Segments and Connections


"Segments and Connections"

at Wooster Arts Space


"Torn, mutilated, as a truly urgent message must be."

      -- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry


Rather than going off on a tangent in describing an important show at the Wooster Arts Space, let me begin on one.


It was rather late in life that I began to read Isaac Bashevis Singer, and I found something I hadn't come across since my youthful infatuation with Balzac, an author who had a near cornucopic ability to pour out an unending stream of full-bodied, larger-than-life, blemished, vivid, passionate characters.


To be frank, I don't think Singer can take Balzac's measure. Balzac puts his people in a completely rounded and realized world, the pigeon-holed class system of 19th century Paris. Singer's canvas, which includes both pre- and post-World War II Eastern European Jewry in their native countries and in worldwide exile, is perhaps too wide to allow him to weave a backcloth equal to Balzac's. Still, what modern or postmodern writer has a portrait gallery to equal Singer's?


A vulgar sociologist might ascribe the paucity of characters in modern literature to the dearth of three-dimensional personalities in real life. Thus, it is a welcome day when one attends a show in which three well-formed, honest-to-goodness individuals step forth. Moreover, I hold that when a surprising, new personality trait appears, whether visible in a canvas or other artwork or in an everyday encounter, it is often a prefiguration of an emerging human potential. In fact, if we take the three together, we can find in them, though in "torn, mutilated" form, a person of the future.  


On the south wall are the works of Marc Neal Simon. His pieces are outwardly polished, but the polish is put on with a satirical brush. His target is alienation. The depiction of this theme in art has a long history, stretching back to the locus classicus, Munch's "The Scream," and to American equivalents such as Hopper's "The Nighthawks." While these canvases have a dour look, the theme was given a less serious examination by its more recent decanters, such as those done by the group The Hairy Who or Roger Brown. Brown's skyscrapers, in which every window held a baffling or threatening silhouette of one of the high rise's lonely inhabitants, combined angst with a certain wryness.


Simon derives from this later fork in the tradition, though amending it by showing modern humans from both an exterior and interior view. The former is inscribed in such works as "Strata Man 2." This is a wooden silhouette that is raised from the wall on dowels that link it to a second profile behind, this one all black, in contrast to the forward one, which is red and blue striped. It's as if he were saying this man is the product of a cookie cutter, who strides along concealing his inner nothingness. It's striking that Simon sees the piece as a partial self portrait, saying that, like Strata, "I can sometimes feel fragmented and pressed onto a two-dimensional plane, with limited degrees of freedom."


This is not all he has to say on the subject. Further down the wall, a number of other pieces, such as "Thought Index 3," provide the inside story of "Strata Man;" that is, they show his mental landscape. Here, on a backing are set four rows of floppy diskettes, four in each row. Each is festooned with colorful alligator clips that link the floppy monads. Between the lines, there are words:  illuminate, glow, and decide, among them.


While the mechanical regularity of this "mind" puts it in league with the clownishness of "Strata Man 3," the antic but gnawingly thoughtful lines of words raise the depiction to a greater dignity, perhaps reminding us that even our most creative moments are rooted in the lower-level, stereotypic reactions of our biology, which is no more or less flexible than the reactions of a computer. When I asked him about his parallel, he remarked on the similarity of human and machine. "The two are alike in a most important way: memory is something that we do not literally 'see' with the bare senses...either within our own brains or within the magnetic storage in the now obsolete diskettes in the 'Thought Index' pieces."


One comes away from these pieces seeing that Simon has not ended in smooth-edged satire, but has opted for a less-easily-adopted, double-vision of his subject. That, I think, is one of the traits of the newly emergent personality. It firmly holds on to two opposed views.  


The works of Robert Delford Brown on display are mounted, legless tables, which were created in a supremely democratic way.  While Brown could be said to wear the mantic coat of a Merlin, he does not call forth spirits, but orchestrates the combined workings of people with an artistic bent, who become unbent when he invites them to one of his collaborative action gluings. Brown's manner of aiding the creation of these works has been described by Robert C. Morgan as one that "engage[s] people from the neighborhood to come over and cut and paste found images to make diaristic expressions in a collage format." Those who get involved enjoy themselves. Michel Champendal and Claudette Cliquet-Champendal, who hosted one gluing, said, "The surprise [at how it turned out] was complete for ALL of us: none of the twenty-one participants at this unique event had imagined it could be such a creative feast."


Collective artistic work has been standard in many avant-garde cultural productions. The Dadaists, for example, under Hugo Ball's direction, staged their version of Wagnerian total artworks on a postage-stamp stage. Soon after, the Surrealists developed the "exquisite corpse" procedure as a revolutionary parlor game, where a number of writers and artists worked on a single piece. None of these traditions, however, went populist and tried to enroll untrained everyday people as participants. 


And, beyond this artistic lineage, there is also the anarchist component. Our readers may be familiar with the writings of Hakim Bey, who argues that it is a duty of progressives to design and participate in events: parties, Dadaist protests, teach-ins, etc., that develop an unalienated spirit of community. It is Bey's view that these events give participants a taste of the type of society they are struggling to bring into being, so solidifying their resolve to keep up the fight. We might guess that Brown is doing this for an equally noble goal: to give people a taste of a more artistic world in which they give more free time to community art making rather than mass mediated activities.


