John Sproul and Lynn Kilpatrick . . . from page 1
When drawing, an artist’s eye usually moves back and forth, from the original model to the copy, optically measuring the one and transferring those dimensions onto the other. In so-called ‘blind drawing,’ the eye remains fixed on the model, and the artist’s brain relies on kinesthetic sense—the dead reckoning of the joints and muscles—to capture angles and distances. Thus, seen dimensions are translated into felt dimensions, a process analogous to the internal process by which objective, factual experience is given subjective, emotional expression: not what happened, but how it made you feel. Where academic training seeks to remove subjectivity from the process, in favor of accurate reproduction of specific, visible facts, blind drawing abandons those details in favor of the visual and anatomical equivalents known to all of us. Even beginners can produce drawings that, despite some inaccuracy, bear an uncanny resemblance to the subject, and the eerie overall effect can be satisfying to someone who is struggling to produce any effect at all.
Blind contour is usually an artistic dead end, unable to transcend its accidental effects. But in To Be Unnamed, John Sproul breaks through such limits, harnessing its well-known characteristics to expressive purposes by tracing the same subject, the same contours, over and again, as closely as possible, in the same place. Sometimes he separates successive drawings with layers of translucent gesso. At others he produces nearly concentric figures that vibrate nervously, seem to approach and withdraw, or vie with each other over which will dominate the optical impression. While a healthy sense of humor is evident, and despite its mundane history, Sproul’s process roots itself in serious art, and in particular in cubism: in the desire to capture not only distance, but time as well in a single drawing. Yet where the cubist artist moved around the object of his attention, encoding its multiple perspectives into a single image and thereby rendering it monumental, Sproul sits still, animating and energizing his image —sometimes until it shatters. The result has a cinematic quality, but in reverse: in a film, the persistence of vision creates the illusion of continuous existence out of a sequence of still images. Here, a continuous, potentially narrative existence is broken down into a seeming sequence of no-longer cohesive moments: instantaneous states of mind, vital energy, or awareness crystallized in pixillated snapshots. In place of greater or lesser visual accuracy, Sproul proposes fidelity to what is only guessed at by the eye.
And then Lynn Kilpatrick responds, sometimes with abstract musing —“The way a language dies is not only unbreathed, but unthought,” she says in “I’m not sure she” —while in “One Man Out” she speaks for the artist:
This is progress. Things move in the right direction. People begin to understand. One thing represents one other thing. Black equals one idea. White another. The line demonstrates the thingness of the universe. One thing can represent another thing. Not always the thing we seek to represent. What if the eye I speak does not blink? What if the ear does not receive? Will you know the hand with its four fingers? Say you will understand the symbol I set out for you. Say you will enter with me into the ratio of one to one.
Where a sonnet would have fourteen lines, “One Man Out” has fourteen sentences. Like all the poems in To Be Unnamed, it is unrhymed and its meter prosaic. Its sentences vary in length. Each poem in the crown takes a title from the drawing it accompanies: “Something Something Blah,” “The Woman I Once Knew But Can’t Remember,” “Where Do I Go Hear?” The closing line of each poem becomes the first line of the next poem, leading the reader and viewer around the work. The poet’s reflections on the goals and limits of art are sometimes expressed in terms of the artist’s struggle, at other times the poet’s. Sometimes they merge: is “a line” something that is drawn, or something that is spoken?
Yet here, as in her richly praised collection of short pieces, In The House, Kilpatrick reveals more universal concerns, including—but not limited to—the difficulty of communication, the hazards of connection, the ease with which meaning goes accidentally astray, and the impossibility of making intimacy last. Her perspective acquires a greater dimension from Sproul’s masculinity; when he draws a woman, Kilpatrick honors his priority. On the other hand, she indulges a strong trend in recent literature toward recognition and inclusion of demotic texts: lists, instructions, notes, sketches, and other mundane reasons for writing lend their shapes to works traditionally created to fit more refined structures, which are now replaced by forms that ground the writing in quotidian reality. It might even be argued that in To Be Unnamed, she has added captions to the list of transformed reasons for writing.
It begins with three figures unmoored on a large expanse of white. Sproul has drawn each four or five times, and the writer has chosen to acknowledge these facts of the drawing, reading them in several successive ways. “You improvise something like a dance,” she says of their cartoon-like motion. “You cannot contain even yourself,” she remarks of colliding boundaries, even as “Your soul moves outside your body in a smudge meant to convey meaning, passion, desire.” Consider: “There are more than two of you, more than three. This sentence is not you, nor this. Nor this.” Who, standing here, doesn’t know that feeling?
