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Alphabetics

Kelly Mark is everywhere right now - at YYZ, in the news because of the Glow House, and as well, she has a show on at Wynick Tuck. Last night I dreamt that I was in Wynick Tuck noticing that none of the Letraset drawings had sold, as if they were too new, too avant-garde (such a discredited idea anyway) but now as I find the memory was nothing more than a dream, it doesn't seem important enough to fact check to see if any have. I didn't notice the other day when I was in.

Although in my dream, it seemed a shame, because they are quite good. Looking at them I thought of Marcel Duchamp's machinery in the Large Glass, mostly because I recently found this great website that demystifies Duchamp's work, and last weekend I found this other website that offers animated graphics helping to explain biochemistry. The conversion of ADP into ATP, the basic molecule of cellular energy, reminded me of the animated Large Glass. My immidiate impression was that computers are so wonderful, allowing us to animate what Duchamp envisioned, and allowing us to see what our cells are doing everyday, processes that have been difficult to imagine before.

Kelly Mark's work using Letraset seems to represent a dynamic dance and swirl of letters, moving across page and frame to frame. While the individual pieces can stand alone, they are arranged as polyptychs and the line around which the marks are organized flow from one panel to the other. There is a dynamic machinery here, and the fontography by its black and white and serifed nature reminds me of the early century's dynamic steam machines, which inspired Duchamp to abandon paintings of traditional subject matter in favor of engineered renderings of choclate-grinders and the hormonal process of love as if mediated by particles of malic-molded matter.

In addition to these drawings, Mark, who perhaps is punning on her name with all this, has attempted to extend the idea of drawing by taking wooden forms of the usual pottery - vases, jugs, plates, etc, and covered them with graphite, giving them the nice dark gray sheen we're familiar with from bored schoolday scribbling. As someone who likes to fool around with a pencil now and then, I couldn't help but wonder if she just got some raw graphite at the store and used that, or if she laboriously went at the forms with pencils. Given the nature of Conceptual practice which tends to emphasize the execution of patience rather than skill, I wouldn't be surprised if Mark had used pencils. But again, such a detail seems minor to the finished product.

Given that contemporary pencils are a form of ceramic - the lead of pencils usually something like carbon mixed with a clay, these sculptures aren't that far fetched ... complimenting the traditional form which is made pure from clay, and replacing it with the veneer - in this case, the clay mixed with carbon and preserved with a matte varnish so that you can handle the works without dealing with smudging. Since the mid-19th Century invention of electroplating, which enabled the alchemistic goal of turning base metals into gold, there has been a long history now of coating crap with a sheen of special elements; Mark has extended this by coating a form that has lent itself to admiration with an element that has also lent itself to admiration when it falls together on a page into the light and shade of a scene, reversing the usual properties by using a veneer of ceramic on our other most malleable material, wood.

Kelly's show at YYZ is on down the hall from Wynick Tuck. As a member of YYZ's board of directors, I don't feel like I should review it. Although I once reviewed a show there last January, I've decided that I won't anymore. But I bring it up because of the odd coincidence of titles - Mark's show at YYZ is called horror/suspense/romance/porn/kung-fu and consists of the recorded glow from the television which had been playing films of those genres. The show opened on April 8th, a Friday, and the next Wednesday, on April 13th, the latest show at the Art Gallery of York University (AGYU) opened with the title Horror, Science Fiction, Porn.

'Tis the season of words it seems. For some reason the zeitgeist in our city has organized the curatorial and artistic minds into a season of alphabets. Mark's letraset drawings tease out the inherent visual geometries of what we've taken for granted since we learned how to spell - that we manage to communicate, share thoughts, break hearts and win them, through designed lines.

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A personal aside now - 'tis also the season of graduation, and the show at the AGYU reminded me of my own graduating April, after a rather lazy semester when I pretty much cruised to the last day ... such was the nature of the school. But I'd signed up for an intro to video course for my last semester, because the previous summer I'd read Bill Viola's book and it interested me in the medium that was everywhere but which I'd never before taken much formal interest in, focused as I was on drawing and painting.

In addition, I had a hard time with stories throughout school. I always have a case of writer's block when I have to invent a narrative. So for my last project, for this Intro to Video class, I was stuck. But, as Charlie Kaufman knows well, an old trick is to use the present condition if you can't make one up; so I ended up making a video on my writer's block.

But what Viola had impressed on me was that the invention of film and video had been a sort of miracle which we long ago grew used to, forgetting that for all of time previous, that immense well of forgetting and flash, images had been static. As someone who went to school to learn painting, I had been interested in those static images, in that long history of capturing milliseconds of the universe in shapes. Television and film fools us into thinking we have peepholes into other rooms, other places, other times, all due to an optical and conceptual illusion.

My reawakened interest then was in the animated image and it gave me a new appreciation for the silent film. So my film was silent, relying on the animated image, and the narration provided by text.

