Gordon Matta-Clark

at Rhona Hoffman Gallery, through August 15

Mary Brogger

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through September 28

James Drake

at Rhona Hoffman Gallery, through August 15

By Fred Camper

The work of Gordon Matta- Clark, Mary Brogger, and James Drake recalls the decade beginning about 1965, when attempts to efface the distinctions between art and life reached their apex: hoping to imitate the enveloping quality of reality, artists surrounded audiences with projected slides and films. I heard a professor at a film conference then express the wish that some new technology would make direct communication between minds possible, eliminating the need for intervening media. But saner artists, then and now, understand that communication is inevitably partial, flawed, incomplete.

Matta-Clark, a New Yorker who died young in 1977, used to cut up buildings; he once sawed a whole house in half. These cuts both revealed more of what was there, of how the building was put together, and dramatically, almost frighteningly, deconstructed the architecture, opening it up while destroying it. Several of Matta-Clark’s ten photographic works at Rhona Hoffman document these cuts; one is a view up through a cut in a ceiling that reveals a figure standing on the floor above–we both see more deeply and fear the floor might collapse beneath her. For a different series, Matta-Clark bought and then documented unused slivers of New York City real estate. Reality Properties: Fake Estates, Block 2497, Lot 42, Queens (1974) includes a long strip of black-and-white snapshots glued together in an irregular line showing an overgrown patch of land. This bumpy panorama, unlike a transparent illusion, suggests both the expansive reality of the narrow strip of ground and the fundamental incompleteness of photography.

While these works have been seen in Chicago recently, three rarely shown Photoglyphs from 1973 have not been shown in 20 years; they too reveal Matta-Clark’s paradoxical approach to an enveloping “reality.” These startling 30-foot scrolls of photographic paper have between 9 and 11 separate black-and-white images of subway cars printed side by side; Matta-Clark has hand painted many of the graffiti on the cars in their original colors.

In 1973 graffiti art had not yet become chic. Personalizing subway cars’ urban soot and institutional gray, graffiti art and its antiauthoritarian, anti-institutional expressions connected art and life more directly than most high art of the period ever could. Matta-Clark celebrates these young artists in long, thin scrolls that resemble subway trains themselves, typically no more than ten cars in length. Sometimes a piece of graffiti continues across one frame into the next, typically either overlapping or divided by a small white gap. Revealing these seams or joining entirely different cars, Matta-Clark acknowledges the artificiality of his own work–but he also does more.

For Matta-Clark human constructions were splendid artifacts to be viewed with wide-eyed wonder; he simply sought to make them more visible. Each of his long Photoglyphs– which stretch across a gallery wall, over a pillar, and around a corner–busts out of the single-image format, which can be seen at a glance; one must walk along experiencing them in time. Pacing these scrolls, my eyes passing from one image to the next, I experienced each juxtaposition and abutment as a little perceptual jolt–recalling the bumpiness of a subway ride, partly as a result of the way cars bump together at their couplings. The dramatic contrast of the paint with the black-and-white emulsion makes the graffiti hyperreal, almost heroic. Acknowledging the constructed, artificial nature of his scrolls, Matta-Clark also manages to suggest an actual train, the vivid graffiti standing out against the cars’ gray surfaces.

The artist once exhibited these works on a wall where they could be viewed only through the windows of an adjacent gallery, so that viewers would see them as if through a row of station pillars or from another train. Simultaneously underlining the incompleteness of his representational method and attempting to burst the limits of imagery to mimic a real train, Matta-Clark joins contradictory ideals, bringing these rich works to life.

Chicagoan Mary Brogger is exhibiting three 1997 works at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the largest of which is also a photographic scroll. A three-foot-high, 200-foot-long photographic print of her apartment, Homeomorphic snakes around the walls of the L-shaped gallery. Using a computer, Brogger pasted together 35-millimeter photos she took while circling her apartment, making the scroll appear as continuous and seamless as possible. The title–a term for two or more shapes that can be continuously transformed into one another–suggests the way she seeks to connect public and private places: “Mapping the circumference of the artist’s home and stretching it to fit the walls of the museum,” she wrote, “is an act of art that reveals philosophical similarities between the two spaces.”

