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Where You’re Coming From The Art of Myranda Bair

“How Will I Know?” by Myranda Bair at the Maryland Institute College of Art

There are many little contradictions to be unraveled from an installation of love letters. Issues of the private being made spectacularly public, the artist’s past being re-lived in the viewer’s present, the intimately ephemeral being displayed as though it has a more enduring physicality than it truly does—all can be drawn from such a work. The installation in question, titled simply Love Letters, is an open-ended project from Salt Lake City-based artist Myranda Bair that offers viewers a peek into her own memories, correspondences, and musings on romantic relationships. Eighteen “letters” are arranged chronologically and grouped by subject (that is, by boyfriend, whether ex-, unconsummated, or current, seven in all), with each printed on small sheets of Italian handmade paper and tacked, unprotected and raw, to gallery walls. Love Letters will be on view at Austin’s Creative Research Laboratory this month as part of the exhibition Tell Me Everything, As You Remember It.

What constitutes a love letter? Some are letters Bair sent to former boyfriends, or poem-like recountings of conversations and events. Some are brief and entirely borrowed, like “Coronado Island,” which Bair takes from a postcard she received:

This is where I stayed in SD,
pretty nice place. Sorry I forgot
your birthday and sorry I make
you upset all the time.

detail from “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” by Myranda Bair

Such a concept is representative of Bair’s practice as a whole; when asked to characterize her work, she explains, “I want everything to take as little space as possible.” To accomplish this, she often works in and on paper—a perfect medium for art that deals with fragility and the passing of time and the related actions of archiving and remembering, as hers often does. Her 2007 MFA thesis show at Maryland Institute College of Art, for which she named each work after a Whitney Houston ballad, included a series of 33 watercolor illustrations of every piece of rock-climbing equipment a pair of climbers would need (“I Wanna Dance with Somebody”) and a mountain constructed of crinkled paper with two watercolor sleeping bags at its base (“How Will I Know?”).|0| Her most recent work, which will be on display at this year’s 35 x 35 exhibition, centers on salamanders as fragile specimens, essentially stand-ins for human beings and their frailties. Painted in watercolor on paper and presented in glass jars, these specimens inhabit their enclosures like more traditional works on paper do their frames. Paper seems pervasive in contemporary art at the moment; for example, the Museum of Modern Art is exhibiting works on paper from its contemporary collections, with images in ink and watercolor and even cigarettes on paper. Seeing these works, and Bair’s, demonstrates just how aptly paper can encapsulate human experience and artistic process simultaneously.

“Snail” by Myranda Bair, at 35 x 35 exhibit

One can easily draw connections between Bair’s project and work from Sophie Calle and Tracey Emin, two artists whom she admires. Calle, however, usually makes photographs a part of her documentation process; photography is absent from Bair’s work, replaced by watercolor—an arguably more intimate, and of course more subjective, mode of capturing images, one more ideally suited to address one-sided memories and imprecise longings. Love Letters functions something like Emin’s notorious embroidered tent, which bore the names of everyone she had to that point slept with, giving viewers just a hint of salacious detail in a somewhat whimsical, but mostly defiant, manner. There is something defiant about the love letters as well, but it’s much less a defiance of conservative sensibilities and more an insistence that over-sharing is useful, certainly therapeutic for the artist but emotionally impactful for the viewer as well.


Maybe this viewer is meant to feel a little uncomfortable in breaking down walls that should be somewhat impenetrable. At times the letters can be gut-wrenching, at least if the viewer comes equipped with some point of reference; in “The last apology email,” after reviewing the events of an especially disastrous Christmas party, Bair writes,

I’m sorry it wasn’t enough.
I’m sorry, I only wanted more.
I’m sorry that I need you to love me—

I can’t help it.

Like a whisper, the italicized words at the end of this email that Bair did send to an ex-boyfriend are intimate enough to give the viewer pause—something akin to the artist checking into a hotel suite and inviting an audience to watch her dream, or booking a hall and inviting viewers to snip away strips of her clothing, as Yoko Ono famously did with Cut Piece.

“We Are Sensitive Creatures” by Myranda Bair, at 35 x 35 exhibit

Bair fittingly demonstrates excellent recall when it comes to conversations she’s been a part of, and she remembers a critique offered by one of her professors at MICA: “The problem with conceptual art is, it just doesn’t work.” This is clearly a polemical statement, but its chief problem here is not its mistakenness—it’s in its oversimplification of work that has both conceptual and material presence. To speak of the Love Letters’ “material presence” seems odd and possibly irrelevant, but it’s not, in the modest opinion of this writer. The small cream-colored sheets of handmade paper, which Bair orders from Florence, are about six inches by eight, tentative and almost striving for insignificance in a sea of white wall. Rather than handwriting the text, however, the artist uses a laser printer, which she finds “more relatable,” in contrast to the “more personal” delicacy of the stationary. Orderly arranged throughout the gallery and simply tacked to the walls instead of framed, which is perhaps the key, the letters have an abject quality; their undeniable reality is that they can be literally crushed. They are stand-ins for the artist, who can be crushed in other ways.

“Love Letters” by Myranda Bair

To complement the letters, Bair’s Lost at Sea will also be on display at CRL. Consisting of a boat illustrated in watercolor and floating in static craft paper waves on the gallery wall, Lost at Sea at least in theory shares Love Letters’ interactive quality because the boat can be moved around the wall just as the stepstool can be moved around the gallery for letter-viewing.|5| It also continues Love Letters’ embrace of uncertainty. The letter project will end when Bair turns 30, as it began when she entered her 20s—to generalize, the decade of one’s life that is practically defined by doubt and indecision. If, as Bair explained, “it’s about trying to understand where people are coming from,” it’s surely about her trying to understand herself as well. Lost at Sea, in turn, features an actually unmoored vessel, and it’s made again of ephemera and takes up as little space as possible. Together, the works are adaptable but affected, much like the artist.

“Lost at Sea” by Myranda Bair

Myranda Bair’s work is on exhibit in Salt Lake at the 35 x 35 exhibit at Finch Lane Gallery through November 6. A reception with the artists will be part of Gallery Stroll, October 16, 6 – 9 pm. Bair’s Love Letters will be on display at Tell me everything, as you remember it, a group exhibition curated by Leona Scull-Hons, that opens Saturday, October 17th, at the Creative Research Laboratory at the University of Texas, Austin, and continues through November 7.


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