at Roy Boyd, through August 29
Yong Cheong Thye: Words and Images
at Eastern, through August 9
at Perimeter, through September 4
By Fred Camper
Buying some books in New York once, I asked to have them shipped to Chicago. The clerk made some typically smug remarks about how no one reads here. I responded with some appropriate remarks about New York, including one to the effect that this store’s typical clients–it was on the Upper East Side–probably used books as fashion accessories rather than reading them. The clerk then sheepishly admitted that, yes, a number of top interior decorators had accounts at this store.
That a nouveau riche New Yorker–or Chicagoan–might see books as part of a design scheme is sadly no surprise. Ownership of a thing, and the status it confers, seems to matter more to many than lived experience or the ideas and worlds explored in books.
Much recent art, including three current exhibits, addresses this reduction of experience to objects. Several of the 16 new works by Mark Arctander, a Chicagoan born in Elmhurst in 1956, at Roy Boyd deal explicitly with books–a subject that’s become so common critics have coined the term “book artist.” In his statement Arctander suggests that by presenting books in ways that make them incapable of fulfilling their “normal function” he allows the viewer to “inject his/her own mental text.” That may be, but certainly the way that Arctander reduces and imprisons books makes a statement in itself.
Limit, for example, places a hardcover book between two long marble slabs lying almost parallel on the floor, so that the book props them apart at one end. One senses the weight of the upper slab on the book, trapping it and preventing it from being opened and read. Measure consists of nine tall, thin wooden boxes, only an inch or so wide, open at one side to reveal the spines of books placed one atop the other within, often stacked as high as three or more. The title and the work’s appearance suggest a ruler–books being used only for their length. In Untitled (Trois) Violins, Arctander applies a similar sensibility to different objects: he’s bound three violins with dark fabric and cords, their strings hidden, their soundboards mute. Like his books, these objects are reduced to static corpses, deprived of their ability to convey complex experiences.
Each of Arctander’s works has a mordant wit, which is particularly explicit in The Difference: three little plaques displayed side by side read “Free Association,” “Costly Association,” and “Know the Difference.” While “free association” suggests an imagination open to a flood of ideas and visions, “costly” changes “free” from a reference to the mind to a reference to money. A related reduction informs an interior decorator’s use of books.
The exhibit is enriched by a few pieces that suggest a very different vision. In The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich Arctander has shredded pages from that famous history and placed them in a glass case. The word fragments are no more readable than the book is in Limit, but here the open spaces between the strips create a freer feeling. And the shredding comments on the book’s subject: the Third Reich began with book burnings and ended with Europe in ruins, a murderous era that perhaps no text can ever really convey.
Untitled (Aspect) is composed of seven mirrors on long, red handles mounted on a shelf and angled so that the viewer will be reflected in them. Like the shredded book, this work destroys its own objectness: instead of looking at the thing the artist has made, one is confronted with one’s own image.
Arctander addresses a key question for our visually oriented culture: the extent to which an object seems complete in itself, commanding attention based on its appearance alone. Kitsch objects, for example, are stupidly self-sufficient; by the same token, museum displays of usable objects–ancient vases, say–whose functions are not explained threaten to reduce them to pretty things. Yong Cheong Thye’s exhibit at Eastern of 18 works on paper, many of which are acrylic paintings of ancient vessels, skirts this danger too: their presence in a gallery that also sells Chinese furniture and a few ceramic vessels raises the prospect that his exhibit is being used to advertise the gallery’s other wares. But in fact Yong’s paintings never fetishize the vessels he depicts. (Though his show formally closes August 9, most of the works, plus others not in the show, will be available for viewing for a month or more afterward.)
