Bookish is a Compliment
Bookish is a Compliment is the current exhibition of work by Portland-based artists Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson Paulsen’s at PDX Contemporary Art Across the Hall. In this shared space, it’s interesting to note that a piece that is of scale—”Dear Author”—tilts the gravity of the space toward their work.
Along the left wall, there are three “Index” pieces dealing with W.F. Herman’s Beyond Sleep. “Beyond Sleep Index I – Subject” reads like a traditional text index. There is an object index, “Beyond Sleep Index II – Object,” a photo presumably of imagined possessions of the book’s ill-equipped, adventuring protagonist laid out neatly on a white ground. And “Beyond Sleep Index III – Color” is a color bar chart as index which is most wonderful because it’s most difficult to read. Is that grey, for example, the color of an overcast Norwegian sky? The index pieces provide the delicious paradox of both bringing words to life in unusual ways and separating us further from their meanings by isolating them from context in index form. This produces just the right amount of healthy ambiguity in work that is also formally beautiful.
These Indexes are the closest of readings, demonstrating a process that indicates a deep relationship to text,thrilling in its Thirteen-Ways-of-Looking-at-a-Blackbird meets the Periodic Table way. Taking the content, turning it over and over, analyzing, organizing, making work in response
In their “Literary Ikebana” series of four photos the artists consider two sides of a coin: anxiety of influence and the construction of a root system that feeds into the Gray/Paulsen tree of work. Included in the four groupings are books or catalogs that Gray and Paulsen lay out as a breadcrumb trail for the active viewer to follow to the center of what concerns these thinking artists. Emma Kay’s Worldviewory of the world told through her own memories, the catalog from an ICA show on the void, The Big Nothing. As well there are clever inclusions like David Owen’s Copies in Seconds, a history of the Xerox machine, in the composition subtitled “Conceptual Art, How To.”
I could look at these pieces all day. But in their tightly-cropped way, they pretty much ignore formal hallmarks of ikebana: its use of assymetry and negative space. And of course, the word literary must be taken loosely. But the choice of the word “ikebana” cannot be accidental. Is the materiality of the book being referenced? Wood pulp and ink as analog to the stick, leaf, flower, stone of ikebana? Should I consider the act of composing these as an analog to the practice of ikebana?
Other works are book-related but self contained. The book with black pages, “Grandma’s Autobiography,” is a fine little knot, the object a platter on which the knot is delivered. Is the author, Ruby Randall, grandma, making her third person reference oddball or is she not grandma, making the word “autobiography” a mistake. Should I dig further to find out that the pages are carbon paper so that I can appreciate every aspect of this work. Or should I let it lie like the “The Book in the Stump” (just what it sounds like a paperback embedded in a stump…ashes-to-ashes), the artists’ little secret?
The Wittgensteinian undertow here is heavy, from the fact that Hermans was enough of a fan to translate the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus into Dutch to the fact of the pair’s “Wittgenstein’s Pencil,” an actual No.2 pencil inscribed, “What can be shown cannot be said,” which takes on a pleasantly uncomplicated meaning in this context of a visual art gallery, as opposed to an invitation to dig into Wittgenstein’s notion of the picture (with a little “show-don’t-tell” admonition of the fiction professor thrown in for fun).
The oversized “Dear Author” letter illuminates a different aspect of these readers’ relationship with the book. It reads, “Dear Author, Do you think that one day you might include us in one of your books? We are already half-fictionalized.” Here the reader wants in to the book, implying with the word “fictionalized” that the desire is to one day be the subject of a fiction (possibly leading to a work of art made by a sensitive reader who will analyze one’s actions, speech, thoughts, belongings…round and round).
Of course, it’s also critique, perhaps of self (making half of it up, rewriting the story, a healthy imagination), perhaps of a society in which everyone from your neighbor to the anchor on the celebrity “news” show actively nudges the fact, molds it, torques it for motives both innocent and not. But the critique doesn’t mask the alternate reading of the piece that in this context is impossible to avoid: the desire to have one’s name recorded on the page in the history of art.
Gray and Paulsen can bury that thought in a stump and get on with it. Smart work like this will out. Give me arresting image/object with subterranean layers of content that invite both multiple readings and the digging through right to the bedrock of the artists’ concerns (and as to those concerns, good to find that yes, Gertrude, there is a there there). As the pair shake off the anxiety of their influences, I’m going to keep an eye on Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson Paulsen.