Friday, July 6, 2007

veneers at georgia state university

In 1989, I created my only work of sculpture.

It consisted of a small Plexiglas box in which a minimally
geometric wood sculpture stood in front of a backdrop photo of clearcut
tropical timber. The wood consisted of rectangular samples of threatened
tropical hardwoods: zebra wood, mahogany, one or two others I cannot now
recall.

The signage below the box stated that this conceptual tropical
forest was presented courtesy of the world¹s importers and users of tropical
lumber. In fifty years (I may have said fifteen, an exaggeration) it would
be the only kind of forest that would still be left.

Two decades later, Amy Landesberg has taken up the cause in
Veneers, on display at Georgia State University through late summer.

Landesberg has reproduced the characteristic textures of zebra
wood and two other threatened hardwood species (mahogany crotch and tamo
ash) as digitalized abstractions. Printed in shades of red, they form a thin
veneer on the surface of heavy, blast-resistant glass such as is used in
buildings as a form of security.

The patterns cast colored shadows on the wall as light passes
through the glass.

Landesberg sets forth the moral in an eloquently worded artist¹s
statement: Veneers are a sophisticated form of fakery, using the minimal
amount of an espensive material to disguise the nature of a cheaper one.
These digital ghosts of three dying species are an even more fragile veneer,
a conceptual covering that transmutes the transparency of a seemingly
fragile but actually massively reinforced material.

Stained glass was meant to reinforce the dignity and meaning of
particular dwellings or places of worship. (Landesberg, in stating that
stained glass was never used in twentieth-century secular construction,
apparently discounts the example of Louis Comfort Tiffany, though his last
contribution to a building may have been installed before 1900, and Frank
Lloyd Wright¹s versions may also predate that year. In any case, the medium
went out of fashion by the end of the Belle Epoque, and the rise of modern
architecture.)

This stained glass for the twenty-first century, then, is a
memorial to the victims of environmental devastation; not obliterated by the
shifts of global climate change but by the crosscurrents of globalized
capital. There is money to be made in incorporating tropical veneers in the
newly built centers of finance and information; hence the trees will be
logged illegally by entrepreneurs ignoring the laws of their local
jurisdictions. And the results will be inserted into transnational markets
without overmuch concern for countries of origin and the niceties of
regional regulation.

None of this would be apparent if one were to walk in off the
street and look at the installation. But the function of such work is to
create a visual metaphor that, while insufficient in itself to elucidate the
conditions and intent behind its making, nevertheless stops us in our tracks
long enough to read the explanatory literature.

Mark Cottle, by contrast, hasn¹t given us much to work with in
deciphering his geometrically intricate gallery. Some patterns are wall
pieces,, with identifying numbers that suggest a key for re-assembling
adjacent squares of a design produced by a computer program. Other bits of
his designs hang in gridded fragments, all the same size, all casting their
own semi-ordered patterns as shadows on the wall.

I am reminded of Jason Elliot¹s exploration of the patterns of
Islamic design found in Isfahan architecture (see his Mirrors of the
Unseen: Journeys in Iran
). But the mathematical intricacies of the
Islamic architects were based on a thoroughgoing theory of how the universe
was put together. Presumably Cottle¹s is too, albeit a rationalist rather
than rigorously mystical one.

Elliot did the math to decipher the likely mysteries of Muslim
geometries, and presumably someone competent to figure out where to start
could do the same with Cottle¹s, getting from here to there with a little
effort. But for the arithmetically challenged among us, Cottle has produced
an extremely pretty conundrum that we can¹t figure out how to get our heads
around. And, unlike Landesberg, he hasn¹t provided a key, unless the
security guard moved it or someone else discarded it.

Neither artist is given to wall text, which in an era replete with it is, I
suppose, a blessing. Even I, the ultimate fan of wall text, chose to forego
it in my group show at StudioSwan.

But Landesberg at least has given us an elegantly constructed one-page
version of the catalogue essay. And art this intimately based on history and
intellect needs some kind of verbiage to lay bare its presuppositions and
practices.

In reality, we have barely begun to unpack the layers of meaning in
Landesberg¹s piece, since, to take only one example, the deliberately unreal
color choice evokes the digital world¹s version of veneers as aptly as the
dark, striated sheen of the original wood evokes the illusion of refined
stability that is essential in the corporate surroundings in which such
veneers find their greatest usage. But any artwork with sufficient
imagination behind it can be thus belabored beyond the patience of any
reasonable reader.

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