Yong’s subjects look like ceramics, but in fact they’re ancient bronzes; sometimes he gives their surfaces more color than actually survives on them, he says, though he carefully reproduces the way they’ve corroded with age. Depicted against patterned backgrounds as variegated as the vessel surfaces, in relatively shallow spaces that almost join vessel to background, these centered, outlined bronzes seem much more than objects. The weathered plant design on the surface of the pale blue vessel in Flow is set against a darker blue background filled with the calligraphy of an ancient Chinese poem, placing the vessel in a larger cultural and historical context. The circular vessel in the painting Phoenix, a bright phoenix at its center, sits against a painted representation of rumpled paper that seems almost to wrap around it, its multiple folds echoing the bronze’s detailed patterns. The greenish cup in Chariots at first seems to contrast with the brownish background, filled with horse-drawn chariots Yong copied from a Han dynasty work, but the green of the cup is also flecked with brown, again placing the vessel in the context of a long and illustrious history.
Yong was born in Singapore in 1946–his Chinese parents moved there during World War II–and still lives there. An uncle recognized his talent when Yong was still a child, and his first art studies began at 16. He was trained in Western practices but also studied at home with a master of Chinese calligraphy, he told me, and discovered that he liked calligraphy more than Western art.
He sees his art now as a mix of Chinese and Western influences, but there isn’t much that’s Western in the framed examples of his calligraphy on view. These are based on very old writing styles, from a period when the characters were more like pictures than they are now. Though each drawing shows only one character, each has a curiously balanced feeling. The empty space both within and without the black character seems as important as the glyph itself; sometimes the lines even go beyond the picture edge, as in The Sea. These effects combined with the improvisational quality of Yong’s line prevent the characters from seeming static objects; instead, one feels them to be part of a larger field.
The real issue, then, is whether one fetishizes individual objects, moments, or written characters or whether one sees them in context with other things, offering an experience in time–a part of history’s flow. Our commodified culture argues for fetishization, but in small ways Yong and Arctander point to the latter view. This same split is addressed in an oblique but movingly poetic way by John Hoft in 14 abstract mixed-media pieces at Perimeter, hung on the wall like small paintings and offering gentle, unassertive relief effects. What’s interesting about them, however, is the way their designs never coalesce into compositionally unified “pictures.”
In most, one or two pieces of painted paper laminated to a Masonite board are mounted in front of a plaster surface containing several different designs and colors, none aggressive or striking. The painted paper, however, is often a single, somewhat cartoony color with a heavy black line around it; the Masonite has been cut into curvy shapes that further reinforce a pop look, as if these blobs were borrowed from a comic book or an animated cartoon. Faux Pas has three pieces of Masonite, two yellow ones and a doughnut-shaped white one. Two of them extend slightly beyond the rectangle of colored plaster, like unruly elements with a will of their own–like cartoon characters running off cliffs before realizing their mistake. The design in the plaster is considerably less defined: one of two white squares seems to be dissolving at one corner, and brown lines suggest creases in the surface.
The central opposition throughout is between the almost humorous curves and colors of the foreground elements and the more puzzling and variable fields of the colored plaster. These are subtly dynamic but never seem part of a finished design, suggesting instead the sketchy patterns on walls and other surfaces at construction sites. If the Masonite refers to pop culture, the plaster elements critique that sensibility. Indeed, in his short statement Hoft protests the way that “creativity and inventiveness” are “being squeezed to fit the mold” of the “Information World.”
Hoft, born in 1947 in Milwaukee, now lives near San Francisco in Albany, California, where he works at various construction-related jobs. He recalls the 50s as a period of conformity that “pushed people into doing things they didn’t have the means for”–like his father, a “jack-of-all-trades type” who “suffered greatly” from the pressures to conform. Hoft’s experience with building materials seems to inform the present work; he produced the colored plaster surfaces using a process of his own invention that he won’t divulge.
It doesn’t matter: the effects are what riveted me. Ethos looks almost random at first–it’s as if Hoft were avoiding any one system of mark making. A piece of twisted sheet metal sits in front of pale brown-and-green plaster whose design breaks down into three distinctly different sections–in one, brown lines appear to be incised in the plaster, while another includes raised brown areas. Hoft makes the viewer vacillate between recognition of the solidity of things–the metal plate–and meditation on ethereal patterns whose origins are a mystery.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Untitled (Aspect)” by Mark Arctander; “Phoenix” by Yong Cheong Thye; “Ethos” by John Hoft.