In Front of Your Eyes: A Conversation Led by John Muse with Artists Jacob Lunderby and Martha MacLeish

In early April, Jacob Lunderby, Ephraim Russell, Josh Weiss, and I met to discuss In Front of Your Eyes, the exhibition by Jacob Lunderby and Martha MacLeish at Grizzly Grizzly.

They asked me to facilitate the creation of a text that engages with the exhibition.  Based on our conversation and my own responses and passions, I proposed a few topics and

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Grizzly Grizzly member Ephraim Russell talking with artist Jacob Lunderby.

 

 

 

 

 

 

invited Jacob and Martha to play with and around them, replying to me individually.  Having gathered their remarks, we then spoke by phone and each took another turn revising, growing our language towards, around, through the works and vice versa. Below is our call-and-response, documentation of the work, and documentation of the deinstall, which, given the works and the topics below, should complete the picture.

 

Note that the proposed topics all begin with a versus, which is only a heuristic: no need to trust in or even take seriously the relevance of these oppositions.  But let me confess: for me they’re useful, i.e., practical; they’re tools and also toys. And like tools and toys, they may be broken or used up or set aside as useless, dumb, or no longer age-appropriate. I like to bathe myself and others in the heat of such oppositions, work out for a while, and then cool down, cycling around a both/and and a neither/nor, hankering for The Neutral and for paradox.  Through the versus, now you see them, now you don’t.  So much theory, so much eros.

Topics:

1. Surface vs. Depth. The works in the exhibition tell me that you both care not only about surfaces but about the thickness of surfaces, the plasticity of surfaces, their physical properties: surfaces fold, crinkle, crack, curdle, froth, bubble, and slip.  The concept of surface too easily falls prey to an idealization, where surface is posed against depth, with depth carrying the traits of the real and surface the traits of illusion, mere appearance, superficiality, the unreal. The latter paradigm would allow surface no depth of its own. But I see you both working to displace this paradigm with another; your working methods, your ingredients, recipes, and moves, all seem to hinge on this play of one surface enveloping another: paints and plastics, mylar and board; exfoliation, burnishing, sealing, ablating, skimming.

Martha: I use plant forms and other organic material to make marks that have an almost photographic character; they provide a level of detail—surface detail—that I can get down directly and without having to make too many decisions. The methodology of collecting them, soaking them pressing them, etc. gets me going, lets me pretend I know what I‘m doing by imitating something—in this case, a surgeon or a conservator. I act like a conservator; I play this role to change my habits in the studio. Or sometimes the studio feels like a crime scene. I’m a detective; it isn’t immediately possible to distinguish between relevant clues and red herrings. By approaching the situation of making art deliberately, but according to the deliberate methods of another profession, I can build up some momentum.

Embracing ornamentation of the surface by recognizing its potential to be an essential aspect: with the corrugations of the “X” piece, the surface and form are united. For me ornament signifies the formal, aka formality, which I’m thinking of both in terms of ceremony and ritual—precisely not as frivolity. For example, ornamentation like this, the corrugations and the folds, give these structures strength.

2. Representation vs. Thing. There are representational moves in many of these works, appearing as they do to be pictures or depictions of something absent and distant. But they are also objects, things, i.e., things that you don’t simply look through to see something else but things to look at, be with, and work with. You want your works to, as they say, hold the wall, to treat the wall as a ground, just as the modernist strands of 20th c. Art History teach us that painting were to do, from Jasper Johns to Frank Stella to Ellsworth Kelly. The wall behind the work isn’t to disappear or withdraw but to be an active partner in a larger perceptual and physical game. I’m particularly struck by the way you both use white—Jacob’s white edges and Martha’s white plastics—to play with and against the typically white skin of the gallery. During our initial conversation, I called this chameleon-like power to merge with the surroundings, gallery camouflage. You both refer to walls in the works themselves, to walls as infrastructure and as enclosures, but your works also invite us to think of the infrastructure of exhibition, the lost and found of one thing touching another. They don’t only represent this infrastructure, nor do only they partake of it; they also diagram it; they map an otherwise abstract system of relations.

