Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Steve Creson Looks to Discover Something New with Repetition and Difference

Steve Creson, “Main Street #1,” mixed media on panel, 36 x 36 in.

On a bookshelf a few feet from where I’m writing this sits a volume that claims to contain “the complete paintings of Vincent van Gogh”—(it should say “surviving,” his mother having burned half his work when she became discouraged). It’s a large and rather heavy book. Nearby, a slender volume contains all the known paintings of Johannes Vermeer, a more approachable task for a body of work containing only about 35 items. For many years, books like these were thought excellent metaphors for how memory works. When you wanted to remember something, you pulled the appropriate tome from your mental shelf, opened it, and sought out what you wished to recall.

Later, after the invention of film, movies became the preferred metaphor for the working of memory. Remembering became a matter of taking from the shelf the particular reel of film that held the recollection, which then unspooled in the theater of the mind. These libraries, of memories held in whatever was the most recent medium, were cited as proof of the brain’s capacious storage potential.

Steve Creson’s Repetition and Difference presents the best evidence yet for a later metaphor, perhaps one suggested by the digital revolution: the replacement of the book and then film by computers. If so, it must be said that this is a more convincing explanation of how memory works than any previous example. This assertion begs the question of how memory works at all, of course: a discovery that awaits understanding of far more basic mental processes.

Steve Creson, “Bird,” mixed media on panel, 20.5 x 23.75 in.

Consider several pairs of Creson’s photographic collages, beginning with “Main Street #1.” This is a deliberately clumsy, artificial cityscape compiled of several components parts, carefully chosen and meticulously misaligned just enough to preserve both the illusion that they belong together and the reality that they don’t. One or another of the facades may well ring a bell in the memory of the viewer who has made it thus far in the gallery. Indeed, one of the buildings has already been seen, in “Bird,” itself a work worth studying for its collage technique. Creson coats his paper works with clear resin, a modern component of many encaustic formulas, which in the case of “Bird” gives the blue sky a puckered quality that suggests it’s a backdrop hanging only just behind the building, rather than open space. Horizontal stripes made from repeated fragments of photos duplicate the curb in front of the store and cloudy bits of the sky, adding two pieces of an apparent telephone pole that just might justify the title.

Many of these elements are different, changed, in “Main Street #1,” which also has in it the place seen in “341” and “342 #2,” two slightly different versions of another storefront seen juxtaposed elsewhere, to call attention to their “repetition and difference.” By this time, the astute viewer will have noticed that the gas meters move around in these variations. So do No Parking signs, utility access covers, and other often overlooked details. The point of all this, what makes it interesting as far as memory theory is concerned, is that the same handful of details are being used over and again to provide the details necessary for a credible verisimilitude. A lesser artist might manipulate a photographic image in a computer to fine tune an image while hiding the intervention, but Creson’s use of collage achieves a very different effect: one that undermines our misplaced faith in photographs rather than exploiting it.

Installation view of Steve Creson’s “#341” and “342” at Finch Lane Gallery (photo by Geoff Wichert)

So the most recent hypothesis argues that our brains hold a large, but finite trove of fragmentary images, kind of like those identity kits used by police to produce a suspect’s likeness from a given number of heads, hairstyles, noses, eyes, and so forth, but here of vastly greater subtlety. When we remember, we imagine what is recalled, and the elements in memory or imagination are combined to make the images we see either way. A consequence of this activity is that the more often a given memory is recalled, the greater the chances for errors to occur and accumulate. This would also explain, and these works of art demonstrate, why it is so hard to find and identify commonly-seen objects, like faces and buildings: they’re not so much individual, filed instances, but rather built up, often using the same memory particles redundantly. Whether this hypothesis will ever achieve the hardcore status of theory has yet to be determined, but seeing it play out in works of art argues strongly in its favor.

Creson identifies some parts of Repetition and Difference as abstractions, but looking at those non-concentric circles, dots, and perimeters, I’d argue they demonstrate that the geometry and astronomical references they share in common are just as real as the facades, just as deliberately chosen, and share with the architectural studies an interest in how his materials behave optically. It’s a paradoxical fact that what interests an artist about a subject or a technique is often not what the public finds intriguing. After all, it’s in the nature of art and science alike — the twin cores of human exploration — that if the end result is already know before the work begins, it’s not research; it’s a performance. Steve Creson, in this and the various other media he’s researched, isn’t looking to show what he knows, but to discover something new to his audience, and to him.

Steve Creson, “Number 9-3” from the Heaven and Earth Magic series

Steve Creson: Repetition and Difference
, Finch Lane Gallery, Salt Lake City, through Jan. 6

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