Monday, June 15, 2009

Kathleen Hudspeth's You Were Always there with Us

Alfredo Triff

Can images convey complex associations? The question makes sense because of recent charges that contemporary criticism is more about the theory than it is about the art. Is symbolism in art cognitively revealing, as some authors have suggested? "You Were Always there with Us," by Kathleen Hudspeth, a show of mostly prints, at Bas Fisher Invitational, compels one to ponder the dynamics behind symbolic associations.1 Being that this is Hudspeth's MFA show, her use of diverse techniques, from engraving, lithography and mezzotint, to etching and silkscreen, leaves no doubt that she knows her craft. Here are some of the artist's recurrent symbols: the knife, the wood log, the fly, the still-life-with-tulips and sparse graffiti-like enunciations (words like "fun, and "sublime" appear repeatedly).

You Were Always there with Us (Ink Pencil on Vellum) shows a still-life, a slim vase with tulips over a dark circle (a table?) whose bottom drips along the drawing's vertical axis.

Fractured Light and Drained Pigment (Litho and watercolor pencil) appears slightly different -as if refracting a light prism:

Strife and Stripes (Litho, watercolor pencil, Chine Collé and Oil-based Monotype) integrates "band design."2 Hudspeth adds elements to
(as she puts it in her note to the exhibit) "build an internal language of meaning". Obviously, a pictorial language needs a pictorial convention into which it's woven. For the time being let's play along the symbolic word/image===>convention. Flowers? Feminine (by the way, who decides the conventions?)

The knife. How about phallic power? (a privileged signifier):

Both images play like a film-sequence strip given by the titles meaning: Cutting the Passage (Litho and Oil-Based Monotype) precedes ... And You’re in the Middle of It (Ink Pencil on Vellum). Knives with elaborate tangs (dripping blood?) shown on both sides of print's vertical axis, as ying/yang images. The (blood?) pool resembles the still-life and tulips backdrop (more evidence of Hudspeth's building "internal language of meaning").

At this point you may feel this review is becoming too psychological. Not at all. I'm not exploring Hudspeth's mental states. I'm interested in meaningful symbolic connections elicited by the artwork.

Her Loving Embrace (Litho, Silkscreen and Oil-Based Monotype) shows a flower web enclosed by a soft outline:

Encroaching White is one several variations around the image of the maze (now with added flies). The word "fun" is written inside the web:

Flies, Flowers and Fun, below, (Litho, Engraving, Silkscreen and Chine Collé). Hudspeth adds figurative elements and random marks from the printing process. What does "fun" mean? A gamut from amusing to playful to violent. Also, one can have fun at some one's expense, as in happens in stratified social hierarchies:

Hudspeth's word/image mix gets to the saturation point. Sublime Skin Swarm has the word "sublime" written in red, inside the flower maze behind a viscous drip of varnish.

"The sublime" carries a heavy meaning in art history. Kant’s Das Erhabene is defined in The Critique of Judgment (Kant's treatise on aesthetics) as "the faculty of the mind surpassing every standard of sense." After Kant, the term became an inherited meme for an illustrious genealogy of thinkers: Novalis, Lessing, Schopenhauer, Herder, et. al.). Visually speaking, Hudspeth turns Kant's category on its head. It's Fucking Sublime shows a wood-log, standing amidst contrasting colored planes under a whitish drip. One should be prepared to "read" these provocations as a middle-finger to kantian bourgeois aesthetics.3

Hudspeth seditious attitude is clear. She admits this much: "Knives, bouquets, logs, flies and drips stand for actions, people and systems simultaneously. The work is made from a feminist perspective, and re-imagines the narrative of the white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy at an individual, intimate scale." True, art and aesthetics -as traditional disciplines- have had very few females voices. Thus, You Subvert Me: Island Timber (Silkscreen, Oil-Based Monotype and Watercolor Pencil).

Has art -and aesthetics- under capitalism extricated itself from phallocentrism? Did it ever? Answer: The World is Just Like This
(Ink Pencil on Vellum).

With Character Development, (
Engraving, Silkscreen and Oil-Based Monotype) the "antipodal point" makes its entrance (hint: in some aspects of the Christian theodicy, evil and goodness are inseparable).

Why the fly? I'll go on a limb: Traditionally, flies have a bad rap (remember the Fourth Plague?). Flies, stand for "something grotesque" (to someone as metaphysically patriarchal as Emanuel Swedenborg)... "obscuring the interior of things, and also doing them harm." I, Fly (Mezzotint, Oil-Based Monotype and Watercolor Pencil) suggests an even more ominous depiction.4 Roa Bastos' novel I, the Supreme is a symbolic exercise between power and language.

I learn from Hudspeth that Mezzotint is historically important, especially in Eighteenth-Century portraiture. For Hudspeth the fly stands as a symbol for a witness.5

Fly Vision (Silkscreen, Oil-Based Monotype and Litho) may suggest how a "witness sees":

The dichotomy of self/society is not precise, but there are signs throughout the history of modern Capitalism that "the witness" of exploitation also plays a more insidious role of complicit admission -even participation. Hudspeth is aware of this.
With time -and not without inner struggle- we understand what "fun" is. Your Fun Revealed, (Engraving, Mezzotint and Oil-Based Monotype).

