Analysing Subtracted Propositions one risks, as all vivisectors must risk, damaging the thing being studied. Luckily, these works withstand repeated disassembling because De Guzman’s current practice is all about taking things apart.
The current show is a combination of two series: Subtracted Editions and Dangling Propositions, both produced in similar ways. The studio resembles a dis-assembly line. Initially, De Guzman selects books and magazines on art and literature which he dubs, oxymoronically, “contemporary artefacts.” They are systematically read, neatly stacked, then cut with a surgeon’s scalpel. Almost all text and images are removed save images of personal significance or the optional final word or two of every paragraph. The incisions begin on the last page and work towards the first.
What remains is a tracery of borders, margins, verges and lines. This husk of a former magazine or book is carefully loaded into stackable plastic cases, while the cuttings fill another identical case. Another publication replaces it on the cutting table.
Historically, this process is related to the chance operations of John Cage, in that crucial aspects of the art work, or poem, or musical piece are left outside of the personal choice of the artist. This creates a work of unexpected happenstances and sometimes daunting complexity. The traceries of each publication’s distinctive layout produce unique patterns. A work like Mona Hatoum, for example, can be contrasted superficially with the issues of Grand Street because it has a two column format as opposed to one.
De Guzman has united two streams of contemporary art making. Firstly there is the Dada / Collage / Chance / Process stream of Duchamp, Joseph Cornell and Cage, a way of art-making that subjects pre-existing material like objects, scraps of paper, sound to a reorganising or disorganising principle. This process could either refresh or comment on the original material, or create something new entirely. The second stream is the Bauhaus / Constructivist / Minimalist aesthetic of artists like Mondrian and Judd where visual vocabulary is stripped down to a few basic shapes and colours. That the pieces look like Mondrian gone baroque is not surprising: the first book subjected to this cutting technique was about Mondrian’s painting. It’s a good joke, and a distinctly ironic post-modern one. Take a book about the Bauhaus, or Mondrian, remove all references to imagery, text, meaning, and subject matter, thereby creating an image that recalls precisely those artists.
The title for the latest series, Dangling Propositions, is a playful invitation to continue the process begun by de Guzman, and meditate on what has become of the book or magazine. This proposition is like the elusive dangling carrot before the donkey, to indulge in a stale metaphor. Is it a real carrot or just the image of a carrot? We never get close enough to find out, to bite into it. By removing all the contents de Guzman reveals containers, containers within containers, all structures and scaffolding, yet tantalising hints of what had been held by these intricate supports. We are looking at packaging. There is no real carrot dangling before us. It is empty, a shell resembling a carrot.
Not content with empty structures, de Guzman leaves words without content as well. De Guzman’s last series, Subtracted Editions, was comparatively pure. No words were left to distract the eye from the visual goings-on. The new pieces save words from the end of some paragraphs, floating disjointed bits of English, German, French, and Spanish.
These words seem like dangling propositions to make meaning. Even if we know that these words were picked following a formula, not for content, somehow a mood or meaning emerges. We can’t help it. We create meaning. For example, Grand Street 67 Fire sets the mind rolling into meaning immediately with the word “fire” in the upper right hand corner of a black border. “Crisis” boldly cuts across the centre. We take our cue from these prominent words; all other words seem to support a feeling of urgency. Grand Street 62 Identity has a different feel entirely. This time the border is not black, but a more forgiving white, and “Dear Sweetheart” pops out in bold lettering. Then, a little less prominently placed are “to marry,” “a rose?,” “silk pyjamas,” “beautiful murderess.” Is this about a disturbed relationship perhaps? Or nothing.
Although de Guzman doesn’t discourage us from being “meaningful”, he bemoans that readers cannot look at their Latin alphabet as a visually arresting set of signs, distinct from their meaning. By using bilingual texts and cutting up words, he seems to be attempting to shock our complacent brains into seeing them as visual phenomena.
Few observers want to enter a world of text or the pure sound of language without meaning. This is a hard trick to pull off, to elucidate the phenomena of words either by sound or visual recontextualization. For example, one doesn’t need to be a Muslim to see beauty in Arabic illuminations. However, if we understood the text we may miss out on the visual beauty. De Guzman is in a semiotic quandary: Are there meaningless signs? Are signs without meaning more beautiful than meaningful ones? Dangling Propositions are close in spirit to Rober Racine’s obsessive illuminated dictionary Les Pages-Miroirs, where language is accorded an awe far beyond its capacity to bear plebeian meanings.
De Guzman’s work is a balancing act between this visual appeal and ideas; a conceptual framework that also produces visually entertaining results.I don’t use the word entertainment lightly. Most conceptual works of art use a visual format to show an interesting idea. The viewer is usually entertained by the idea but not moved by a sense of beauty in the physical object itself. But De Guzman’s ideas aren’t immediately transparent and this seems to allow some room for visual appeal.
These de-contexualized words floating amongst the shredded paper have a disturbing element as well. They suggest our undependable memories. After one has read something what is actually left in the mind? Perhaps it is like these pieces - the odd word, a tracery of the structure, snatches of pictures. De Guzman may well have called these works “Readings." When we read, we do mentally what Subtracted Propositions has done physically: cutting, pasting, associating, discarding. De Guzman shows us that reading and viewing are not passive acts. The original publications gave an edited view of their subject matter and Subtracted Propositions are a further editing. We, as viewers, will carry this process further.
Please see PDF
Please see PDF