An aspiring writer, one of my towering, affable nephews blew through town recently.  We decided to grab some grub at the writer-owned-and-frequented watering hole The Half King (good brunch!) and then see what there was to see at the “art mall” at 529 W 20th Street.

I’ve been frustrated of late by encountering a lot of work that relies on accompanying written materials to justify and explain the artists’ intentions.  I’m well-versed enough in the language of art that I figure I should be able to “get it” without reading the manifesto, a.k.a Art Babble.  However, this recent visit to Chelsea had me thinking a bit differently about the pros and cons of the additional reading material and how it affects my experience and assessment of the work.

Walking into bitforms gallery, there was a show where the work itself was all about reading. Up until October 11th, the gallery is presenting Politics As Usual, the first US solo exhibition of composer, artist and performer R. Luke DuBois.  The room is filled with letterpress prints formatted like eye test charts, with large-lettered words at the top which decrease in size with each line.  A droning sonic hum permeated the gallery.  I looked around and my first reaction was to heave a sigh as I reached for the printed materials.  “Okay,” I thought, “bring on the manifesto.”  But in this instance, the written materials were concise and useful.  The letterpress pieces, it explained, comprised a series called Hindsight is Always 20/20, which “examines the history of American political discourse through the metaphor of vision.  Drawing from the annual State of the Union addresses given by Presidents to Congress,” each print culled words from their speeches, with the largest words being the most frequent to the smallest, least frequently used.  “The result is a startlingly clear snapshot of the lexicon of each presidency, containing a mix of historically topical keywords and rhetoric unique to each president and the time period in which they served in office.”  I couldn’t say it better.

George Walker Bush (2001-2009)

R. Luke Dubois, "George Walker Bush (2001-2009)", copyright the artist

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945)

R. Luke Dubois, "Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945)", copyright the artist

The exhibition’s soundtrack called SSB, is a recording of the national anthem as performed by soprano Lesley Flanigan and then “digitally stretched to last four years (the length of an American election cycle).”  For a dose of irony, “the resulting sound, with its repetition, echo, and microtonal nuance, is reminiscent of an adhan, or Islamic call to prayer.”

As we gear up to this election, what a fascinating perspective to have on our country’s history.  In spite of my initial resistance to reading the fine print, it made all the difference in this case.

I have found Howard Scott Gallery an inviting, intimate environment where I can reliably count on seeing sophisticated, strong work by confident, mature artists.  Encountering Tom Schmitt‘s works on paper seemed to confirm that expectation.  The works, mostly under 8″ square, were mostly from the past few years, with a couple of slightly larger early pieces from the 60’s as well.  The reductive, minimal works were full of nuances that engaged the viewer.  Colors, carefully considered edges, and subtle gradations were used to maximum effect, imbuing the small pieces with depth and mystery.  Architecture, nature, and iconic symbolism all came to mind from these non-objective starting points.  I looked at the exhibition check list, and all the recent drawings were listed as “ink on paper.”  The precision of the handling of the ink, especially the gradations really amazed me.  It was hard to imagine that even the steadiest hand could master such technique.  Turns out I was right.  Reading more of the gallery’s materials on the show, Arnold Lehman’s essay in the press materials states, “Forty years have passed since I first saw and admired Tom Schmitt‘s work. Since then, everything around us has changed. On first glance, so had Schmitt’s work, now created by computer instead of his steady hand.  Technology had been harnessed by the artist to serve the intrinsic nature of his work.”

Black Grey, 7.5 x 7.5 2008 (2006?).  Copyright Tom Schmitt

Tom Schmitt: Black Grey, 7.5 x 7.5" 2008 (2006?). Copyright the artist

I concur that the pieces Schmitt has created and printed using computer technology are powerful and in keeping with his overall artistic sensibility.  However, something about this didn’t sit right with me.  While on-line some of the work is noted as “computer ink on paper,” in the gallery, these pieces were identified as ink on paper, implying they were one of a kind drawings, which they were not.  These were, in fact, digital inkjet prints, which should bring up archival questions for potential collectors.  Also, I would think potential collectors would want to know if the artist plans to reprint an unlimited number of these pieces, and if not, shouldn’t each one be presented as a signed and numbered limited edition?  At any rate, they are not unique pieces, and not made by hand.  I had to ask myself, how much of the value, intrinsic merit, and importance of the work is tied up in its being a unique artifact made by a human hand?  It’s a thorny question that I’m still pondering, but the truth of my gut reaction was that I felt differently about the work once I had discovered the means of its production.  It also made me feel that, intentionally or not, there was some deception implicit in presenting the digital prints as unnumbered pieces of “ink on paper.”

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