Perambulating the Bounds

Monday, July 11, 2005

Billy Renkl Fold Refold

In my review of the Fragile Species show I wasn’t able to comment on every participant, which leaves me with some topics to take up on the blog.

I’ve seen Billy Renkl’s work at Cumberland Gallery a few times and it has some characteristics that make me suspicious. Primarily because it seems he often uses antique books or other sources as the background for an image of his composition. The problem I have with that sort of borrowing whenever you run across it is that the found material is a little too interesting on its own. You end up looking at and maybe trying to decipher the older material, which relieves the artist from some burden of holding your interest. I have the same problems with work that incorporates maps. I can look at a map for hours. When it’s in an art work, am I looking at the work or the map? If the latter, why not just frame some maps. Would I get the same thing from it? Sometimes one can be confident that the artist’s contribution is not nearly as interesting as the original image. So this creates maybe a higher threshold for the artist.

Renkl has two pieces in the Frist show constructed in a similar way (one tangential observation: while most of the pieces in the show were listed as “courtesy of the artist,” both of Renkl’s were lent by collectors other than the artist). He took parts of a map, cut it into strips, and recombined the strips so the boundaries printed on the map form outlines of children’s heads. These woven silhouettes are mounted on top of found material – in one case a ledger book hand-written in French, the other a book in Latin (Marcus Aurelius?) overlaid with an illustration of the geometry of map projection techniques. Like I said, this sort of work is tricky because I could spend hours just trying to decipher the ledger book and figure out what this person was selling. And ditto with the maps – from the fragments visible, what can you tell about the original, the area it represents, the age of the map. However, these pieces do have things going on that transcend the source material, and at least part of it relates to multiple transformation and reuse of iconic shapes.

In one piece called “Island” a map of England has been cut apart and rewoven so that the shoreline is reshaped to trace a head in silhouette, the green color of the English land inside the figure, the blue of the surrounding seas forming the background. In the other, “Foreign Country #2,” sections from a mountainous German-speaking country (could be Bavaria, Austria, or Switzerland, I’m not familiar enough with the towns there to know) have been reworked so the textured and orange-tinted mountain areas take the form of a head enclosed within the red lines of political borders surrounded by smooth green lowlands. What is particularly clever about these images is that the figure in “Island” takes on some of the shape of Britain, at least its southern part, and the other figure looks something like Germany before reunification with the East. In “Island,” Renkl seems to have accented this echo of the English/Welsh landmass by adding a little more of the figure’s chest, making a shape that looks a bit like Cornwall’s western reaches.

Renkl takes familiar map shapes, breaks them apart and reassembles them first into something that represents something entirely different – a human head – but then molds that head in such a way that it points back to the iconic shapes of the countries that he broke apart.

Using a map puts into play a very conditioned set of viewing responses. We know that maps represent places. When we see a map, even if its just part of a map (folded back on itself so we can read it in the car), we look to see where it is. If we see a section and realize it is England, we can imagine the shape of the whole from the part. That imagined shape probably colors my projection that the silhouettes look like England and Germany.

Silhouettes are similar to maps in that they are representations we are trained to understand. They reduce a human figure to a single element, its exterior outline. We think we can tell something about the figure represented from that line, but we accept some signals like hairstyle to tell us the age, sex, and era of the figure. When Kara Walker uses silhouettes there is a moment of recognition when we realize that the figures are unconventional, in that they are black – African-American – people. When Watkins student Cherry Smith-Bell used silhouettes of African-American figures in her senior thesis work, there is first the recognition that the work reminds you of Walker and then that unlike Walker these are contemporary, everyday figures. Or so I think. Silhouettes require the viewer to construct the image and fill in the details in an active way.

Renkl’s pieces engage in a complicated set of visual transactions conducted by both the artist and viewer as forms are broken down and reconstructed. He overlays two bodies of visual convention – silhouettes and maps – that require their own interpretative actions and also evoke the past in content and visual practice.

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