by David M. Roth
Diane Samuels gives fresh meaning to the term deep reading. The Pittsburgh artist transcribes epic novels onto painted paper in a hand so miniscule you could easily mistake the finished works for pure abstraction. For example, her interpretation of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, the exhibition’s centerpiece, is built from strips of painted and stained paper stitched into “waveforms” register as a vast aquamarine color field. It climbs 10 feet up a wall and sprawls 37 feet across the gallery floor on an eight-foot-wide platform. You can decipher snippets of text by leaning in close and enlarging iPhone photos, but the conspicuous absence of magnifying tools begs a question: Why create a book that can’t be read? The answer is both esoteric and obvious. It’s about turning reading into a truly contemplative act, akin to what a Talmudic scholar or a Trappist monk might undertake.
To make these works, the artist reads each sentence of every book aloud and memorizes it. Then, while pondering the words, she commits them to paper in a precise, perfectly aligned cursive that would likely earn an ‘A’ in penmanship. When her concentration slips, she stops writing, resuming only when she feels sufficiently engaged. To casual observers, this might seem like an extreme form of literary penitence, undertaken for having been, say, a poor student. But it’s not. “I’m a reader,” Samuels told an audience at the ICA. “I just love books.” Proof resides not only in thie large libraries she and her husband maintain, but also in the fact the couple co-founded City of Asylum, a haven for exiled writers in Pittsburgh.
Five works presented in It’s a Long Story show the myriad forms Samuels' investigations have taken. In addition to Moby-Dick, the exhibition includes re-creations of The Odyssey, Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Romeo and Juliet, Ovid’s Metamorphosis and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Each is constructed to mimetically amplify the story’s theme, occasionally with structural overlays (or cutouts) that reference the artist’s personal life. For The Odyssey, Samuels affixed a photo-mask of the pot-holed alley on which she lives to the paper before she began writing. Tearing it off yielded a composition that resembles nautical map, with yawning white spaces representing ocean depths and clusters of inscrutable words standing in for landmasses. Romeo and Juliet the artist wrote out on five scrolls of translucent Gampi paper, placing on the versos, tracings of 100 love letters written to her by her husband: 20 for each of the play’s five acts. The latter are largely invisible. Yet their presence, opposite Shakespeare’s words, shows us the artist’s identification with the story and the lengths to which
she went to insinuate herself into it. Rushdie’s book Samuels re-creates as a wall-mounted map of India made of 1001 hand-inscribed swatches that waft and warp as if bent by tropical heat and rain, metaphors for the subcontinent itself. In her tribute to Gertrude Stein, Samuels combines the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas with remarks from six artists who objected to how they or their works were portrayed. Their testimony, interwoven with the original text, Samuels presents as a series of arboreal growth rings — literally, Stein’s inner circle.
With these hermetic methods Samuels introduces a conceptual/performative aspect into the already elastic category of book art, a pursuit in which artists subvert or ignore texts more often than they honor them. Precedents (at least of a modern vintage) are few. Sandow Birk’s transcription and illustration of the Koran (American Qur'an, 2009) is the only one that springs to mind. Bruce Conner’s “mandala drawings,” even though they’re not books, feel like close cousins, in that they, like Birk’s Koran and Samuels’ drawings, consumed vast amounts of time and required preternatural levels of concentration to execute – qualities that set them in sharp opposition to the ethos of today’s digital culture.
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The same holds for a site-specific installation by Lorrie Fredette called Tender Exchanges. In this, the Larchmont, New York artist takes, as her jumping off point, the invisible neural networks that allow plants to communicate. “Branches” and “roots” made of metal rods wrapped in plaster and gauze recall the work of Giuseppe Penone; they hang from the rafters and extend into the viewing area, like a grove of uprooted Aspens. That association soon gives way to another: bandaged limbs. The shift, which the artist deliberately engineered, points to the connection between human life and other
life forms, which is not the type of connection that nearby Silicon Valley, in its drive to synthesize experience, encourages. Not surprisingly, the tension between the virtual and the real has been the subtext to a lot of the ICA’s programming over the past decade. And while it’s mounted significant and often stunning exhibitions of electronic and new media art (e.g. Jim Campbell, Clive McCarthy and Naomie Kremer), its strongest exhibitions continue to be those that assert the primacy of human experience.
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Diane Samuels: “It’s a Long Story” and Lorrie Fredette: “Tender Exchanges” @ San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art. Samuels through February 3; Fredette to February 10, 2019.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.