Perambulating the Bounds

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Jessie van der Laan

I'm a sucker for certain kinds of art objects, and it may even come down to certain effects, independent of any higher level processing. One of those things are surfaces that are tricky, ambiguous in perspective, color and form. They draw me in, and because when I get to them, they issue forms and structures that seem to combine and recombine in an insistent, quiet flow. I ran into that a couple of weeks ago with work by Jessie van der Laan in an exhibit at the Ground Floor Gallery. This is a group show of artists working with textiles, curated by Herb Rieth from Memphis. 

van der Laan's work here consists of embroidery hoops covered front and back with layers of fabric, the top layer very sheer, with stitching and appliqued fabric on and between the layers. The hoops are mounted on the wall in groups of two and three to make up the pieces.

As an example, the piece "cumulonimbus" (all the pieces are named for cloud types) consists of a large oval embroidery hoop with a smaller circular one positioned above it at a 10:00 position. A strip of wavy fabric is attached to the back panel.  Another flap of fabric folds over the top of the hoop. Fine stitching forms little waves on the top layer and connects to the back. van der Laan uses contrasting colors for the cross stitches that connect the thread, so here you have some yellow strands crossed with black to make tendrils that look like garter snakes. She also seems to have stained the back panel fabric with light washes of ink, which gives another layer of patterns deep down in the space. The space between front and back is less than inch but it still requires you to pore into it. 

The second hoop is darker, and the bottom layer features what may be a blot of ink or applied fabirc that looks like a splash.

You've got at least four or five types of events creating the shapes and structure--the base fabric front and back, places where those fabrics dimple and wrinkle, the threads weaving across and through it, pieces of fabric that look more or less solid depending on whether it's on top of the sheer layer or behind, and then those ink stains.You can't be entirely sure what's from ink or even water stains, and what is fabric with different degrees of opacity.

Each hoop has a different look. In one, fabric bunches up inside, reducing the sense of inner captured space. Some have strips of ribbon suspended in the interior space. She uses some colors consistently, like a blue thread, but others sparingly. A lemony yellow appears in one place. Dark purples in another piece. The groups in combination all have contrast, definitely between lighter and darker compositions, but the contrasts are subtle, in keeping with the inherent subtlety of all effects in this work.

In most cases the colors are muted by the layers of intervening fabric, and by the way threads are deployed as filigree across the surface and interrupted by cross stitches. It was even hard to discern the color of portions--in one piece at times my eyes played tricks with one portion that at times looked brown, but at times seemed to take on a coppery sheen.

The visible embroidery hoops make no secret of their reference to women's traditional handwork. What is more, the works all combine one larger hoop with one or two smaller ones--the phrase hens and chicks comes to mind, like with plants.

These works have an ephemeral effect. They seem to vibrate just on the edge of focus. Colors and shapes emerge diffidently. The multiple layers both enclose an interior space and produce a surface plane, spongy as it may be.

van der Laan gave each work the title of a type of cloud (cumulonimbus, stratocumulus, pyrocumulus). I could look up each word and try to match the characteristics of the works with the qualities of the clouds, but that seems uninteresting. I'll accept the general title metaphor of clouds. The pieces certainly have cloud-like qualities, but for me it makes them less enjoyable to think of them as representations. Or I think the range of reference is broader--"cumulonimbus" seems to be as much about water, and "stratocumulus" brings to mind flowers and plants.

Graphically, the works move towards being hardly anything, and work that indulges this sort of subtlety runs the risk of lacking enough graphic presence not to keep it from fading into a series of background designs or visual pads. Again, for me a big part of the pleasure comes when an artist walks you towards or up to the line where the imposed artistic order seems to run the risk of falling into pointless chaos. A artist can go too far for me, to a point where I stop enjoying the work. van der Laan's pieces have little risk of that because the organizing devices--embroidery hoops, and a range that contains variety but also adheres to some limits--gives them an inherent resonance.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Reading in reverse order

In the post on Phèdre, I mentioned Diane Arnson Svarlien's translation of Hippolytus, the play by Euripides that served as the source for Racine. Thing was, I hadn't read that play yet, but now I have. It would have been good to do it in the right order, but you can say that about a lot of things and you might never get past 500 C.E.

It's been entertaining to track the differences between the two. Much is due to the 2,000 year separation of the works, but I tend to read anachronistically. Books that appear in my reading space about the same time become part of the same conversation. I should probably work some Samuel R. Delany in here, something else I'm reading now.

Racine is interested in abstractions like virtue and honor, Euripides deals more directly in natural experience, like the nuances in the connection and rivalry between father and son across generations.

Euripides is bleaker than Racine, no surprise. At the end, Thésée is just left with grief. In Racine, there is the consolation of reconciliation with Aricie and the Pallantides.

Racine added the character of Aricie. This changed the structure in several ways. For one, in Euripides Hippolytus never succumbs to Cypris (Aphrodite) and gets punished for his resistance. In Racine, Hippolytus has lost his resistance and gets punished for his insistence on behaving honorably and not spilling the beans on Phèdre when he first had a chance. See, here's that motive force of an abstraction in Racine--he is undone by acting honorably. In Euripides it's more visceral--the goddess is jealous.

Well, really Hippolytus is punished because he's a douche. His sense of self-righteousness, and his willingness to tell people about it ("there is no man alive/whose wisdom and restraint surpass my own" 1114-1115), earn him no slack when things go wrong. His servant wanrs him early on--"those who act superior are hated" (line 110). His dad is quick to assume he's lying.

