Review: Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson Paulsen’s The Classroom
by Josh Noble
Before beginning my review of Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson Paulsen’s The Classroom at PDX Contemporary in earnest, I first need to offer a slight disclaimer: this is the sort of art to which I have deep sympathies and emotions that make me slightly uncomfortable. This neat, clean, clever, non-confrontational conceptual art feels so re-assuring and consoling that in addition to enjoying it, embracing it’s quirky intellectualism, I almost immediately suspect it of some sort of trickery or complicity in my own nostalgia (e.g. listening to NPR strapped into a car seat into a 1972 Volvo station wagon papered with anti-war and environmental bumper stickers for the drive to a Sol Lewitt show). And I bring this up because I rather strongly suspect that I’m not alone in this and that this sentiment is intentional both at the simple level of identifying situations and objects and self-identifying with the artists’ stances towards art practice and learning. If you’re of the short attention span sort, this review can be summed up thusly: this is art about liking art about ideas.
The challenge of assembling a show, particularly to the conceptually-inclined artist, but for all art practices in general, can be summed up in a single Latinate word: coherence. So, then: spread throughout the room are offerings of lessons, the paraphernalia of classroom learning with appropriate slight winking modifications, odd educational slogans, and textual analyses that perhaps masquerade as posters. It coheres without becoming ponderous, leaving gaps into which we can slot our own experiences and small mysteries at the edges of ourselves. We usually don’t remember our first encounters with reading, with learning itself (that amorphous life-encompassing abstraction of an activity) even less. They come too early to us, and by the time we can reflect, where we might recall the strangeness of the shape of a letter, the correlation between sound, shape, and meaning, and ponder it deeply, those moments are often only ghostly traces. But the objects we encounter in those early learning experiences remain in memory perhaps through cultural association (apples, chalkboards, letter blocks) or perhaps as mnemonic devices on which we rely to cement early learning. Those first tentative understandings are almost indivisible from their circumstances, their tools, and their situation. While the exact intention of this epistemologically themed work might be less than transparent, their point of coherence is not, and the effect is, well, effective.
Oftentimes, this sort of art works best with minimally digested cultural artifacts. Chosen appropriately, objects allow our vision of ourselves to creep up on us, surprising us with the materials of our lives. This approach and its resonances in the practices of Mark Dion, Nina Katchadourian, Karsten Bott, Portia Munson, emphasizes thing-ness and the action of collecting, archiving; as Dion once said “I like things — not pictures or facsimiles of things.” And that brings up the problem of representing. Let’s posit for a moment that didactic art doesn’t work quite as well if it says things that could be stated more clearly without the external addition of an aesthetic, and that is why it’s so immensely difficult. Art about didacticism though, gets free from that little tangle and it’s precisely what Grey and Paulsen are doing here. That’s a difference between using a trope as content and using a trope as a means to present content: in the former you’re free of the troubling problem of representation. It has a consequence as well, and in this case it seems to be the aforementioned “art about liking art about ideas”.
…archival art is as much “pre-production” as it is “post-production”: concerned less with absolute origins than with obscure traces…artists are often drawn to unfulfilled beginnings or incomplete projects – in art and history alike – that might offer points of departure once again. – Hal Foster
“Syllabus – Art and Editorship, 16 Week Course,” which is curiously and somewhat provocatively for sale, consists of a syllabus for a course on the topic that the title suggests. Among the works in the syllabus are Walter Benjamins Arcades Project, George Bornsteins Palimpsest, Randall Mcleods Crisis in Identity; not light reading, to be sure. Whether the work is to be understood as a listing of the syllabus or a performance piece to be completed when the course is actually taught is left indeterminate. It prompted me to wonder: when does a course as a work of art cease to be a course and begin to be a work of art? As with Andrea Fraser: when does a lecture series as a work of art cease to be either, and does it transcend? Because these works play out in a time outside of the gallery, beyond, signified in the gallery but not existing solely in them, it leaves an opening to explore and imagine.
While the course of “Syllabus” doesn’t contain Derrida’s Archive Fever it’s excerpted in Michael Merewether’s The Archive, which is included. Derrida’s suggestion that the desire of psychoanalysis to recover moments of inception, beginnings, and origins, stems from our desire to see them as a moment of truth seems to hang in The Classroom. The concept of Archive seems to hover over most 20th century conceptions of learning, learnedness, the institutional structures of learning, their ephemera, and it hangs over this exhibition as well. But, that archiving isn’t simply an abstract concept. For instance “A Limited Anthology of Edits,” a book comprising edits, annotations, marginalia, drawings within other texts, is an archiving of time in the archive, in the act itself. The extra touch of binding the book in what is commonly called “library binding”, that anonymous green vinyl cover (for the curious or bibliophile this is called ‘buckram’), with a tag that reads “REFERENCE” at the bottom of the book signals the archival nature, making an explicit reference to the archive, as if to imply that the book itself is a reference on referring. All these notes, admonitions, blackboards, making an archiving of the objects of learning, of writing, or reading, they aren’t just the archiving of the objects around it, they’re the setting of the stage fo rfurther encounters, engagements.
We don’t claim to explain anything, but we will gladly comment on it. – Anna Grey and Ryan Paulsen (http://ryannaprojects.com/index.php?/publications/a-limited-anthology-of-edits/)
Beyond even this exhibition Gray and Paulsen seem to work with explorations of the beginnings of learning, identifying, acknowledging, and creating. Looking at Gray and Paulsen’s earlier works, there are recreations of performative works by Duchamp, Carl Andre and Ana Mendieta, Tehching Hsieh and Linda Montano, called “Covers” that, while self-reflexive and fictional, don’t lose their earnestness and empathy. This indirect play also takes on learning and reading in a way that somehow manages to avoid comment on either activity in the “Color Plot” series, of which there are three in the current show: “To the Lighthouse,” “The Old Man and The Sea,” and “Moby Dick” visually plot the color palettes of the novels. These read as a game with words-as-objects, divorced from reading, that reminds me of my own early attempts to read and understand how words and ideas were structured, making simple orders of things. Words and language as nothing more than phenomena in the world rather than marks of humanity, what one might call an almost autistic form of processing the world.
Similarly the “Problems of Categorization” pieces, an alphabet with the names of philosophers, the cardinal numbers in famous works of art, present a playful but oddly crippled comprehension. This isn’t to say that these aren’t illuminating glimpses into learning but simply that it presents a strategy and little else. This is a study of how systems appear to us in those moments when we first encounter them, not so much a study of first things as a study of first appearances. As an art practice, it presents ideas about art practices about practices of all sorts, academic, didactic, artistic, and archival. As much as any work I’ve seen by younger artists in Portland, it presents quite complex ideas with remarkably few over-intellectualized obscurities or pretensions, but I have a nagging sense that its clean cleverness limits it in some way, though I doubt this is unintentional. When the artists turn their attention towards loss and place as in their previous installation, “Index of Left Behind,” which cataloged what they lost when their home burned down, or the book “Integrating a Burning House,” which cataloged the surviving artifacts, their self-conscious strategies have taken on a depth and profundity. This isn’t to suggest that The Classroom suffers from any lack; speaking to a cataloging of practices is just as valid as any other object or phenomena or issue. However, I suspect that when they find the same emotional timbre in their work on the archive, system, and indoctrination, their work will become, in a word, powerful and intelligent in all the best ways that we hope art can be.