A child with a predilection for solitude seeks a quiet corner for an uninterrupted afternoon’s reading or drawing, where the couch she settles on sneezes up an invisible spray of dust. Then, when a beam of sunshine enters a window and catches the motes still hanging in the air, a rectangular cloud, shaped by the architecture, appears and fills what had been empty space with dancing points of light. It happens all the time, but not everyone notices or remembers. Even rarer is the person who, as an adult, can find a way to reconstitute the wonder of that telling, early experience. In The Mote and the Beam, installed in the Gallery at Library Square through June 13th, Stephanie Leitch has woven miles of fuzzy white yarn through hundreds of holes in the walls to reconstruct that indoor sunlight. Like Untitled Apogee, a related but more compact work she showed at UMOCA around the beginning of this year, The Mote and the Beam displays an elaborate conception and bravura execution, overlaid with the artist’s determination to make of it more than just the sum of its parts.
Six centuries ago, painters in Europe engaged in one of the great adventures in human perception. Working on paper, wood panels, and walls, Renaissance artists learned by trial and error how to make two-dimensional planes yield vivid illusions of three-dimensional space. Since then, painters have largely had to content themselves with footnotes to that breakthrough, with the prize of immortal repute going to the one who comes up with the most compelling addition. Among the later winners we find Cézanne, who broke down complex shapes into spheres, cubes, tubes, and cones; and his offspring, the Cubists, who unwrapped the object in order to show its exterior, made of Cézanne’s solids, from all possible perspectives at once, in a single view. In the hundred years since then, this diminishing version of art history has become a kind of prison, with artists trying to find a way to break out. As John Hughes discussed recently in these pages, one of the most popular forms of escape is to substitute another medium altogether: video and computers offer popular replacements, claiming relevance via photography, which indeed shares a few of art’s traditional concerns. But there remain those who still want to explore the world of visual phenomena where they actually happen: in the eye and mind as they confront real events.
Stephanie Leitch can claim membership in what is arguably the most vital recent successor to the canon of representation. Using real space instead of the encoded two-dimensional version, and substituting mundane materials for those that have no real purpose outside of art, these artists replace the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t game of illusionistic painting with a multi-dimensional copy of the real world that, instead of breaking down into specialized materials and actions, shows itself to be made of cleverly arranged bits of reality. Anyone who has noted the recurrent popularity of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the 16th century painter who represented subjects using vegetables, flowers, fish, and other objects chosen for their resemblance to basic anatomical shapes, may see why artists today find him inspiring. In striving to bring the real world into their art they are like him in some ways, as in other ways they are not.
The City Library generally offers its gallery’s single, rectangular space to two artists at a time. The current month’s artists have chosen to divide the room as nearly as its floor plan permits on the diagonal. Howard Brough occupies two adjacent walls with Comic Grotesque paintings that evade the dilemma of ‘what comes next in art history’ by looking back while moving forward, like the man who enters the theater walking backwards in order to make the ticket-taker think he’s just leaving. Leitch has the other two walls, joined at the corner, which she further connects to each other using hundreds of precisely parallel lines made of that dusty-looking yarn. Their array is dense enough to refuse physical entry and keep her audience outside, a choice she makes in favor of continuity with the tradition that works of art properly stand apart from the world they comment on. The traditional encounter goes further, as one stands or walks past, studying, discovering, and contemplating, taking in and forming an impression. The result is an adventure rather than the lecture that so often happens in today’s gallery. Gazing at it from across the room offers pleasures that will satisfy some in the audience. Others, though, will want to explore by walking back and forth, pirouetting and ducking to find rewards offered by parallax and shifting points of view.
Eventually, two organizing principles dominate The Mote and the Beam. One—focused on a black circle that seems to float within the web of lines—the artist calls the Eye, a reminder more than a reference to the scriptural parable that provides her title. Emphasizing the Eye like so many punctuation marks, black segments interrupt the white lines where they pass between it and the viewer’s own eye. Engagement with these features and how they shift and transform with even the slightest movement can initially cause a viewer to overlook the larger pattern, generated by the grid of holes in the wall through which the yarns weave. The precise character of this grid gives rise to mobile illusions, responsive to any and all movement, of horizontal and vertical planes. Seen by someone standing in front—the designated space for viewing—the vertical planes are subtle: they show up primarily in the pattern of shadows on the wall and the complex of forms associated with the Eye. By comparison, the horizontal planes come to dominate what initially felt like an undifferentiated network.
Since the rise of Modernism, works of art in all media have generally been examined for what David Foster Wallace calls their ‘formal ingenuity.’ This increasingly self-conscious quality tends not only to distance the resulting art from its audience’s actual lives, but to drain it of any incidental sensory or emotional content. The Mote and the Beam can hardly be expected to reverse this trend all at once and by itself, but it offers two corrections for anyone who chooses to ‘read’ it accordingly. Contrary to a celebrated, once controversial work by the late German master Joseph Beuys, who chose to exhibit a soiled wash basin as a memorial to his orphanage upbringing, Leitch’s construction recalls a common childhood experience: a childhood memory of learning how the real world works and how we perceive it becomes a text on which she embroiders the repetition of both lessons. One viewer might ask for more of its virtues: why, for instance, doesn’t she organize the shadows that spread in chaotic patterns and textures across the walls. Surely they could play a more deliberate part. Another might question her continuing choice to make statements that direct attention away from the rich experience the work actually provides, in favor of a mixture of dubious, even pretentious claims and incomprehensive phrases. At the opening, she chose not to verbalize her statement, which allowed the audience to see The Mote and the Eye for themselves. Their enthusiasm for the result should validate the claim that her work speaks a language more immediate and satisfying than that of today’s deliberately misleading galleryspeak. What the viewer brings to a work—especially one as resonant in memory and plangent with present wonder—can never be adequately anticipated by the artist, who can only hurt her cause by trying to anticipate what her art already encompasses.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.