The Summer Reading exhibit at the Hosfelt Gallery got me thinking about framing of artwork and what it does to our perceptions.
There is of course the picture frame, whose practical purpose seems to be to create handles with which to make a painting more readily portable. But conceptually it defines the boundaries of an interior space where the action is happening, so to speak. Frescoes and murals have no such borderlines. From the villas of Pompeii to the alleys of San Francisco’s Mission District, the scene ends when you’ve run out of wall space. They superimpose an imagined landscape onto the architectural landscape whereas a picture frame evokes the sensation of peering through a window frame. The former is a shared experience, public. The latter is usually a more private experience and shares qualities with other constructions designed for private viewing. Restricting our scrutiny often has a compensatory basis. There are the mutoscopes of old. There is of course the peepshow. Duchamp famously borrowed this perspective to turn anyone viewing his work Etant donnés into an unintentional voyeur.
But I’m less interested in the why than the what. Obviously there are examples of contained presentation that are public viewing experiences, like puppet shows (which in turn gave way to children’s toy theaters, private again). But I think there is a psychological shift that occurs when our focus is constrained, that allows a child to enlarge and inhabit the space of a doll house for example while their mind erases the contradictory Brobdingnagian world around them. Selective attention is the term for our mind’s ability to filter out the auditory cacophony of a busy street so that we can focus on a friend’s conversation. There is something similar going on when we scrutinize a triptych: we ignore the adjoining panels and wooden rim and get in the right “frame of mind” to view a single picture.
Summer Reading is an invitation to artists to provide a “conceptual response” to “stories, characters and texts.” Books are of course another container of meaning. While they are literally “bound” at the spine, like a painting in a frame they also describe circumscribed territory. A story isn’t just what it’s about, it’s also what it isn’t about. The words enjoin the reader to manufacture the architecture that will define the world of a story and to reject what doesn’t fit. You wouldn’t expect a spaceship to land next to the Ramsays on their way to the lighthouse. Books and borders seem to require us to restrict our view to open it up.
Su Blackwell’s contribution to the show is a series of black box dioramas mounted to the wall at eye-level. She uses the actual pages of books like The Secret Garden as her building material, constructing origami-like structures or two dimensional objects tatooed with text. An open book provides ground level: an ocean, a forest floor (which interestingly enough in an actual wood is referred to as the “understory”). Inside each a scene in miniature plays out. A sailboat on a sea of slitted paper departs from a moving carousel of boats. Tiny lights illuminate the steps to a circus stage where an elephant climbs a ladder of words while a woman dangles from a ring high above. In another a forest of letters sprouts from the open pages of the book. Like Jean Marais in the closing moments of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, a girl has seemingly leapt upright from her supine position affixed to the two dimensional confines of an illustration plate on the left hand page. Still attached to the page at her feet where the paper has folded her into a popup, she seems lost in this wood, immobilized in eternal flight like the characters in Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn. But all is evidently not lost: in another she sits on the grass with a friend and the bristly limbed trees have been replaced with a friendlier looking lush canopy of type. It was Blackwell’s pieces that really got me thinking about framing. I have always loved dioramas since I was a kid. Their appeal is strong enough that at the turn of the century they sat beside the mutoscopes in seaside arcades where the visitor could for some small change lose themselves in the mechanical perambulations of circus performers, farmers, and opium den habitues darting about within their glass boxes. Each is a tiny world of captured time.
Next up we have Jim Campbell’s strange conceptual piece. A gutted, weather beaten copy of Webster’s Dictionary (Unabridged) is affixed to the wall. A tail of wire slithers down the wall into a metal box where, I assume, the bulk of the electronic guts that make the work function are crammed. The metal box is inscribed “The Bible 3186313 characters.” This is I Have Never Read the Bible and if you haven’t read it yet either, this installation won’t remedy that. Every second or so, a hidden speaker blurts out a letter pronounced in a whisper with an accompanying tone. The tones are similar to the kind you’d hear by pressing a digit on a child’s plastic toy phone. The letters arrive in uneven spurts with a kind of whispered hush. This is a sequenced presentation of the Good Book which the gallery’s website assures me is achieved by LED technology (as in his installation at BAM), but I have no idea how that could work. I’m also guessing that this is the King James Version as it is generally the most well known and well regarded because of its rich prose but this is complete speculation. If you’re dying to make sense out of the galloping succession of consonants and vowels I wish you luck. For fun I spent a long while trying to transcribe and identify the specific passage being spoken. It ended up being tougher than it sounds because of the distracting electronic chime that complements each letter. My results were less than edifying:
I suspect Moses was, among other things, a really good listener.
Finally, an interesting “there and back again” exercise from Amy Hicks called Readaptation: The Book Series. This is a short video that takes clips from movie adaptations and superimposes them over copies of the source material. At times, a pair of eager hands is visible preparing the book for viewing, slyly sheathed in disposable rubber gloves for the science gone wrong future of Blade Runner and fondled by fingers with shockingly red nail polish for the horror domestic Stepford Wives. Achieved by stop motion, in each segment a book scoots about the frame before spilling open its content. As pages flip by at a furious pace, inside a black taped off space in the center we see film footage of Rachael smoking a cigarette and the owl at Tyrell Corporation springing from its perch into flight. This from the aforementioned Blade Runner which was adapted from Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The printed text of the original novels is visible outside the taped border, changing with a rapidity that would make Jim Campbell’s piece blush. These days film has seemed to have superseded the printed word and you get the impression that the more juvenile medium has pushed to the front of the family portrait, obscuring her older sister and is mugging for all your attention. Dare I mention the word palimpsest? For many of us whose exposure to a work is from the cinema, our idea about the contents of a book is the equivalent of a film projection upon its pages.
Boxes, borders, boundaries: the Hosfelt’s exploration into representations of books unpacks the contents of the printed word while simultaneously cramming them back into a frame. If stories offer escape, it is to a bounded space into which we project something of ourselves. The three artists I’ve discussed here (there were many more involved in the exhibit) impose a perspective onto printed works, each of which feels like an opening of a new space, a temporary room within the mind.