At some point we have to move from the symbolic into the real. What does it mean for the world we live in?6 Reality beyond the symbolic is hard to swallow (which brings us back to Hudspeth's message). Can one bear witness? I think we've come to this cul de sac in history for a reason. There may be more of the diptera in each one of us than we are ready to admit.


1 What metaphorologist, nominalist, art collector, and induction expert Nelson Goodman defines as "metaphorical emphasis". 2 The term is coined by Owen Jones in his Grammar of Ornament. For Owens, "nothing could be removed and leave the design equally good or better." (Grammar of Ornament, Principles in the Arrangement of Form and Color, p.5). 3The whole second book of Kant's Critique of Judgment (the so-called third critique) is devoted to the sublime. Kant wants to show that there's a difference between "the beautiful" and "the sublime." Kant writes: "The beautiful in nature is a question of the form of the object, and this consists in limitation, whereas the sublime is to be found in an object even devoid of form, so far as it immediately involves, or else by its presence provokes, a representation of limitlessness, yet with a super added thought of its totality." Kant's most important distinction is that whereas "the beautiful" can delight and charm, "the sublime" elicits a negative (sometimes horrific) pleasure.4I cannot stop thinking that Hudspeth word/image mix, as if with a life of its own, turns vengefully against the artist, a kind of "we-are-all-in-this-thing-and-only-pretend-we-are-not" kind of reversal. As I write this review, theorist Gene Ray asks the question: Has art relinquished its autonomy within capitalist society? My tentative answer: No matter the gesture, art has never been "autonomous" in the sense of getting outside the economy of value and exchange. It would be naive to think otherwise. 5Regarding the role of witness, I learned the following from Hudspeth: The witness does not perpetuate horrors, but becomes complicit through perception of them, no matter their innocence at the outset. Often the witness is also a victim, one upon whom the horrors are imposed. Sometimes the witness was a willing perpetrator, who later switches sides. As a quality or state of being, I find the witness to be incredibly liable; there's no one rigid role which any of us plays; we could change at any instant from one to the other -so in that regard, I suppose the spontaneous generation associated with the fly is similar -being a witness is a context-dependent existence, and flies used to be thought born from specific contexts, like rotting meat. 6The suggestion that "the aesthetic" can influence "the political" hasn't stopped since Schiller's Letters. Yet, the relationship between art and politics in the sense of the former being able to change the latter remains at best flimsy. Art at the service of power (or as institutionalized "witness") has served as vehicle of propaganda (Constructivism, Futurism) or as mediocre accomplice (Soviet Realism, Nazi art).


Anonymous said...

First let me say that you are an amazing critic. I enjoyed reading it and will bookmark and return to the site often. From the point of view of an artist I just have to add one thing : sometimes a fly is just a fly and a stain is just a stain! At the moment of creation I think that the process is intuitive and non verbal otherwise we stand the chance of thinking it to it's own demise. Call it what you may, feminist iconography or ordinary objects it my humble opinion such labels become secondary to one simple fact: design. I have to question if indeed this is her intention from the start. Is the knife a phallic symbol or is it chosen simply as design that balances the composition?Does the naming of symbols occur at the end to legitimize the work? However we dissect the work what matters in the end is the following: lacking knowledge and with the simplicity of a child's eye how will the average person view it ? Has the work sattissfied the artist's need of expression? Can the work hold it's own?
Thanks for allowing me to contribute a thought ,
Alena Fresquet

miamibourbaki said...

From the point of view of an artist I just have to add one thing : sometimes a fly is just a fly and a stain is just a stain!

Thanks, Alena nd welcome. You have a good point and I thought about it. I zeroed in more on the symbolic not only because it's part of the artist intention (Hudspeth comments in her notes to the exhibit), but because it was obvious that the fly was not just a fly. Now, as the print of a fly in mezzotint technique, it was well executed.

Anonymous said...

Nice review Triff. I'll definitely see the show. What are the hours?


Feminista said...

AT: I'm glad you're writing again. I miss the epoch of your New Times articles. Hope it lasts.

miamibourbaki said...

Thanks, Femi.

Carlos. Go to the Bas/Fisher Invitational link at the beginning of my review. I'm sure you can arrange a visit.

Anonimato said...

Triff: Congratulations. Hope it lasts.

flesh said...

Alena Fresquet's response is very interesting because there is a divide in this work between the pieces that live visually and the ones that are trying to make a point and fall short of total visual life. The span between the two is the deep canyon that any artist must leap over and there are always works that make it and some that don't.

flesh said...

I forgot to say that the works that make it are really gorgeous.

A.T. said...

...there is a divide in this work between the pieces that live visually and the ones that are trying to make a point and fall short of total visual life.

Thanks flesh. If you don't mind, I'd be interested in knowing which is which.

Anonymous said...

why don't you open the manifesto post?