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Martha Macleish, Untitled, 2016 Mixed media on pvc plastic, detail

Martha: I am grateful for how John articulates the relationship between the wall and the gallery space in relation to the whiteness of the work. The “X” is the most thing-like, and also the most diagrammatic. Some of the works feel miniaturized–and have pictorial relationships to the landscape, whereas the “X” is life-sized, neither a blow-up nor a scale model. The “X” doesn’t refer to another scale or even call attention to the concept of scale.  “X” has the quality of standing for something, of marking-the-spot, leading to inference and clues, not representing. As a diagrammatic symbol, it has a timelessness that interacts with the idiosyncrasies of the corrugation’s curving contour, as well as with the pressed leaves and painted marks.

 Jacob: I am going to try and respond to question 1 (surface/depth) and question 2 (Representation/Thing) here. The white space in my work, e.g., the painted edge of the wooden panels that are the support for my paintings, marks the transition from representation to thing (object). Seen obliquely, the painting floats half an inch in front of the wall, the shadow cast by the panel creates a frame for the object and visually projects the painting forward. The cast shadow separates the object from wall; as the shadow registers the wall, the painting resists “gallery camouflage.”

Seen from the front, the painting’s cast shadow infers dimensionality but the visceral combination of the physical object and the simulation of texture and depth become complicated. The smooth reflectiveness of the painting surface mimics the glass that is present in the image itself. The varnish seals an object that is physically sensitive and glazes the illusion of a very fragile surface.

The images I use are printed on translucent mylar and generally modified with enamel paint before being glued to wooden panels and sealed with varnish. Occasionally, I will paint on the surface of the print to redact visual information or add false strips of tape, though the painting is typically done on the wooden panel or on the back of the print itself. Since the image has been printed on translucent mylar, the paint acts as a secondary layer to the image of the print. The way I use paint can have several roles in the work; it might interfere with the image, it can subvert the logic of the space, it can become complicit in creating a passable illusion or it might direct attention through perspective. Paint is used as a gesture to modify the image of the photograph; it shifts the representation of the image and can make the work harder or easier to see.

As the movement within each painting is organized by the layering of image, mylar and paint on a wooden structure, a visual connection is established throughout the work in an exhibition via repetition, rhyme, and redaction.

3. Part vs. Whole. Also during our initial conversation we talked about the relationships between parts and wholes. Some of Jacob’s pieces appear to be cut-outs that imply larger spaces: beyond the edge of the image…  — “image” is a word I don’t like, because it opts out of mediation and volatilizes the things that mediate and sustain relations between bodies and other stuff, nervous systems and worlds, but for now, I’ll use it, keeping this in mind.  So, let me start again: beyond the edge of the image, a blind field opens up, not so much for imaginative play or narrative thrust as for strict projection, as when in an engineering drawing, a line cuts another to indicate that the latter just continues. Martha’s work insists on this action, with various cuts through the material suggesting cutaways and break lines. Neither of you appear to make works that aim for autonomy, but rather put works into the world that organize absent worlds around themselves.

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Martha Macleish, Untitled, 2016, mixed media on pvc plastic, 30W”x 24H”

Martha: I hoped that maybe the “black triangle” piece would be able to do something like organize “absent worlds” about itself—though I never would have thought to articulate it in that way. The mirrored parts in that work reflect the world outside of it, bringing it into the work, making it more complete.

  Jacob: I have used the term “image” perhaps loosely in the discussion of the photographic element in my work. I think that as I am calling these objects paintings, “Image” seems to fit my needs better as an object and process in painting, rather than “picture” or “photograph.” I would agree with your note on making work that does not aim for autonomy. There is a combination of representation and repetition in my work that is used to keep fragments pointing to fragments. For example, I might use an image where there is evidence of a person “fixing” a cracked window using a method where the protective tape covers and mimics the damage itself—the tape tracing the cracks presents a sort of repetition and redaction simultaneously. As I find these repair situations, I photograph the passive sign left by an absent figure as a mark of care in response to a transgression. I edit the image to wipe out information and make the site of the window somewhat anonymous; my use of the image is about a surface/sign and not an address, not a particular place.

4. Temporary vs. Permanent. I don’t want to overplay this opposition, or let it stand for too long, because about neither body of work would the words “ephemeral” or “dematerialized”—à la the conceptual turn—come to mind, being both so sturdy and full of craft- and object-love. Rather I’m using “temporary” to simply mark a hiatus, a pause, the way scaffolding and debris netting cloak a building, i.e., temporarily but extravagantly. Just the way Jacob’s blue tape holds signs and things together, the way too the registration of the various images—that word again—drifts, as though promising alignment, soon but not too soon. Or the way that Martha’s folds and volumes are in medias res; any disturbance, any break or fault, is in process, as likely to shed as to solidify. The works open and sustain this hiatus, telling me that finish isn’t finished but ongoing.

