Mercedes Teixido: The Nothing and the Everything

at ARC, through December 21

Louise LeBourgeois

at Lyons-Wier & Ginsberg

Contemporary Art, through

December 21

Karen Savage

at Ten in One Gallery, through December 21

By Fred Camper

Each of Mercedes Teixido’s tiny sculptural installations is its own little world, as if an actual event were depicted within the bell jar that protects each one. A mound of hair is arranged a bit like a haystack, for example, and poised above it is a tiny magnifying glass too far away to be seen through. The multiple lines of the hair give the scene some of the precise detail of a Dürer etching or a page from an illuminated manuscript. But the meaning is obscure. If the mound is a haystack, Teixido may be referring to the saying about searching for a needle; in that case the useless magnifying glass, dwarfed by the mound, suggests futility. But in any case these objects somehow evoke emotions, even hint at drama.

Only a few inches across, Teixido’s arrangements of a few mostly everyday objects have an intensity and strangeness not easily explained. There are only five of these untitled pieces at ARC, and their separateness is heightened by the way each is mounted on a small shelf protruding from the wall and lit by a hanging metal lamp a few inches above. The room’s only light source, these lamps recall Christian Boltanski’s photography installations: the unusual lighting gives each piece an almost sacred aura. But whereas Boltanski’s work is sometimes mounted above eye level, commanding a kind of reverence, Teixido’s shelves are all below waist level; to see the work up close, one must bend or kneel, though the viewer’s participation is less an act of worship than a way of making sense of the scene depicted.

Teixido, 35, is a Californian whose parents emigrated in the mid-50s from Paraguay to Delaware, where she was born; her physician father was a political exile from the Stroessner regime. She recalls the isolation of growing up in a Paraguayan family in Wilmington: “There wasn’t a minority group to look to.” Teixido acknowledges a variety of influences, from her Catholic upbringing to the writings of Meher Baba (one of whose books provides the show’s title). Her work has been described in terms of magic realism, and she acknowledges reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

But folk art is her deepest influence. In art school, the “language of illusion, perspective–the whole Western tradition–didn’t make sense to me. I was more drawn to folk art, its sensuality, tactility.” While in grad school in Arizona, she began visiting Mexico: “I could understand their Catholicism–it brought Christianity alive for me again.” She was first touched by roadside shrines built to people who had died in traffic accidents. “Sometimes there would be a white brick structure with a statue of Mary in it, or a cross with plastic flowers and a bunch of ribbons placed on it.” She appreciated the “clear depth of passion and belief, embodying a spiritual presence” unmodified by the distancing and removal of Western art: “I’m very concerned with that kind of sincerity.” After working in a variety of forms–she has a degree in printmaking–Teixido began these small pieces two years ago, and feels that now she’s found her language.

Invoking possibility and impossibility, these works also point to both past and future. A tiny comb mounted on a thin metal rod appears to be suspended over a mound of wool arranged to look like strands of human hair. The wool’s wavy curves have the wild, organic rhythm of plants sprouting. The tiny, inadequate toy comb seems powerless to tame it, yet something has arranged it in this way. Did the comb “make” this in the past; or will it remake it or undo it in the future? In another work the bottom portion of the bell jar is filled with a mass of white thread loosely wound into an orb; a single strand leads up to a spool. Teixido points out an ambiguity–“Is it winding or unwinding?” she says–but in either case this represents the midpoint of a temporal process, calling up both a past and a future.

What makes Teixido’s work so effective is its vividness. The exhibit installation helps: the focused lighting, the almost lenslike bell jars, and the large empty spaces have the effect of concentrating energy and attention on these five small works, the only objects in the room. It’s as if some tiny citizen of these sealed-off landscapes really did comb the hair or might be looking for a needle. Ultimately Teixido’s images may be sensed as “metaphors for various struggles,” as she writes, but before that they seem frozen moments in miniature dramas. The blade of a minuscule shovel mounted above a mound of tiny pebbles (actually aquarium gravel) is smaller than most of the stones: it seems the shovel could barely lift them, and it’s hard to see where it would put them if it could since the gravel fills the sealed space. Nonetheless the shovel, its blade pointed downward, suggests that the implied Sisyphean rearranging is something that must, and will, continue.

Louise LeBourgeois’ gentle, meditative oil-on-panel landscape paintings, 14 of which are at Lyons-Wier & Ginsberg, at first seem to lack Teixido’s concentrated intensity. But the way these small, sparse images–an almost empty field, an untraveled road–are generally punctuated by one or a few key objects recalls Teixido’s manner of concentrating attention on objects, which attain a peculiar power out of proportion to their mundanity. A lone chair near a huge wall in Chair hints at a prison yard; the chair’s shadow on otherwise undifferentiated ground magnifies its presence. Furrows curve around a solitary tree in Field, oddly passing right next to its trunk: what tractor could have driven this close? And who would plant right next to a tree?

