Written in response to CREST on view at 1708 Gallery September 7 to October 6, 2012.
Many described The Smith’s 1983 release of Hand in Glove as a bleak proclamation of doomed happiness. By stifling our hands, the sensation of touch becomes compromised. As we emphasize the hand in maintaining relationships that foster happiness—and its possible demise—we continue to make connections and take risks with the world around us that are driven by touch or the desire to be touched. The seven artists presented in 1708’s exhibition CREST explore these various perceptions of touch in dialogues that differ in tone and material, expressing impressions left by the artist’s hand in order to transmit to the viewer feelings that are provocative, nurturing, tinkering, and fancied.
Leigh Cole’s installation, placed within the gallery’s window, was the viewer’s first encounter with the space. Cole’s sculptural wall of jars, filled with colored water, spanned the entire façade of 1708. The resonance of colors made me think back to the provocative storefronts that advertised prostitution in Europe, drawing the gaze of onlookers and calling them to interact with the space through curiosity. In Cole’s installation, these delicate jars were stacked one on top of the other, creating an imminent desire to touch that is both provocative and dangerous. The sculpture’s allure, protected by a pane of glass from the outside, also evokes sentiments of consumerism: awe, desire, and risk.
This evocation of risk and promiscuity draws the viewer to the allure of a potentially slow but attractive catastrophe. In the end it turns out that the concerns presented within Cole’s work were realized, as the delicate wall of jars self-destructed. The works explosive finale could have only been encountered by chance adding value to the viewer’s anticipation of peril.
The works immediately adjacent to Cole’s installation suggest a more nurturing tone. Amy Chan’s paintings and Jessica Kain’s sculptures are cultivated with a care and rigor that speak to the body and landscape and how our manipulation, led by touch, has the ability to change its surface. Within the works presented by Kain and Chan, a sense of primitive symbolism becomes apparent. Chan’s Hearts in Space paintings investigate shapes and symbols as an element of landscape. In these paintings, symbols are layered on one another to convey aerial messages that express our human ability to yield a harvest. Further ideas of parturition, herding, and impression-making on earthen surfaces are reflected in Kain’s works. Upon the surfaces of Kain’s sculptures, the prevailing impression of the artist’s hand is played out in a delicate manner that reflects natural processes of mark-making both on land and body.
The viewer then becomes privy to the meandering tendencies of touch orchestrated by artists Alina Tenser and Naoko Wowsugi. Tenser’s and Wowsugi’s work reflect mimetic gesture and tinkering tendencies that cause the artist, and in some cases the object, to become phantom. Tenser’s Video Reliefs presents a choreography of mime-like gestures that explore our relationship to objects and space. In Video Reliefs Tenser’s hands move across an object’s surface that is unknown to the viewer. In proximity to the video, Tenser places Whiff of Black Ice, pumice boulder playing on our curiosity surrounding this unknown form. As a natural phenomenon, black ice is mostly hidden until its presence is met, often destructively, which we encounter as a boulder to our senses. Tenser’s Video Reliefs sparks a similar investigation into the unknown as our senses seek to know the object that her hands traverse.
Conversely, Wowsugi’s photographic series titled None of Your Business documents objects and spaces that are clearly altered, yet the artist is absent. While Wowsugi denotes her project as a ‘considerate process’ to spaces that she habitually frequents, the residue left by her actions seems to reverberate a sense of both humor and vandalism, although removed from vandalism as we understand it. Wowsugi does not seek to destroy but rather converse with society through the act of altering. The artist initiated what she said were ‘suggestive improvements’ meant to better the establishment in question as well as to mark the space with her presence. However, it seems that the latter mark-making intention is at the forefront of this project. As Wowsugi invites herself to become caretaker or groundskeeper to familiar establishments, small changes leave employees with the responsibility of accepting—or not—her suggested alterations. In this instance, the artist’s hand comes and goes, ghostlike, replacing objects for better or worse in an attempt to leave her signature on these places.
Melanie McLain and Hannah Walsh explore the role of touch as it augments and attempts to assuage the mind and body. McLain’s architectural sculpture Rubbing an Utterance confronts an architectural design that fashions clinical interiors, in which intimate procedures take place, as cold and unapproachable. McLain states that her work aims to: ‘remove emotion, In order to allow the viewer to experience the piece dictated by his or her own senses.’ This presents itself as an interesting scenario for which to remove emotion, if our emotions ranged. However, for many of us, clinical environments that are traditionally constructed with materials such as tile, steel, porcelain, and rubber are approached with fear and trepidation, as for many, there is a looming discomfort regarding being touched. However, the same clinical design is used for domestic and commercial bathrooms, spas, and locker rooms that are altered to become more comfortable through heat, scents, and textures. In previous installation, McLain’s work was heated, creating a more spa-like representation of touch, which was not incorporated in this version. It is this alteration that allows the viewer to ascribe his or her own feelings to the work’s critique of touch.
We are inclined to assign feelings of fear or hesitation when it comes to the surface of our bodies but when it comes to the handling of animals and landscape, spectacle comes into practice. Hannah Walsh explores what human touch does to animal husbandry and forestry. Fancier, three diptychs of pigeons, documents the result of breeding pigeons as a spectacle for show. In this work, a city’s most untouchable animal, the pigeon, becomes bred and handled with such a heavy hand that they are fancied to the point of obsolescence, unable to reproduce and at times unable to function at their full capacity.
Just as easily as we become entertained by the spectacle of showmanship, we also become distracted by it. The flood of imagery belonging to popular culture has almost become inescapable, and so, as an attempt to escape we are asked to ‘unplug and go outside’. Walsh’s video Widowmaker was created as a way to experience the outdoors without completely unplugging. As she carefully documents the serenity of the outdoors, we as viewers witness that even in the woods, natural symmetry can be disrupted by human touch. “Widowmaker,” for which the video is named, is a forestry term that describes a poorly cut piece of tree that is left to dangle, becoming hazardous for all who walk beneath it. This dangling piece of tree, as well as her pigeon photographs, become studies for what happens when humans attempt to beautify or augment the natural world for personal gain. Thereby Walsh’s documentation of touch addresses our relationship with nature versus digital and natural versus augmented.
One might reasonably argue that touch is a facet of every artist’s process. However in a time where formats of expression are changing and studio practices are becoming orchestrated, the resonance of the artist touch is not as inherent as it once was. These seven artists succeed in opening a dialogue regarding the artist’s hand in art today. All speak intelligently to ideas of impressions and influence experienced by touch with objects and natural environments.
ext. 1708 is an on-line journal funded through a grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, which also supports 1708 Gallery’s exhibitions. 1708 Gallery’s mission is to promote new art, a mission achieved via a rotating schedule of exhibitions that presents a diverse range of projects. In relation, 1708 Gallery strives to educate the public about Contemporary art and employs artist talks and didactic text panels to illustrate the exhibiting artist’s issues, themes, and modes of working. In an effort to further expand opportunities for education, this journal features essays, interviews and other writings that provide context for 1708 Gallery’s exhibitions and promote further dialogue about contemporary art. 1708 Gallery works with a range of writers, from graduate students to professional writers, to allow for multiple voices and experiences to contribute to this project.