From his MFA thesis experience at the University of Arizona, Jason Manley says he learned the distinction between what can be represented physically and what remains ineffable — what transcends the structure, the material, and, in the most literal sense, the concrete. Over the period of several months, Manley documented his day-to-day experiences in writing while adding a layer of paint to represent each. Over the course of the month, the layer of paint was thick, purely substance, one layer lost to the last, while the reality of the memories in writing remained.
Ten years later, his current show at CUAC is aptly titled “Paved Forest,” and in it Manley draws a metaphorical parallel between the literal realms of an actual forest and the cognitive forest that is the consciousness of the mind. Parallels are being drawn here between what can be defined in literal, absolute terms, and what transcends that to the more abstract, intangible states of being.
When the visitor to CUAC enters the physicality of the gallery space, encroaching upon the artificial world created by the artist, they become the mythical figure lost in the wood, a cognitive forest that generates thought and hopefully leads to truth. There are conundrums along the way, but these are a good thing, leading to the exercising and illumination of the mind.
“Double Gulp Light” lights the way into this paved forest of the mind. Perched upon some rock-like formation made out of concrete, a plastic “Double Big Gulp” cup purchased from a 7-Eleven convenience store, has been turned upside down, painted white, and lit from within. This rock, at least six feet in the air, is held by five strong and straight rods of iron that only at the bottom begin to take turns and irregular curls and shoot off into unpredictable and various directions. What is the forest traveler to make of this? Plastic. Consumerism. Throw-away culture? The most elemental fabric of the capitalist western world might be the “Double Big Gulp.” It stands upon the foundation of our consumerist society… from Walmart to Gucci, from Costco to Whole Foods, from AT&T to Rocky Mountain Power. One rod might stand for money, the other power, the next greed, the other lust, the last desire. That is the physical and the tangible, or oneway of seeing it clearly. What we don’t see is reality. We don’t see the underpaid mother of four doing a double shift at Walmart, we don’t see the leather worker working with his hands for 12 hours without rest for Gucci, or the monopolistic box stores crushing small businesses. That is reality that cannot be seen and transcends physicality.
Around the bend on a large drywall is what at first appears to be a gargantuan record label made out of stone lettering and identifying a Schumann symphony “Schumann (record label).” And indeed it is a gargantuan record label made out of stone lettering identifying a Schumann symphony. And with exacting precision, the stone-concrete has replicated every detail, except there is no label, and no record, only wall. Here, the visitor is found awestruck. Thinking to that very symphony. Thinking of the very full emotional resonant sounds that would be heard that take the mind on emotional journeys experienced cognitively. Nothing but pure sound and each time listened to, another emotional, cognitive journey. But here is stone, concrete: bold, rough, ugly even, dry and raw rock, made out of concrete, with crevices and imperfections. This is the tangible remnant left of the loved symphony and all there is to be found of it. Is this reality? Is this bitter pill that will soon crumble and decay reality, or is the emotional, cognitive experience, albeit different every time, enchanting and pure, is that which transcends this rubble, reality?
The visitor almost stumbles over a rock in the path. But this is no ordinary rock, but the like-material of stone-concrete, made into a structure of letters, and these letters spell out words, and these words spell out a phrase, repeated over and over again: “Out of Sight. Out of Mind” Out of sight, out of mind, out of sight, out of mind. The letters are carefully stacked into a thin wall. Often they are turned upside down. This seems puzzling: a phrase so nebulous — out of sight, out of mind — repeated over and over, often haphazardly, in this wall of ugly raw rock-cement. What is the point to it all? Here, robbed of any meaning it might have, the visitor suspects this wall represents the basest materiality of this already banal phrase. With its crude rendering and crude assemblage, the visitor is reassured, and is sure that this, even though it seems it could weather the sands of time, is no reality, that this is purely substance, and any traces of reality are to be found in language, in the utility of “out of sight, out of mind,” the meanings transported, and not this stasis, this state of semi-permanent decay that will ultimately see its end. The reality is in the language. That is where the truth is to be found.
Now in the heart of the forest, the visitor is obscured by an assemblage of word compilations, made out of the same essential stone-concrete. But there seems to be some rhyme or reason here, even if the assemblages are disparate and detached from the other… somehow the visitor feels attached by the reason and logic to be discovered by meaning alone, the very reality of it, even if their stone prison is only an avatar to their display, holding them captive in the heart of this cognitive forest. The first of the “Paved Forest (sculpture series)” reads “The tangle of the forest in his hair. The silence of the woodland.” To the visitor, even on what looks like a crumbling slab of pumice, this evokes poetic thought. The next reads, “To flee full speed through the forest across fields to house windows.” This is very transporting to the visitor, who can feel the reality of the meaning transcending the ugliness of the stone-concrete shell that holds its beauty. The next is astonishing and makes the visitor gasp for air: “An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest the air was warm thick heavy sluggish.” These words resonate with such a real power within the visitor; here in the density of the forest, that no stone-concrete could compete with… that is only ephemera… this is reality. Further: “lays open before the mind terrified depths trembles before the gaze like a dizzy forest and in which one hears the crackling of dead branches…” Now a terror is beginning to seize the visitor so real has this reality begun to close in on the mind in this cognitive forest. Finally, “that wild heathen Nature of the forest never subjugated by human law nor illuminated by higher truth.” Now the visitor feels the apex of the journey has been reached. That the truth of the language of the reality of the forest has been learned and the visitor is calmed.
But before the visitor can leave there is one more assemblage. It reads: “colossal thicket that is to say something solitary as a tomb as impenetrable as a forest as peopled as a city quivering like a nest somber like a cathedral fragrant like a bouquet.” The visitor has learned the reality beyond the seemingly immutable stone-concrete substances that are only there to serve the purpose of reality. And that reality is universality, all consuming, all truthful.
In the clearing in the wood, the visitor comes upon a large red box. “Forest (Interior)” is where there is to be found reality. It seems unprepossessing, like a Coca-Cola machine with no signage, completely quotidian and the like-substance of “Double Gulp Light.” Yet the visitor is compelled by a light from behind to look inside. The visitor looks up, looks down, looks from side to side and from every angle, and all that can be seen is eternity, eternity everywhere. Here lies the truth, and that is the secret of the reality of the forest that transcends all, even the forest itself.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. For a decade he lived in Salt Lake City and worked as a professional writer until his untimely death in 2017.