One of the things writers can do is lie to us, and because their lies are written down, they can be very effective. Freud said we forget our traumas, and for a century that was gospel, in spite of its being obvious that the worse an experience is, the more we must try yet the harder it is to forget. More recently, a popular myth has been that language is a poor tool, that weak and clumsy words cannot express our most important or subtle thoughts. Or we may say that only a Dante or a Shakespeare can make a word do a task well. Kilpatrick, in her elevation of everyday uses of language, proves that even the most mundane act of speech can not only capture, but reconfigure material facts. “Oh, to be you. That’s what you say. To be myself and to know myself as a mark that can be erased.” Is that the drawing speaking? A mark that can be erased? Or is it the artist, whose work might be his immortality? Or isn’t it, finally, each of us . . . a disruption of the pattern that engulfs us, into which we will inevitably dissipate, what remains too faint to perceive?
It is we who are poorly equipped for our self-appointed tasks. We are fragile, easily broken and usually misunderstood. Language, both in words and in drawings, can not only make us coherent, but through it we reach out in space and time. Evidence is at hand that proves the point.
Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
The Spiritual and the Sublime
Chauncey Secrist at Finch Lane
“Beauty in distress is much the most affecting beauty,” said Edmund Burke in his seminal “Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.” Burke might have appreciated the work of Chauncey Secrist as few are able: for it is easy to look at Secrist’s work and cast it aside as a derisory, sardonic or dissident body of work when in fact it is a universal critique, an existential examination of theological expression which at root can be positive, and can be, as Burke would recognize, sublimely beautiful.
Secrist was raised in a conservative suburb of Salt Lake City, but not in a religious household; so like many minorities he found himself alienated from the majority. In his early years, Secrist developed a negative attitude towards the dominant belief system, but as he matured, “meeting others from various backgrounds and considering religion from different perspectives,” he came to understand the very personal nature of belief systems. “My main goal with this series,” he says of a body of work currently on exhibit at Salt Lake’s Finch Lane Gallery, “was trying to understand my relationship to religion without being a part of religion, in essence trying to find common ground.”
The existential investigation in this series attempts to generate thinking on the level of universals, inspired by particulars, expressed through a myriad iconographic language. Secrist has fought discrimination and learned significant ways and manners of numerous theological expressions and, grounded by a theologically neutral, objective experience, is well equipped with the ability to accurately evaluate a plurality of manifest theological expressions in our culture. Those who choose to look at his work, may glean from his micro-installations both condemnation and approbation, as well as a range of responses in between, representing a mass of quizzical ways and means to investigate a theocratic society that feels very sure of itself. Too sure is the stance of Secrist, in his series of existential, spiritually manifest, metaphorical micro-installations.
One such micro-installation, that at first glance may seem to support establishmentarian Christianity, is more likely charged with visual theological commentary. “A Light Focused Inward Shines Brightest” even sounds resoundingly Christian, but it is loaded with irony. The appropriated card image is a seemingly stalwart Christian male of great physical beauty that apparently stems from inward virtues with features that are Caucasian, European, proto-establishmentarian-Christian. There are even flourishes of what might be wings. Yet this being holds a long golden rod with a very atypically gold fleur de lis at the tip and wears a crown of some mystery with a cryptic halo of distinctive symbolic detail while his robes and shoulder sash are certainly emblematic. From the origins of what Christian sect he emanates is unknown, but of the Pantheon of pagan gods this angelic creature might easily fill in as one of their own.
The metal circle, according to the artist, represents eternity and everything within it, what “shines brightest;” a statement of arbitrariness perhaps? Further, there is a small iron crucifix below, with a skull at the axis. In Art History the skull is a symbol of vanitas, meaning that all life is subject to temporality, as all will pass, thus all is in vain. One might question the authenticity of the source for organized spiritual beliefs, put to examination here; ultimately what is the truth that western civilization has grounded itself upon for 2000 years?
Another micro-installation among many that are existentially questioning is “A Nail in the Mouth of God.” An iron nail overrides the image placed atop a young man, Christ one presumes, with a metal circle next to him, representing, again, eternity. Beneath are the jawbones of a deceased animal pried apart and between is another crucifix, here with the image of Christ upon it. Below is what looks like a rusty old penny. One critique might be that the nail, representing Christ’s death, is the focus for organized Christianity, leaving an absence for the glorification of God the Creator, as the nail is thrust into his gaping jaws. Below is the worthlessness of a truthless world of divine creation in utter chaos.
Be it the equivocal natures of the adoration of Christianity to the dubious structure and the natural order of belief systems, Secrist’s universal message is apparent. These are existential inquiries few are challenging, as theological structures are blindly accepted in a worldly condition that cannot be trusted as a source for truth. These are questions that must be asked of oneself as a source for personal solace and one’s own peace of mind, to inhabit authentically and contentedly within the state of this discordant worldly condition, while maintaining and progressing towards the Greeks’ goal of eudaemonia, or human flourishing.