While Homeomorphic is in color and apparently seamless (there are actually four sections), Brogger elegantly restates the paradox of Matta-Clark’s work. A viewer’s walk about the gallery to see the piece is akin to a walk about the apartment itself. Yet she is even more aware of the limitations of her imagery than Matta-Clark is of his; despite the title and Homeomorphic’s cool, even surface–Brogger didn’t want spotlights emphasizing certain parts of the scroll, so the gallery is fairly dark–the work movingly evokes the limitations of human and photographic vision.

Brogger acknowledges the differences as well as the resemblances between her apartment and the museum: her off-white walls are often smudgy, a door is dirty, and objects are arranged somewhat haphazardly, more for use than for aesthetic appeal. As I looked at bookshelves, snapshots, a tool cabinet, a bathroom, and the top of a bed, I became a bit uncomfortable, aware that I was peering into a messy, lived-in home–the very antithesis of an anonymous, antiseptic, white-walled museum.

Several elements underline the work’s voyeuristic side. Because Brogger took the original photos at night her windows are dark, focusing our attention on the interior. The blank walls cause objects to stand out. A mirror on one wall reflects a view we see elsewhere on the scroll flipped left to right; this startling repetition makes the whole scroll seem artificial, its imagery arbitrary. Most important, Brogger’s eye-level vantage point reveals only a small portion of her home despite the scroll’s three-foot height: at times we see only a bit of the objects at the bottom, too little to identify them. Brogger’s horizontal continuum contrasts with the vertical limits she places on what we can see. This work conceals as much as it reveals, suggesting a complex mixture of motives: a wish to monumentalize one’s home is joined with a wish for privacy; an interest in using new media and expanded representational possibilities coexists with the acknowledgement that inevitably imagery is incomplete.

The scroll’s inclusiveness perhaps relates to Brogger’s wish to go beyond the personal dimensions of much art. Curator Lynne Warren writes in the exhibit catalog about the artist’s interest “in a more expansive notion of ‘self and other'” and asks whether we can see beyond our own “anthropomorphic viewpoint.” This question is addressed in a different way in Brogger’s Tombstone of the Self. A revolving six-foot-high cone covered with fake fur, it refers to the fez worn by Sufi Muslims in ceremonies that include whirling dances meant to integrate “all levels of being,” as Sufis describe it, within the self. Powerfully enigmatic, Brogger’s “tombstone” is denied a firm outline by the fur. It’s also pretty funny, this tall, fur-covered cone rotating without visual support. Its spinning, like the circuit the viewer of Homeomorphic must make around the room, replaces the typical presentness of gallery viewing with an invocation of continuous time, taking the viewer outside his own boundaries.

James Drake, who lives in El Paso and is also showing at Rhona Hoffman, negotiates the relationship between external subject and artistic commentary a bit less successfully than Matta-Clark or Brogger, but his 1997 video installation Tongue Cut Sparrows is intriguing for its more explicit social dimension. Projecting three videotapes side by side results in a Cinerama-like image with a bit of the sprawl of the other two artists’ scrolls; unlike them, Drake aspires solely to dignify, even monumentalize his subjects: women standing outside a jail in El Paso communicate through the windows with lovers, family members, and friends within using a simple sign language they’ve developed. We see the same woman in the center “panel” signing continuously, while in the side panels images of two other women looking up alternate with texts of what’s being signed–mostly great literature (Shakespeare, Lorca, the Book of Job) related to the prisoners’ confinement, to love and its impossibility, as in Borges’s lines: “Final as a statue / Your absence will sadden / Other fields.”

Though Drake reports that the women helped select the texts, there’s something odd about using them–and about Drake’s imagery. The women on the sides, for instance, are taped from below–set against the sky like monumental sculptures. Unlike Matta-Clark and Brogger, Drake doesn’t acknowledge any human limitations or complexity. Drake’s five other works in the show relate to the video installation; two of them are huge, elegantly detailed charcoal drawings of hands signaling.

The suggested heroism in the video and related works underlines a central, unacknowledged contradiction: the supremely literary, highly mannered texts can’t be much like the way these women usually talk–no one talks this way today. Though it’s not as naive as 60s multimedia events, Drake’s Tongue Cut Sparrows evinces a view so optimistic, so at odds with his subjects’ humanity, that the piece is almost surreal.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Tongue Cut Sparrows” by James Drake; “Homeomorphic” by Mary Brogger.