The furrows seem to represent an ordering impulse that’s gone too far, heightening the contrasts LeBourgeois sees between human intervention and nature. In Clothes Line four poles supporting a clothesline in the center of an empty field cut an almost aggressive profile against the even field and complex cloudy sky. A lone white garment hanging on the line facing us is just a bit off center. Like Teixido, LeBourgeois uses objects to evoke the absent human. She suggests past and future too: the person who hung the wash will presumably come to remove it. Crossing is still more dramatic: a board across a narrow fissure in the ground suggests the mythology of being swallowed up by a suddenly formed chasm and carried off to the underworld. Yet the board also represents the human presence at its most irrational and incongruous: the fissure isn’t wide enough to require it, and the board seems utterly out of place.

LeBourgeois, 32, a Chicagoan unrelated to sculptor Louise Bourgeois, comes from an old New Orleans family whose patriarch settled north of the city before the Louisiana Purchase. Growing up in South Carolina, she spent much of her childhood “playing in the woods–building little shelters or forts out of branches.” Though she’d ceased such play by 14, when her family moved to Chicago, the city was still “a huge shock.” Her landscapes may be an attempt, she says, “to re-create that world of imagination.” But there’s also the faintest hint of the bestial nature conceived by the surrealists. The crests of the waves in Green Lake have dark, apparently razor-sharp edges; the lake seems roiled by a rising wind, about to erupt in whitecaps.

Then there are LeBourgeois’ eggs: in two of the paintings lone eggs sit on the ground. One wonders if their embryos are dead or dying; one also imagines them about to hatch. LeBourgeois calls them “symbols of life.” But the egg in Stairs and Egg seems vulnerable and at odds with its distinctly human setting, sitting on a road near some concrete steps up to a field. How did the egg get there? What creature will it spawn?

LeBourgeois’ paintings combine the fine detail of Renaissance art with the emotionalized indistinctness common to the romantic period. Sometimes she draws every branch of a tree, but some of her fields, roads, and eggs are relatively featureless. This approach universalizes her landscapes while giving them a nostalgic air: this is not a particular road, it’s the idea of a road. Noting that she rarely paints and draws directly from nature, that she uses sketches, photographs, and memories instead, LeBourgeois says there’s “a certain remove from the landscape” in her work. “It’s more about the imagination of the landscape than the landscape itself,” she told me.

But while her brushwork creates a peaceful effect, LeBourgeois doesn’t seem to have fully worked out the relationship between the blurry emotionalizing of her approach and its more modernist distancing effect, commenting on the idea of landscape. There’s an indecisiveness in the way she simultaneously employs precise depiction, emotionalized depiction, and universalized or symbolic depiction while also seeming to waver between a self-aware yearning for idealized landscapes and for the almost lost art of painting.

There’s nothing imprecise about Karen Savage’s 29 photograms at Ten in One, 26 of them part of the “Handkerchief Series.” For these she collected discarded monogrammed handkerchiefs she discovered during her travels, trying to find one for each letter of the alphabet. (Ultimately she had to have a few fabricated.) Savage also invokes the power of objects to call up the human presence, but she expresses that theme more directly than Teixido or LeBourgeois.

Savage, who teaches printmaking and photography at the School of the Art Institute, has created works with elements of both media: her images are direct imprints of actual objects. Making a photogram, like making a print, is a more direct process than making a conventional photograph: there are no optical mediations, and there’s less control possible in the printing. Each handkerchief is laid directly on photographic paper; the surrounding area, where there’s no cloth to stop the light, turns black, while white areas occur where the cloth is dense enough to block all light. The “grays,” usually the result of the cloth’s thin weave, are actually composites of threadlike black areas and white areas. Savage arranges and folds each handkerchief differently to create a variety of shapes.

The effect is decidedly creepy. What these works lack in symbolic complexity–which the other two artists have–they make up for in direct power. Viewing these negative images of objects intimately connected with another human being, it’s hard not to think of the human skeleton. Indeed, Savage’s photograms are a bit like death masks, literal imprints of a vanished presence. The alphabetic completeness of the collection adds to the creepiness: when one realizes that every letter of the alphabet is present, it suddenly seems that nothing–and no one–is excluded from this process of commemoration. Each of us too will die, the inanimate objects we leave behind our only physical residue.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “The Remembered One” by Mercedes Teixido.