Verb List Compilation for Three Artists: Jane Aaron, Lauren Kalman, Mark Hursty
Between 1967 and 1968, celebrated American sculptor Richard Serra created a list of evocative action verbs whose contemplation and potential execution were intended to generate new modes of conceiving sculpture.1 These simple directives—“to hinge,” “to discard,” “to splash” and so on—were carried out with a range of non-precious materials, from lead to leather, from felt to film. Serra’s interest in process, mixing media, and experimenting with unusual materials is emblematic of the postminimalist artists working in the 1960s and 1970s. The three artists in Elusive Matter continue to mine this rich terrain, pushing us to rethink not only the status of contemporary sculpture, but also the place of screen-based technologies in artistic production. Accordingly, the particular innovations of artists Jane Aaron, Lauren Kalman and Mark Hursty warrant “verb lists” of their own.
To register, to light, to deconstruct: Jane Aaron
Jane Aaron’s short 16 mm film, Traveling Light (1985), presents two minutes of spellbinding yet capricious sound and imagery that register the movement of outdoor light across a domestic interior over the course of a day. Light is the principal actor in this short narrative: the first shot gives us a glimpse of the exterior of a simple two-story home (confirming the scene’s “reality”) before we are whisked inside to follow glowing patterns of light through the interior domestic space—over furniture, across the wall, up the stairs, through the kitchen, on top of fruit, and into the living room. The loose narrative builds toward the closing sequence, during which an anonymous female figure appears and cannily reveals the artist’s working process: the “light” turns out to be an animation, evidenced by the hundreds of scraps of yellow paper which spill onto the floor and get swept away in the film’s closing sequence. Aaron’s stop-motion animation is process art par excellence. In contrast to contemporary digital technologies that render complex animation at astonishing speed, the infinitesimal variations of luminous paper designs that make up Traveling Light were painstakingly crafted frame by frame (the artist produced only four seconds of footage for each day’s work).2 While the concern to capture moving light patterns is immediately suggestive of painting, Aaron’s approach of pushing film to its limits, revealing its underlying mechanisms, is reminiscent of structural filmmakers such as Michael Snow—whose Wavelength (1967) consisted of the camera moving across the artist’s studio over the course of a day, defying conventional uses of time, space, and sound—or Tony Conrad—whose 1970s series of Yellow Movies consisted solely of white squares of latex paint on large sheets of paper which slowly yellowed over time. Aaron’s innovation is the captivating combination of real and animated spaces. While animation conventionally enjoys spatial and acoustic liberties impossible for mainstream narrative film, Aaron reinserts those constraints, combining them with her achingly labor-intensive work process to delightful effect.
To adorn, to endure, to unsettle: Lauren Kalman
Kalman’s video employs suspense and duration to a significantly different effect. Encased in a deconstructed DVD/LCD player, wires akimbo, we know right away that something is not quite right with Kalman’s video, Hard Wear (Tongue Gilding) (2006). The approximately twelve-minute work offers a close-up image of a disembodied female mouth whose tongue is sheathed in gold. As the scene unfolds in real-time it becomes clear that this is a body in distress: saliva trickles like blood or tears from the blighted mouth. It is impossible not to feel the artist’s discomfort in your own body, making the duration of the piece a form of endurance for model and viewer alike (this “hardware” is palpably “hard to wear”). The work’s veneer of preciousness and cold, even cruel, elegance, however, complicates what might otherwise be an easy link between Kalman’s experiments with bodily suffering and excess and earlier forms of ritual and performance art. Her tongue is golden, after all, a ready parable for contemporary greed and vanity alike. And yet the video is disturbingly alluring as it flirts with masochism and the grotesque, a fact that is especially evident in the artist’s Lip Adornment (2006) photograph from the same series. Abject yet enchanting, this is an image that would be equally at home in a Vogue spread on couture jewelry as it would in a medical textbook of pathologies.
To drip, to divide, to reveal: Mark Hursty
Hursty’s El Mort de la Massa (2008) similarly engages the viewer’s body and prompts visceral reactions. This video, too, is both beautiful and haunting—what is it? The silent non-narrative footage is supremely mysterious although, in its liquid amorphousness and evocative coloring, immediately sexualized and scatological—Blood? Semen? Lava? The work’s silence and relative abstraction opens itself up to any number of interpretations—from low-resolution combat scenes on the evening news to geology videos screened in elementary school—in any case, viewers are obliged to supply the narrative. (Spoiler alert: the images are molten glass submerged in liquid. Hursty has explored conceptual and material issues surrounding glass art in many media, including Shelter (2008), a photograph included in the current exhibition.) El Mort de la Massa plays with the unlikely combined legacy of action painting (Barnett Newman’s zips, Jackson Pollock’s drips) and gaming (explosions of sorts on opposing screens). Like Aaron and Kalman, Hursty’s engagement of craft materials nonetheless grants technology a certain prominence: the split-screen division and horizontal orientation renders apparent the technological mediation and process required for what might otherwise be taken for “pure” documentation. Part of a long line of artists interested in exploring the properties of humble and craft materials, Hursty profitably updates these traditional concerns by weaving them together with pertinent issues surrounding screen-based visuality.
To elude, to matter
In all three of these short screen-based works, the viewer is given too little initial information. There are no “set up” or establishing shots to allow us a behind-the-scenes view of how or why the tongue was gilded, or what, exactly, penetrates the surface of the water. As such, they encourage speculation and reward repeat viewings; indeed, all are presented appropriately as looping footage. While deeply informed by postminimalism, this is not the craft of yesterday. It is not the craft of directly-handled, three-dimensional materials—even if the “handling” of craft objects is often limited to the eyes as of late. Jane Aaron, Lauren Kalman, and Mark Hursty render craft materials intangible and screen-based; as such, they are newly unfamiliar and elusive. The work of contemporary craft is indeed “elusive matter.”
1. Richard Serra, “Verb List Compilation: Actions to Relate to Oneself,” 1967-68. http://www.ubu.com/concept/serra_verb.html
2. Jane Aaron quoted in interview with Judith Trojan, “Jane Aaron in Plain Sight,” Sightlines (Winter 1985–86): 40.
Kate Mondloch is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Art History at the University of Oregon where she specializes in art and media since 1960. Her research interests are wide-ranging and include postwar sculpture, experimental film and video, digital culture, feminism, and theories of spectatorship and subjectivity. Her book Screens: Viewing Media Installation Art will be published by the University of Minnesota Press in February 2010. She is currently working on a new book about media art “after” feminism, tentatively entitled Eye Desire: Media Art After Feminism.