MAIN SPACE EXHIBITION
NOVEMBER 8 – NOVEMBER 30, 1996
RECEPTION: FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 8, 1996 AT 8 PM
LOCATION – STRIDE GALLERY
722, 11 AVE S.W, CALGARY, ALBERTA
This exhibition of paintings and drawings focuses on the artist’s curiosity of knots and their associations with script and language. Initially drawn to the physical features of knots – their elegance and complexity, Gordon has become attracted to ideas associated with knots. Her interest in this subject has led her to investigate the use of knots in various societies – from Peruvian knot calendars to “knot charms.”
Jennifer Gordon is an artist and Assistant Professor in the Division of Art at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta.
”The soul of wit may become the very body of untruth. However elegant and memorable, brevity can never, in the nature of things, do justice to all the facts of a complex situation. On such a theme one can be brief only by omission and simplification. Omission and simplification help us to understand – but help us in many cases, to understand the wrong thing; for our comprehension may be only of the abbreviator’s neatly formulated notions, not of the vast, ramifying reality from which these notions have been so arbitrarily abstracted.”
-Aldous Huxley, from the foreword to Brave New World Revisited
Aldous Huxley wrote this passage 27 years after the 1931 publication of Brave New World and through eyes that witnessed the events that would come to define the second half of the 20th century. Huxley’s warnings about the danger of brevity should be well heeded, especially in the delicate arena of the political and social to which he was to devote his lifework. Clarity, is it often thought, is the progeny of simplification but, as Huxley warns, may produce an arbitrary and indeed false view of the world; an understanding of wrong things.
I cannot help but feel that Huxley was also well aware of the positive aspects of this process. If we were to look at the first letter of this paragraph, say under a microscope, we would see that its edge is not composed of perfect curves and straight edged. Our ‘closer’ look would reveal imperfections. Under an electron microscope this complexity could only be heightened, whereby we would see both depth and a jungle of paper fibres. This process, while fascinating, may cloud our understanding of the original symbol; again, understanding of the wrong things.
I would suggest that Huxley was not ignorant of the precarious nature of both simplification and its opposite to yield both truth and untruth. However, for the sake of brevity and argument, I think, he chose to focus on the hazards of simplification. After all, his realm of concern was the political and simplification is the first tool of propagandist; a tool and its effects of which Huxley was all too aware.
Simplification requires the voluntary loss of detail and information in the hope that it will allow for association and new insights to be drawn. It is also a necessary step in the process of understanding. By ‘making’ things simple, we can catch a glimpse of the sometimes horrifying complexity of events and ideas and only then can we investigate further. As Huxley noted, this process is not without its hazards and is certainly not perfect.
Jennifer Gordon has chosen simplification for her recent suite of paintings and drawings. It is in this tenuous region of simplification and abstraction, where the possibility of loss and creation coexist, that Gordon places her work. Her paintings are representational in appearance but abstract in function. In them, a viewer can perceive objects but it is what is between these objects that is important.
In Vent, the play between abstraction and representation is broken down into its consituent parts. Holes fill the canvas into which we can perceive a landscape. Despite the loss of information we are able, to some degree, to construct an image of the land. It is not important that we see a particular landscape but that we are able to reconstruct one. It is this partial gift of information, these landscape memories bubbling to the surface, which allows associations to be made.
Mingling with the landscape bubbles are other unrelated entities composed primarily of colour; black, brown, sky blue, white. The dull-grey region between these entities and the landscape bubbles heightens their objectness. The more one looks at these holes of perception the more they appear as distinct and isolated objects. Objects that soon become other things; a whale’s tale, a billiard ball, the cropped image of the corner of a book.
Vent is pervasively flat in technique and colour. There is no doubt that this is a painting, a constructed image with no pretension of verisimilitude or trickery played on the eye. The bubbles or dots in which we construct images are reminiscent of the visual tools used in abstract painting but here they are used as tools whereby we can construct representational images. Trickery is in the mind.
Many of the images contained within the paintings can be seen as metaphors for the actual viewing of the work. Pervasive throughout is a concept of time. Vent inscribes time through the use of memory, as does Recollecting Device. The background of Recollecting Device is a tiled pattern created by a process of rubbing charcoal onto the canvas where a glass place has been placed underneath. The pattern on the glass plate is a frost motif and this pattern of repetition is carried into the painting both in the motif itself and in the way which Gordon worked the canvas.