The works on display in this show were also created at one of Brown's collaborative round tables, and they clearly record the feeling of the endeavor. Take "Collaborative Map of Nevada via Manhattan." ("Nevada" is Brown's name for Nirvana.)  This is a powerfully mixed bag of pinks, blues, reds, and yellows; of squiggles, squares, whales, birds, jigsaw pieces, glitter, and newsprint, arranged in an attractive, decentered cosmos that exudes a robust exuberance.


The piece also hints at a trait of the emergent postmodern identity, the desire to broaden one's creative activity into one that frames positive work structures, which allow the ramshackle, multiform nature of group originality to shine forth.

The third artist whose work is on display is Phong Bui. His simple, table-like constructions remind one of pinball machines whose electric, kinetic displays have been replaced by panels containing delicate tracings, washes, abstract figurations, and collaged-on star charts. Of course, the allusions are not only to Coney Island culture, but to American oddball constructivists, from Rauschenberg with his kitchen-sink-type inclusion of all and sundry in his exhibitions (be it his bed or a stuffed yak) to Cornell with his more carefully calibrated refuse pastiches, which, by their thoughtful, otherworldly arrangements, exalted the mundanity of the materials. While clearly bearing the stamp of these precursors, Bui is, unlike them, not so much emphasizing the structure he builds as using it as a plinth on which to display his collages and sketches. In this way, perhaps he should be connected to theatrically minded exhibition space constructors, such as Frederick Kiesler with this "lager und trager" design for the Surrealist show at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century gallery.


There is also a literary background to the pieces in the writings of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, whose titles Bui references. Bui himself said on this topic, "Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is an author whose books I read when I was growing up in Hue, Vietnam."


This explanation is certainly suggestive. For one, it hints that, rather than making an allusion to an arcade game, the construction is an imaginary view from a cockpit. Think of the scenes Saint-Exupéry so often described when, for instance, he was flying by night over North Africa; his navigator asleep beside him in the space, which resembled a darkroom because the lights had been shaded with red paper to reduce glare on the windshield. The cabin would be so dark, all he could see were the stars dead ahead and the glow of the instrument panel beneath his hands.


To explicate this parallel further, we can look at Bui's "Wind, Sand, and Stars #7." The title comes from Saint-Exupéry. At the top of the vertical panel, rising from a yellow haze, are the constellations; below that, a paste-up of a segment of a PA/NY map amidst an abstract mélange. Lower, near where the horizontal and vertical planes meet, a trio of haloed figures, the first of which resembles the cowhead man who greets new arrivals at the Buddhist hell. On the first horizontal panel, there is a splash of graying wash, a tincture of landscape, as if we were riding in a glass-bottomed jet and looked down at a vacant land mass. The horizontal plane contains collages, grays, and abstract ladders, ending, at the very bottom, with a series of dot and stick segments that resemble a stylized rendering of a control panel.

So, the vertical could be the sky and land seen from above; the horizontal, another view of the earth and the plane's instruments. But why the haloed figures at the juncture? Perhaps, because where the sky meets the earth is the place of certain death. Remember the terrifying story in the book for which the construction is named of the time when Saint-Exupéry is flying over the Sahara, blinded by clouds for hours, instruments not working, and low on fuel. He tries to bring his plane below the clouds, only to hit the crest of a sand dune and wreck his craft. He barely survives. 


And there is a further interface. A viewer, privy to Bui's comments about Hue, can easily imagine that the artist, growing up while the Vietnam War was roiling his country, must have been struck by the concluding section of {Wind, Sand, and Stars}, in which Saint-Exupéry makes a trip to observe the Spanish Civil War. Spain, too, was a nation slashed by both arms and ideologies. As Saint-Exupéry writes of Barcelona, "It was [as if] the thought more than the soldier was besieging the town." Moreover, in Vietnam, demographic shifts brought on by an armed conflict were perspective-shattering, in a way which I imagine Bui saw reinscribed in the bittersweet prose of the French aviator.


Bui's work, then, strives to capture the view and ethos of early flight, circumscribing them with a sensitivity to the precariousness of human existence which, I daresay, both artist and writer saw clearly from inside war zones.


This, too, is an aspect of the ideal postmodern individual, which we can say is one who, in all meditations, allows her- or himself to be invaded by a resonant sense of history and frailty.


In sum, we can say that the show as a whole is successful on two planes: as the presentation of three distinctive, coherent vistas; and as providing some idea of how the newly emergent individual of our times may look. This individual, folding in all the qualities we have detected, will be able to maintain more than one perspective, but only because his/her sensibility is engaged in a collective action to alter the negativity of many social practices and institutions (this allowing a view that both sees the present in its depth and its potential alternative), doing so, not in order to be liberated from history, but (as Walter Benjamin would have it) to tease out something from its fund of extinguished hopes