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.
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:
"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).