Gods exist and play an active role in Euripides. They are almost completely metaphorical in Racine.

The addition of Aricie creates a diamond structure in Racine:   Thésée-Phèdre-Hippolyte-Aricie.  Thésée loves Phèdre (or at least is connected to her), Phèdre loves Hippolyte, and Hippolyte loves Aricie. Aricie is connected to Thésée by the negative antipathy between the houses. In Euripides there are two triangles: Theseus-Pheadra-Hippolytus, and Cypris-Artemis-Poseidon.

Words don't seem to stand out as much against the backdrop of the action and the play. Some of this may be the fact that I'm reading this in translation, although Diane's verse is excellent. Even so, it seems like the characters don't wield the words the same way.

Lots of dialogue, some rapid and continued back and forth, like lines 331-374, where Phaedra reveals her desire for Hippolytus as she trades single lines of dialogue back and forth with the nurse. This really brings out the monologic quality of Phèdre.  The fact that it has monumental stature in French culture must say something about the French. The role of Phèdre was one upon which Bernhardt built her fame. These big chunks of verse would provide a showcase for an actor.

The written word plays a critical role in Hippolytus and has no presence in Phèdre that I recall. Where the critical turn in the plot in Racine comes from false oral testimony, in Euripides it takes the form of writing on a wax tablet Phaedra attaches to her wrist as she is committing suicide. (Diane's translation comes with thorough and incredibly helpful notes, such as the one explaining this wax tablet.)

Friday, September 13, 2013

Eight words on Phèdre

I saw Jack Ryan last week at the Chestnut-Houston art crawl. Seeing Jack Ryan is of course special since he's in Oregon. When he said he checks this blog from time to time it made me think maybe I should post something and try to make it not completely a waste of his time. I may disappoint Jack, because instead of posting on local shows--say his show at Seed Space--I'm going to say a few words about classical French theater. Then again, Jack seems to appreciate some such things. 

1. Alexandrine. In school I heard about the alexandrine, the classic French meter, but I don't remember seeing it too much because I much preferred more modern poets--think Rimbaud--who were freeing themselves of the tyranny of the alexandrine. The term refers to a 12-syllable line that breaks neatly into two halves, 6 and 6. It is to French verse what the iambic pentameter is to English. When I finally picked up Racine, there it was, line after line of couplets repeating the meter, on end, at length, and seemingly effortlessly.  Drama rendered with such formal rigor boggles my mind.

2. Vetru/honneur.  Oenone says "pour sauver notre honneur combattu,/il faut immoler tout, et même la vertu" (III.iii.).  Throughout the play nouns like virtue and honor drop into the play like characters--once named and spoken, they take on a life of their own. Actions and emotions bend to them. They seem to be self-evident, and characters wield them as tools against each other. Their relative weights become self-evident even if their meanings may not be. These nouns protrude from the text. The Germans go so far as to capitalize their nouns, as if each were the name of a God. Like a God, every bit of added meaning the noun brings seems to come with more mystery.

3. Silence. Much of the action revolves around silence. Oenone (again III.iii.): "Mon zèle n'a besoin que de votre silence." Phèdre gives her that silence, perhaps out of weakness, but just as easily as a form of action--to protect her son, protect her honor, revenge the insult of having fallen in love with Hippolyte. As Racine says in his preface, "Phèdre n'est ni tou à fait couplable, ni tout à fait innocente." Hippolyte himself lends motion to the drama through silence--in refusing (III.v.)  to explain to Thésée how, and by whose hands, he has suffered the offense he just learned of from Phèdre, Hippolyte makes himself an easy target of Thésée's suspicions.

4. Abstract. Not much happens in this play. The settings are indistinct and unimportant. A small number of players meet in different configurations and talk to each other, mostly in pretty big chunks of alexandrine. The action such as it us takes place well off stage.

5. Past. The key character developments have already taken place when the play opens. Phèdre has fallen in love with her husband's son. That son has lost his resistance to Venus, and fallen in love with Aricie, the daughter of his father's rivals.

6. Performatives. In this play with its sequence of dialogues and implacable nouns, the uttering of words changes the conditions of the world. Words are action. Thésée kills his son by going to Neptune's altar to ask his justice for the outrage he has declared that his son has committed (IV.iii and iv).

7. Irreversibility. Once something is said, it cannot be unsaid. Every generation tries to teach our children these lessons. Whether true or untrue. "I love you." "Your son took advantage of your wife." "Neptune, avenge me on my son."  In Act V when Thésée receives Aricie's testimony that contradicts Oenone's lies, he starts to investigate too late--he would re-question Oenone, but she has thrown herself into the sea, and as he asks for his son, he only receives the news of his death at the hands of Neptune's sea monster. "O soins tardifs et superflus!" In the end Phèdre acknowledges "un injuste silence" and would return to Hippolyte his innocence. I suppose he does end up redeemed in his father's eyes, but too late.

8. Diane. Diane Arnson Svarlien, a friend from high school who now lives in Kentucky, grew up to become a classicist, and she is known for translations of Euripides. Her Medea is superb and very well-regarded. In that same volume she translated the Euripides play that was Racine's source. It is titled Hippolytus rather than Phèdre. Racine took a hero out of the center and replacing him with someone who combines hero and anti-hero.