Ok - so lets get back to alphabetics. I remember when David Carson was the hottest thing; Raygun seemed the coolest, most innovative magazine going in the mid-90s, at the time that I was self-consciously a student of all things cultural. Raygun sort of coincided with my first studies in Heidegger, and what was really fetching about Raygun's 'anti-design' was its strained, blurred, hard to read text. Because of that, you paid much more attention to it. The seemlessness of the interface was interrupted, and you became conscious of text as a visual element.

William Gibson's preface in the Raygun book, Out of Control (1997), pointed out that learning to read is something we spend a lot of time doing. We have to learn to use this technology over years, so that eventually it becomes something you can do unconsciously, at a glance, so much so that you can't help but understand what the alphabet-symbols mean when printed across the chest or the ass of some girl, the mixed messages of reproductive genetics and advanced civilization combined in some petty advert for one's alma matter or allegiance to social stereotype. Text becomes as easy to process as speech after a while, and we see past the geometry of the marks that make it up.

Which brings me to the second thing about text that's worth mentioning - everytime I get into a conversation about how I'm an artist, the person I'm talking with usually dismiss their own attempts with, 'oh, I can't draw anything'. What I should say, instead of cringing and wanting to talk about anything but my 'specialness' because I can slap some paint around now and then, is that 'if you can write your name you can draw'. We are forced into the repetitive exercises as children of drawing triangles and squares and circles, eventually forming the triangles of A's and the line with curves of B's etc until we can finally draw the simple shaped alphabet and eventually put them together into words.

So, this show at the AGYU isn't so much one of 'nothing to see here 'cept a bunch of writing', as it was a reminder for me of the shape of the letters, of the visual aspect and relationship to drawing that the written word has. It was also a reminder of my experience in artschool with video and text.

Now, what the writing in this show communicates I couldn't really tell you, besides what's made obvious by the title of the show. These three text based works come from the genres mentioned, but I didn't bother to read everything. Overwhelmed by the overall message of the function of letters as symbols and drawings, I didn't really care to read what appeared to be mostly uninteresting.

The title says it all - there's a text of pornography, by Fiona Banner, writ large, in hot pink, 'she grabed his cock,' etc, and the world as become so pornofied through the internet, iMovie and relatively cheap video cameras I was bored and unmoved. In the same room was a shelf with books, 'The Nam' which showed off a nice design, one of the books being displayed on a plinth, the text of which being some Vietnam war story in the same blocky font used for the porn story, this time printed black and single sided.

The middle room was a little more interesting. This was the sci-fi part, but here the experience is of a projected 8mm film, consisting of nothing but the words of some contrived alien drama. The cohesion of the story is pulled apart by the projector being on a robotic armature, so that it projects the text across the walls of the gallery at different times, always moving. The animation of the projection is what I appreciated by this, and at this point I was reminded of my artschool video, where I had a line that read:

'I wanted to move you with images
Soft, subtle, sublime
But you cannot be moved by images, only silent words'

Here, you get the attempt by the artist Rosa Barba to move you with moving words, which aren't even silent, as we have to listen to the whir of the oldschool 8mm machine.

The back room had the 'horror video' by Nathalie Melikian, which again consisted of sentences that I didn't bother to read, (I know - I'm a horrible critic) the horror aspect seemingly conveyed by the ominous soundtrack.

The PR for this show states: ' In conjunction with this year's Images Festival [which is now over], the AGYU presents Fiona Banner, Rosa Barba, and Nathalie Melikian, artists who look at film but project it to another end--as film experienced through language, which is why the exhibition Horror, Science Fiction, Porn includes no actual films. This international group of artists - from Britain, Germany, and Canada - looks at language's determinant conditioning and indeterminate effects through a variety of film genres. The conventions that establish a genre (right from the start with the writing of the script) and those that manipulate the spectator, are only partly at play in this examination as these artists relate the genres of science fiction, action, horror, and pornography to their constructions, technical apparatus, and reception.'

If the PR is the recipe for how we, the audience born yesterday, are supposed to respond, I think it's a failure. If you check out this show, there's no way you would respond according to this formula, but at least the language the AGYU is putting out is getting better (perhaps prompted by Jennifer McMackon's blog which has been publicizing the 'discombobulated PR' you get from these institutions over the past year).

It's text ... on walls. And for the PR to say that it contains no films at all is dishonest, as the sci-fi piece uses 8mm, and the back room uses video, which admittedly isn't film, but what's the difference?

While film seems to be all about animating images, the use of film to project text in two of these peices blends the forms in ways that seem similar to Kelly Mark's wooden ceramics. As for the porn piece, it seems nothing more profound than Playboy wallpaper. The most generous thing I can say about it is that it reminds me of the old double-entendre, 'You wanna come upstairs to check out my prints?'

Kelly Mark at Wynick Tuck is on until April 30 and the show at YYZ is on until May 21, both at 401 Richmond St, and both galleries are closed Sundays and Mondays.

The AGYU show continues until June 12, at York University, Ross Building. Photos courtesy of the websites of Wynick Tuck and the AGYU.


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