Perambulating the Bounds

Monday, December 30, 2013

6 comments on Patrick DeGuira

I reviewed one of Patrick DeGuira's shows years ago. I haven't reread it, but I bet I'll say some of the same things. He's the same person and I'm the same person, in spite of intervening life experience. Seeing art by the same person has to have the effect of seeing a person from time to time--"every time I see you I'm reminded of..."  For me, because my memory is unreliable and spotty, sometimes the thing I remember is highly idiosyncratic--maybe one comment the person made in passing in a conversation that passed in seconds, not a representative sample of the truly salient details of the testimony of that person's life.

1. I do remember Patrick's long ago (2004) show at Zeitgeist. It had many images related to the difficulty in hearing. In itself, this was a neat trick, making visual the sensation of aural frustrations. The show at Zeitgeist this December contained analogous images of sensory frustration, in this case visual.  There are a couple of photos of adolescents in the 70s or 80s, enlarged to the point where the pixels take shape. It pulls you into the experience of peering closely at a photo to try to make out details that seem to slip further away the more you strain, or which evaporate as you increase the magnification on screen. You want to make out who these people are, but you can't quite remember. You look for clues on the spines of books or posters on the walls, but the letters don't quite make sense.

Several paintings have words painted on them.  Little puns, or bits of something like poetry or snippets of a narrative. The words are mostly painted in a slightly different shade of the color applied uniformly across the rest of the surface.  The words are legible, but turn the knob on tone and intensity of the color a little and they sink back into the dimensionless background.

On one of the bigger paintings, two blocks of text take up the bottom 60% of the surface--painted in tone just different enough from the background to be visible.  Above them are four black horizontal lines that correspond in the length to the fours lines of the first block of text. It's the black-out lines from a censor's redaction that have been lifted to reveal the underlying text.  What was impossible to seen has been made visible. But the revealed words didn't make sense to me.  Seeing is hard, and understanding is harder.  Much remains hidden in plain sight.

2. Patrick's art seems to function best as a suite.  I'm not sure I would have gotten this idea about the frustration of visibility from any one piece.  You see parts of it, in different ways, in different works, and you add them up to reach the observation.  I wonder whether any of these pieces work as single isolated objects--say you encountered one on a collector's wall (not as an artifact reminding you of the show). In the exhibit, the works are always organized carefully, placed asymmetrically around the room to manage the dynamic of space between them. Colors recur across pieces--the pink color of bubble gum stuck on some of the pieces matches the color of a model of a country church. The words in one painting--"die garage is meine kapelle" also point to that model of the country church.

The collection of works becomes a poem, with rhymes between portions and careful pacing of images. Maybe it's projective verse, but with meters easier to scan than in Olson.

The interdependence of the works raises one commercial question. How easy has he made it to buy a piece?  Is there a market for poems of any sort?   Or a non-commercial question.  How does this artist intend to communicate with us?  Is a bunch of staff the primary vehicle? What can we expect to get out of single pieces?

3. In a similar manner to the way that years ago show dealt with auditory phenomenon and this one deals with visual, each of these shows locates itself in a specific time of life.  2004 dealt with old age, this one deals with adolescence.  There are those pixelated photos of teenagers--one of two boys in a living room, one with his shirt off, evokes a particular point of awkward near-adulthood in high school. The photos have wads of bright pink chewing gum stuck on them, the last bite marks in the gum visible. One of the larger works features the words Model Builder, an evocation of the classic teenage hobby of building model airplanes, and the other points in life where a person might make models, including an artist like DeGuira who made models of a church and a row boat for this show and almost always has some sculptural models in the suites of work he presents. And of course the Model Builder could be a more distant and powerful figure, maybe God, setting in place the pattern to govern what follows.

4. Patrick makes extensive use of flat, uniform color, whether on paintings, collages, or sculptures. It lacks affect, and betrays no sign of the artist's hand, of the human making marks. This places him squarely into the camp of minimalism, although the objects in his work matter and hold interpretative, not just formal, significance.  This is an empirical observation that in itself does not add to understanding.

The only mark-making in the pieces is not immediately apparent--it's in the pieces of chewing gum, where you have to assume the artist chewed the stuff up and left the bite marks.

The thick layers of expressionless paint add to the quality of masking.  They dampen the sense of expressive presence, and make you look elsewhere for what turns out to be highly expressive and emotionally felt work. The paint starts to hide the objects they cover.  The rowboat and church models are not represents of specific instances of their type, but are more like the visualization of ideal types, a form of objectivity. And they are also ghosts--a specific rowboat that starts to lose its specificity--the different colors of different parts and materials, the marks and dings that come from use. You can't quite remember what the rowboat you used that summer decades ago looked like, you just remember that you had one there.

5. The hardest works are possibly some of the easiest.  There are a couple of collages with images of mineral and crystal formations reproduced in black and white and covered with a sparkly surface. These pieces are easy in the sense that as isolated objects, they might be the ones with the strongest visual appeal left on their own. But they are harder to relate to the content and style of the rest of the work. The iconography in everything else is of the human world--abstractions, words, and constructed things like the building and boat.  There are no plants, animals, or landscapes. In this context (or non-context) the mineral specimens stick out. Black and white rather than color. A sparkly surface coating rather than flat colors.

So what do you do with this? You could conclude that it's a variation that doesn't connect with the rest, a wrong move. Minerals and crystals do make some standard interpretations available. They represent self-organizing, naturally evolving structures. They repeat upon themselves. It's easy enough to relate these characteristics to human phenomena. But these are generic interpretations and Patrick's work deserves better than that.

One characteristic of these images is that their natural and naturalistic content is rendered with a more obviously artificial means--the surface treatment, laced with sparkles. The other objects are more immediately themselves, constructed objects placed in the room. The images of rocks are more mediated.  So this may come back around to the difficulties in seeing--images that at first seem to be scientific illustrations are more removed from the natural world.

At the end of the day, these remain difficult interpretive corners of this show, although someone out there no doubt has gotten to the point.

6. I mentioned the emotional content of this work.  At firs the emotions sneak up on you. The work is stripped of the things we associate with expression. Brushstrokes, bright color, sharp contrasts, dramatic representations. The artist is undoubtedly involved in formal arrangements. The color palettes are muted. But these stripped down images he gives us have references that draw down into significant human experience.  Family is always everywhere in his works. The experience of sensory strain is not a cold phenomenological observation, but deals with the emotional weight of loss, and the frustration of reaching back and what eludes the grasp of memory.

The characteristics of this emotional landscape don't adhere to common forms.  The past occupies a central place in the material, but nothing seems nostalgic.  The rowboat must be connected to a rowboat that existed and events in which it featured, but it strikes me in a more matter of fact way--there was this thing that happened, we took at rowboat. Patrick distills some features from that scene, from an episode that can remain hidden.  

Unless you're Proust, it may be pointless to try to describe what you encounter when you come into an emotional presence in a body of work. It gets to be like music, where the emotional heft is undeniable but exists in a realm distant from words.  To use a safe example, Beethoven.  Or Schumann, whose music has been on my mind a little the last few days. Passages in Kinderszenen move me deeply. I can play it for you, point to the specific measures and notes, and maybe you'll hear it too.