A couple of weekends ago, we drove down to Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore., from Portland to see a little show curated by TJ Norris, ‘.meta’, at the college art gallery, which is one medium-sized room. I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. When I got back to Portland, I didn’t talk to anyone about the show because I didn’t know how to talk about it. Which means I didn’t post about it because I definitely had no idea how to write about it.
It’s very possible that I still don’t or that I’m dead wrong, and yet I’ve been worrying the exhibition off and on since then, a little like a stubborn granule of food caught between my molars. Well, maybe not so irritating as that.
The food metaphor isn’t entirely out of place, though. Norris’s notes for the exhibition start this way: “Over the past three years I’ve developed exhibitions from digested bits and pieces of found ideas.” [emphasis added] Digested. Bits and pieces. Digested by whom? By Norris, which is important to remember, I think, because ‘.meta’ asks us to do a little digesting of our own. I return to the notes:
“As a group exhibition of work, diverse artists were sought, who each confront the stoicism of incomplete thoughts or the sly double entendre of the head on. Here exists this sense of longing, of awkward limbo, like a deer caught in headlights. In ‘.meta’ you will find work that is wry, socially political and even somewhat ambiguous at first. Perhaps an offering of clues musing about why we exist in the universe at all, complete with our mortal faults.”
This is where I headed down the “wrong” path, I think. I started trying to read the eleven artworks in the show as specific examples of artmaking that thinks about the origins of things, including itself, which is the implication of “meta”. This isn’t new. A lot of the most significant art made in the 20th century commented on itself, its origins, the meaning of art, and maybe the meaning of Everything. (By “most significant” I simply mean: central to the ideas of people who make, think and write about art. Art analysts.)
I made what I thought was an encouraging start at the decoding with the first piece on the wall as I entered. That was D.E. May’s Template, which was a set of three drawings — with grids marked off carefully, geometric “cuts” and soft pastel colors. My thought: Ah, an allusion to false measuring. We frequently think we have a much more precise take on things than we really do or can, and we also mark/define boundaries in absolutely arbitrary ways. I think of Sol LeWitt as the master of this idea. Template? For what, exactly? Maybe for nothing. Maybe for Everything. Of course, the beauty is that May is mapping the inside of his own brain, which must contain that “template,” right? See how jolly? Artworks as little metaphysical puzzles. I like this game!
Oops. Things started to break down. I really liked the lush abstraction of Harrison Higgs’s photographs What You Sew and What You Eat. But I couldn’t find any rabbit holes. Nayland Blake’s The Big One was a white nylon stuffed, reclining/collapsed biped of some sort. It WAS big. It wasn’t a metaphysical puzzle, though it was disturbing. I liked the 3-D foreground/middle ground/background play of Robin Rimbaud/Scanner’s Dress, another lush photograph of three orange-red dresses in a shop window, and Jenevive Tatiana’s employment of sequins and metal thread to make newspaper photos sparkle. Cool. I was perplexed by Stephanie Robinson’s It follows, which would take several hundred words to describe. Maybe something about manufacturing the natural world? And so on.
I clearly wasn’t good enough to play this game. Maybe the sound and video installations that I couldn’t operate held a clue? Anyway, I tried to focus on the beauties of Yamhill County wine country on the way back, not those individual artworks by those individual artists.
Now, I think I should have been thinking of the ‘.meta’ show as a whole, as choreographed by Norris, because that’s really where the “meta” comes in. When you walk in, there are no wall labels. It’s amazing how disconcerting that is. Who made this? What’s it called? What are the materials? I was practically begging for clues. Some of the artists I recognized, but I was also looking for some explication, some linkage of a particular piece to the two paragraphs of Norris’s notes. Where is the “deer” and where are the “headlights”? Political? Double entendre? Stoicism of incomplete thoughts? Like a really difficult Sudoku puzzle, we want the answers after we’ve given it an honest go.
The art critic’s job is to give you the answer that the curator has obscured with artworld gobbledy-gook (Happy Thanksgiving, by the way!) and theoretical discourse. I couldn’t do that with ‘.meta’ because ‘.meta’ doesn’t play that game. It doesn’t play the artist career game, meaning also the gallery game or the curator game or the collector game. D.E. May’s name isn’t even attached to his cut-out grids. He’s anonymous. We don’t know that we can go to PDX Gallery and collect his work and feel as though we are part of an important artworld career, both by our understanding of this “difficult” work and by our possession of some of it.
In short ‘.meta’ looks like an art exhibition but it isn’t. And that’s where the “meta” comes in. Norris asks you to consider what it is you are looking for when you come to an art show. When your expectations aren’t met, how do you respond? What happens when he assembles eleven “fragments”, each enough of a suggestion that it is part of the artworld as we know it but none sufficient for a “discourse”? To go back to that first sentence of the notes, they are presented in a predigested state (though digested in some way by Norris, no doubt) and all of a sudden we are asking ourselves all kinds of questions about the digestive process as a whole. Why are we so hungry for the explained, the represented, world?
Every day, we assemble a ‘.meta’ of our own, the debris of our passing through the world, and we play it back, perhaps, as we retire in our cocoon. It makes sense. It doesn’t make sense. It’s beautiful. It’s ordinary. It’s dull. It’s the most interesting thing in the world. It leaves us croaking for water. It leaves us drowning in the stuff. What does it tell us? What does it mean? Norris suggests that we are on our own for that.
Even as I type this, I second-guess it, because it has to do with the curator’s intent. Once upon a time when I was acting as a theater critic I wrote about a production of Othello. I had been reading a real theater critic, Jan Kott, specifically an essay about the grotesque in Shakespeare, how productions could seize on the comic possibilities in his monsters. And so, I watched that Othello and immediately decided that the director must have been reading Kott too, because the production was monstrous (in the way the character Othello always becomes a monster) and comic. I thought it was an attempt (not successful, really, not fully integrated) to turn the tragedy into a very dark comedy. I was wrong. It was just poorly acted. The director was upset because the comic part of things, the Snidely Whiplash of the Iago, for example, was unintended. I received a VERY long letter from the director. So I learned a little something about “intent” (even though to this day I’ve wondered about turning that play, which I find even more problematic than The Merchant of Venice, into a grotesque comedy).
All I’m saying is, I could be wrong about all this…