There is a trace of a grid on the surface of the painting revealing the edges of the single glass plate used to create the pattern. This effect is intentional and somewhat contradictory as the grid implies a certain immobility and structure; a kind of stasis. However, variations in pressure have left areas of lighter and dark so that when seen from afar fluidity is apparent. This fluidity or movement is not artificial. Instead, movement is implied, not solely by an act of creation by the eye of the viewer, but also by the process of the physical creation of the painting itself.
The dominant image is Recollecting Device is a Quipu which was a means of recording information used by the Incas. This particular Quipy contains specific information in its combination of knots and coloured string. However, the specifics are lost to the majority of contemporary viewers who are unfamiliar with the grammar of the Quipu. A viewer could speculate that it is the result of a census or a record of the tribute paid by a particular village. What is compelling about this Quipu is its beauty and foreignness as a language that uses, what is to uninitiated eyes, simple strings and knots.
Much of Gordon’s attention over the past year has been focused on the history and representations of knots. A knot is inscribed with time. To understand or comprehend a knot we much mentally follow, from beginning to end, what went where and when. These elegant contortions of strong or line have become, over centuries of use, more than a means of security or bondage. To their original use have been attached significance beyond mere function, leading to other uses such as accounting, the recording of time, metaphor, and magic.
It is not difficult to understand why this should be. A string tied to a finger in the aid of memory is truly a magical act. Here, thought can be compressed into a simple and reusable form to be retrieved later. There is no guarantee, however, that after the mental retrieval takes place that the original idea will exist in its exact form. There is, just as with any form of language or writing, the danger that a part of the concept will be lost.
There is another consequence; one that is perhaps less danger than opportunity. If the line tied around a finger is particularly elegant and beautiful it may come to mean more than what is was intended. In its form other meanings or connections may arise. Here a line is no longer a simple concept. A line represents the collective ability to abstract information about the environment. Line is information and a means of communication; the string of cursive witing, elements of a Matisse drawing, what connects two dots on a map, a horizon.
Gordon is a collector from her environment and it is the way she collects which makes her work so appealing and open. The paintings present information but information that has been simplified or abstracted; the rubbings, the imagery, the impressions, are all taken from her surroundings. However, in the process of lifting from the environment Gordon wants to present but a representation but rather combinations of surfaces, textures, and mental images in the hope that their incompleteness may produce new ways of seeing and the perception of new things.
A silhouette is pure shape. A simple line, a closed curve is drawn to define that which is, and that which is not. This line has depth, however, and it is in the regionthat divides the two concepts – what is/what is not – where information is lost and meaning constructed. It should not be forgotten that this line exists only in the artist’s or viewer’s mind or on paper – that it is a lie, of sorts. The object rendered is flattened and frozen to reveal a profile on a single plane whereby this line can be drawn. If the object is seen from another perspective the original silhouette disappears and allows for another to be perceived and drawn.
Envelope plays with the idea of seeing objects anew. The dominant image in Envelope is, in fact, that of a carefully unfolded envelope which hovers over a flesh-coloured background. The painting has been gently rendered so that the image of the envelope fluctuates and can be read in different ways; as a window or a portion of a cloudy sky. There is difficulty in solely reading the image as that of an envelope as other readings seem to dominate. It is almost as if the envelope cannot hold itself together as the thing it is supposed to be; only to be pulled back, later, by the presence of the painting’s title.
The idea of an envelope is also in flux. Here, with its contents removed and functionality destroyed the envelope can no longer be what it is meant to be – it can no longer contain anything – even though we know what it is or at least once was. With Envelope, Gordon reminds us of the difficulty a painting has in retaining its own meanings. Envelope contains an image of an envelope that cannot hold itself together and has lost the ability to contain; a image of which, in the presence of the viewer, takes on new forms.
By collecting information from her surroundings and altering it only slightly, Gordon allows the viewer to ‘connect the dots’ and make further associations. Her paintings play with various methods of representation but are themselves not representational. They are mnemonic like her cherished knots. They are strings we can tie to our fingers to unlock new meanings
David Clearwater is an editor and writer living in Montreal. He is a Heritage Fellow with the Centre for Research on Canadian Cultural Industries and is currently working on his Masters thesus at the Graduate Program in Communications, McGill University. He would like the thank the artist for her time in discussing the work included in the exhibition, and Brennan Wauters for his suggestions and reading of the manuscript.