S’ SHAPE; THE HEEL IS YELLOW WHERE THE SKINS [SIC] HARD FROM BEING WALKED ON SO MUCH), yet these effects only fortify Banner’s point about the difficulty of quantifying human form. Upstairs, the nude collides with the fighter plane: In two works titled Nude Fin, 2004–2006, her descriptions of female models are etched, often with passages of palimpsest, on the tail fins of Harrier jump jets. It could be construed as obvious: the most anatomical part of an object already coded masculine, with BREAST and PUSSY written on it! The violence of the jet and the violence of the male gaze! But the sculptures have an unassuming, improvisational modesty that prevents them from feeling blatant, and the third of the set, Bird, 2006, is particularly clever. On one side of a Jaguar fin, Banner writes, in black marker pen, a narrative about a sparrow on a branch, and on the other incises two words: FIN for the plane and BIRD, the word that, for this English artist, identifies them both.

Lisa Pasquariello