by David M. Roth
Necessity may be the mother of invention, but sometimes motherhood necessitates a few of its own. Such was the case with the UK-born, Pittsburgh artist Lenka Clayton who, after giving birth, needed a way to make art while caring for a newborn. Her solution: adopt a 1957 Smith-Corona to make drawings in between naps and feedings. Thirty-six of them now fill the Catharine Clark Gallery, along with assorted sculptural objects and videos. It’s the latest chapter in a career dedicated to turning seeming obstructions into art.
Using a typewriter to draw is, of course, nothing new – the practice has a long history, including that of concrete poetry. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to not be wowed by the dexterity, humor and inventiveness Clayton brings to the task of using a machine for a purpose for which it was clearly not intended.
Thirty seconds in, I found myself transfixed, longing for a time-lapse video that would demonstrate the physical gyrations required and explain why the act of repeatedly rolling a pieces of paper into (and out of) a typewriter didn’t destroy them. The only wear and tear emerging from Clayton’s prosthetic handiwork are creases, and of these there are relatively few. Of whiteout, the tried-and-true method for eradicating typos, there's not a trace.
Clayton is clearly a master, and she applies her hard-won virtuosity to picturing many things. Rugs, heavily decorated ceramic pots, a patterns in Welsh blanket, a photocopy of a someone’s backside, a bearskin rug and fingerprints on a glass door are but a few of the objects she successfully represents. No task appears to be complex or too obscure. Her reproduction of a receipt for an orbital sander purchased by Constantin Brancusi, for example, would seem impossible given the detail of the logo at the top (a drawing of the Louvre), but Clayton nails it and everything else in the document with uncanny precision.
The exhibition comes laced with plenty of wry meta-humor, too. The artist re-creates Robert’s Rauscheberg’s Erased de Kooning as well a crude drawing made by her son, based on one of her own typewriter drawings of a ceramic vase. Then come textiles, the most of impressive of which involves a pattern originally created on a typewriter by the late Annie Albers. Clayton typed it onto a child’s shirt, which she disassembled and sewed together. It’s suspended from the ceiling on a hanger. There are also laugh-out-loud sculptural objects, like a boomerang-shaped parcel sent to Australia and back, and an old Underwood manual typewriter onto which the artist placed tiny objects, each of which represent the letters of keys: an acorn for ‘a’, a boat for ‘b’ and so forth.
Such acts of material invention and conceptual brio have earned Clayton comparisons to Nina Katchadourian, and rightly so, since both turn the circumstances of their personal lives into art. (Katchadourian, you may recall, fashioned paper towels found in airplane bathrooms into costumes, which she donned to make lip-synched music videos that went viral.) Operating in a similar mode, Clayton and her partner, Phillip Andrew Lewis, communicated early in their relationship by texting iPhone videos to each other. The complete set of 50, One Rock & One Stone, is on view in the gallery’s media room. The subject is a rock and the myriad manipulations that can be enacted upon it. Some are silly; some are ingenious. In an act reminiscent of those performed by Katchadourian, one of the artists (it’s not clear which) attaches a roll of toilet tissue to the rock, and then rolls it backwards, creating an kinetic event that reminded me of something I’d seen in nature: a rock in Death Valley that had been driven by strong winds across ice, leaving a visible trace of its journey etched in dirt. It’s clearly the best “episode” of the series, though not the only reason for watching; it’s the suspense of waiting to see what happens next.
The same might also be said of Clayton who has garnered wide recognition for a variety of similarly conceived feats: hand-numbering 7,000 stones; locating 630 people mentioned by name in a single edition of a newspaper; and Sculpture for the Blind, a project in which sight impaired people made sculpture based on the artist’s written descriptions.
As she told an interviewer in 2015, “I have come to realize that obstruction is one of my main working materials. I'm drawn to ideas that seem impossible, or at least too difficult to bother trying to do.”
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Lenka Clayton: “Won, Too, Free, For” @ Catharine Clark Gallery through May 11, 2019.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.