San Francisco

View of “James Sterling Pitt,” 2012.

View of “James Sterling Pitt,” 2012.

James Sterling Pitt

Eli Ridgway Gallery

View of “James Sterling Pitt,” 2012.

In her 2011 book Under Blue Cup, Rosalind Krauss understands artistic medium as “a form of remembering”—a metaphor made poignant by the loss and recuperation of self she experienced following a brain aneurysm (a disruption the book both describes and, in its fragmented, aphoristic form, mirrors). Like Krauss, artist James Sterling Pitt also underwent intensive physical and cognitive rehabilitation after a brain injury, and, in the wake of this sudden change in state, he too allowed the disorientation to inform his work, specifically by adapting his art to function as a mnemonic system.

“On a Clear Day We Were Lightning,” Pitt’s second solo exhibition at Eli Ridgway Gallery, comprised some twenty painted plywood sculptures, each bearing a different abstract form that the artist had derived from a visual diary he uses to mark time and document events. However, this “object-based journal” chronicles less the physical appearance of the world the artist encounters than those very cognitive processes by which he apprehends it, thereby depicting that intangible threshold between outer and inner reality in which consciousness resides.

Insistently planar, the resultant freestanding sculptures resemble shadow boxes: Multiple plywood layers have been cut out and sandwiched together to create a shallow, framed space, within which spare, schematic patterns of line, shape, and color are silhouetted. Some works are strung with metallic painted nylon or wires suspending small disks, as though the works were orreries or abacuses. The motifs employed—grids, cells, webs, lattices, ladders—call to mind any number of scientific diagrams that map geological or biological structures. Yet if such models generalize and abstract the world, Pitt’s sculptures are unequivocally concrete and specific. Functioning as windows, they offer glimpses of the artist’s observations and memories, many of which allude to the New Mexico landscape so familiar to him. Occasionally, it is possible to guess the literal referents in his work: to imagine, for example, fluttering blossoms in the pale greenish-beige circles of Untitled (For the Tree in the Breeze 8-6-12), or turquoise water aglow with suspended mineral content in Untitled (The Color of the Lake Before the Storm/The Color of the Lake During the Storm) (all works 2012).

Yet to read these objects as mere illustrations is to miss the point. Pitt seeks to portray the world not as it appears at any given moment in time, but as it feels. This wasn’t always the case, however. Returning to his studio after his accident, the artist began working again by making (out of wood, acrylic, paper, and glue) faithful replicas of his favorite book and album covers. These shells conveyed the surface of the world: silent, still, and devoid of interaction. In many ways, the works in this show presented the flip side, suggesting a realm of temporality and possibility. Here, even the voids were active—not empty, but liminal spaces waiting to be filled. (Perhaps with music: One Saturday evening, experimental composer Duane Pitre infused the gallery with sonorous vibration, breathing presence and movement into the show.) While Pitt’s art is informed by trauma and recovery, to read it exclusively through this lens proves limiting, as was made clear by a panel of neuroscientists and doctors who, convening for this exhibition, characterized Pitt’s practice as a form of art therapy and, more bizarrely, his work as a literal depiction of the brain (a CAT scan was circulated as “proof”). However, Pitt’s work is best understood not as a by-product of healing but as the very medium through which the self is re-formed. For Krauss, artistic medium has less to do with the material support of a genre (painting, photography, sculpture) than with the way these genres constitute a set of representational conventions within the collective memory of their practitioners. Historically, one of the roles of such conventions has been what the Russian formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky termed ostranenie—a making strange that disrupts our automatic habits of perception in order to reenchant the world and renew our engagement with it. In a sense, Pitt’s art not only estranges but is predicated on an estrangement of perception and memory. And through these simultaneously operative channels, one can only marvel at the infinite complexity of such seemingly elemental work.

Gwen Allen