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Suvan Geer


William Kentridge.
Photo: Peter Rimell.

William Kentridge, "Soho Holding Cup
and Stone to Ear," 1997, drawing from
film "Weighing. . .and Wanting", char-
coal and pastel on paper.

William Kentridge, "Dancing Man,"
1998, gouache/chalk/paint on paper.
Those lucky enough to have seen the William Kentridge exhibition that closed recently at LACMA were treated to a particularly powerful and inventive kind of art. Rough, bold charcoal drawings literally made and unmade themselves in a near mute, evolving record of ongoing change. Not only did the films’ stories about labor and oppression explore the subtle psychic damage created on both sides by social forces of compliance, but the gradually obliterated and constantly changing records made the process of artmaking a binding metaphor for the experience of memory. One that highlights an important tie between truth, fiction and the visual constructs of perception.

Drawings, Kentridge reminded me, are an accumulation of marks presented at the apex of their meaning. When finished, a drawing is timeless, by which I mean that having assimilated all the work’s progressive changes it presents the final image as a completely isolated island of occurrence. But Kentridge’s filmed process leaves a trail of ghosts. Those haunting traces act as mnemonic tethers denying the detached, temporal self-sufficiency of the completed picture. Against the seeming inevitability of his stories relaying as they do the overwhelming power of time and forgetting, which ultimately obscure all symbols of history and self, the progressive smudged erasures offer a strong participatory, cumulative memory. It’s an experience that quietly but firmly contradicts the story’s visualizations of disappearance and disintegration.

That round-robin cycle of contradiction between memory and sight is a fundamental part of Kentridge’s exploration. It is rooted to his insight that vision, in effect, perpetually lies. It persistently asserts the temporal fixity of the world surrounding us. To the eye most images or landscapes are detached from history and time. We see only the present when we look around our neighborhoods, or take a picture to preserve them forever. Only memory reconnects those things to an ongoing sense of progress or history. But the visual contradiction of the timelessness of what we are seeing is always present.

For Kentridge the insistent temporal amnesia of vision is important because it amounts to a denial of truth. In an interview in the exhibition catalog he is quoted as saying, “. . .there is a difference between what we see and what we know, and this is when what we experience or what we see is false. One of the ways things are false is when they get locked into being seen as fact, as opposed to moments of a process.”

Like height, width and depth, time is a dimension, but an invisible one. Kentridge makes that dimension visible and so draws our attention to one of the limitations of art in presenting intangibles visibly. His self-conscious exposure of the work’s construction takes on the difficulty in art of representing a larger reality--or what we know, rather than the fiction of constancy we apprehend.

Another artist who blatantly exposes his art’s own constructs in order to point to something equally invisible about vision and represented reality is installation artist Doug Buis. His mechanized landscapes and miniatures pursue the mental shifts between what is seen as real or unreal, especially now that modern vision has been made so uncertain by the mechanical and technological age.

Buis’ fragments of landscape are intricate frauds. Clearly artificial sights constructed for the observation of nature and its processes (historically the site of elemental truth and reality). Suburban Legend shown recently at the Laguna Art Museum's Cyborg Manifesto exhibition offered a small opening in a wall as a viewing port into a miniaturized café interior and its exterior landscape. Puffy clouds moved across the blue sky behind a window in the room and a breeze seemed to make branches in a tiny tree on the nearby hill bend; we were presented with an oddly frozen interior scene of overturned chairs, spilled papers and all the visual signs of a mystery. It was all done in meticulous detail, yet as playfully fake as a child’s dollhouse or miniature train set. The tiny room itself was as motionless as a still from a movie. Only the landscape seemed to have its own life.

But around the corner from the viewing portal Buis essentially dropped the curtain and literally showed us the pulleys, levers, armatures and secrets that made up his visual fiction. We saw detached objects, decidedly out of scale with each other, that appeared correct and united only when seen from the single perspective of the viewing port. Out of sight, clattering machines pulled fine spastic wires attached to the tree’s branches to create a windblown effect. A moving video projection of puffy cotton “clouds” crawled lyrically along the wall then hit a corner normally out of sight and raked ridiculously up at an angle.

Doug Buis, Doug Buis, "Suburban
Legend", detail of picture frame,
2001, mixed media installation.

Doug Buis, Doug Buis, "Suburban
Legend", detail of picture frame,
2001, mixed media installation.

Doug Buis, Doug Buis, "Suburban
Legend", detail of installation, 2001,
mixed media installation, 14' x 20' x 9'.

Remarkably, by unmasking the work’s visual effects Buis only amplified its sense of wonder. The de-construction of the mystery he presented amounted to a demonstration of the power of sight to create insistent perceptions of coherence and truth--even when these are blatantly illusion. Heady stuff.

To use Kentridge’s term, we take as “fact” all the images technology now provides us: sonograms, long range infrared scans of the solar system, rotating virtual diagrams of things too infinitesimal or gigantic to be anything but imagined. The images we see seem actual to us, even as we realize in a dim kind of way that what we are seeing is indeed beyond sight. They are, in truth, not reality but sophisticated visual representations or simulations (fictions), more about envisioning than vision.

R.T. Pece, “R.T. at Fossil
Pits Restaurant,” from
“Fossils ‘n Stuff,” 1997.

R.T. Pece, R.T. on Mechanix
Illustrated Cover from "Artrector
Assembly Instructions", current project.
Animator and painter Bob Pece, currently exhibiting at the Gallery 825 Annex at Bergamot Station, makes film documentaries of his bumbling alter ego R.T. Pece that are also about representations and the uncertainty of vision, or how what is seen becomes credible. Not that Pece’s films, with their carefully contrived clumsy construction, clearly bogus main character and fake artifacts pretend to provide us with any kind of visual proof about the silly history of failed invention they claim to document. Rather it’s the way Pece cleverly appropriates a jumble of visual narrative styles from old newsreels, educational filmstrips, biographic documentaries, and the teetering credibility of television testimonials that makes his work throw a mental switch. The bemused audience, sorting through half remembered bits from early school years, popular history and late night television via Pece’s tall tales is left to question what’s real, what’s fake and what exactly constitutes the visual authority that constructs our legacy of cultural successes or failures.

In a broad sense all visual art depends on constructing something to be seen. For me there is something exhilarating about art works that expose the process of art making in a stripped down, keep your eye on the man behind the curtain kind of way. Strangely, the outcome—the art—seems even more magical. Perhaps replacing the vague visual mystery of the object with the sheer wonder of aware perception is especially important in an age of virtual reality, crime reenactments, image doctoring and increasingly sophisticated special effects. It also makes art a satisfying metaphor for consciousness.