Martha: In medias res—I had to look up this phrase! And I love it! I am interested in gesture as form. Though I had not articulated the idea of peeking in on something that is already underway, I have thought of works as coming into consciousness, or awareness, only belatedly. Like we’ve been sitting in the room together, always, but only gradually becoming aware of each other’s presence. Or like a noise that is continuous—a hum—that doesn’t register initially, and as it does register, it isn’t with a startling beginning, but as if it has always been there—right in front of your eyes.

It’s also like the sound of an airplane overhead, which I hear before I recognize it. For me—and this is a story from my childhood—every airplane I hear is somehow the very same airplane that flew overhead when I was a child, like it’s back to check up on me. All time is happening simultaneously. Somehow it becomes this equalizer. When it shows up again, time collapses. So, “in medias res” to me means not in the middle, or the temporary, but that the middle is everywhere. Strangely, even the temporary is permanent!

Jacob: I like the idea of work sustaining a hiatus; I see my work as finding an event and folding it into a hiatus. For example, I happen across something on the street, a piece of plastic that has been hastily taped over a window as a sign to temporarily mark attention/intention. Perhaps this act has been committed to show someone’s intent on fixing a window, or it’s a device meant to prevent an outsider from looking into the space. In either case, it is a sign that indicates occupation of space, or, attentiveness at least.

I find the trace (plastic, etc.) of the event and photograph it. After editing, the image is printed and becomes a layer in the production of a painting. At this point, the image does not represent the site any more though—as an image it disconnects from site specificity. If I were to return to the site of the image it is possible that the window has been repaired or uncovered, but it is also possible that the building has disappeared.

Similarly, if the image becomes part of a painting that I exhibit, the exhibition layout might be organized to connect elements from one work to another through repetition, rhyme, or spatial awareness. The trace of the event that I found and photographed becomes part of a painting that is exhibited among other paintings, and when the exhibition closes the painting will be wrapped in plastic, taken from the exhibition venue, and put into storage.

It is possible that the painting will be taken off the shelf again for another engagement, but it is also possible that the painting will remain on the shelf for an undetermined amount of time.

5. In Front of Your Eyes vs. In Front of Your Eyes. I want the play of this title, both under erasure and not-yet-erased, to receive some love. The strike-through invites me to imagine a moment when something was in fact in front of my eyes, that you gave me something to see, but that you also took it away, leaving me with a shadow, a trace, a print, a crease, or stain—e.g., a zip of yellow epoxy, a sign that says “Missing” that is itself mostly missing. The title helps me toggle most if not all of the above topics, because as idiom, the phrase “right in front of your eyes” brings exasperation and befuddlement to the fore. Where? Right in front of your eyes! Poe’s purloined letter, hidden in plain sight, the emblem of both obviousness and failure. To only partially redact this title then affirms noon-day enigma, the paradox of Stella’s “what you see is what you see,” which is anything but clear, being a tautology, a rude rejoinder, and a koan. The permanent, the whole, the object, the depths, these purport to be right in front of my eyes. But what I see, right there, under erasure, are the temporary, the part, signs, surfaces.

Jacob: The voice of the text is still partially present (visible, readable) via the strikethrough, but is meant to recede. It is a give/take gesture that never fully resolves itself to being present or absent. I am more visually aware of the phrase because of the strikethrough- the redaction draws more attention to the phrase than the projected exasperation of an interlocutor. The phrase suggests something about seeing, but the content is silent and might be a blind spot.

What you see is what you don’t see.

 

To close, below I include documentation of the deinstallation.  As suggested above,  the works of In Front of Your Eyes are gallery creatures, like most artworks, but both for and of display and display systems, not only when they’re “rested and ready” but also when they’re being handled, moved, and stored.  Hence the blue tape, both in and out the work, the packaging that shrouds the already shrouded, the labels and instructions that make explicit already gestating infrastructure, and the installation systems—all hands on deck—that perforate already perforated works.


John Muse teaches at Haverford College, makes art, occasionally curates exhibitions, and writes criticism.


(Exhibition Images)

          


(De-installation Images)

 


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