Overflow

“Bounded by a nutshell I could count myself king of infinite space, were it not for these bad dreams.” Hamlet

According to Harold Bloom, Hamlet—an outrageously original mix of skepticism and charisma—will always be in the wrong play. “Elsinore’s rancid court is too small a mousetrap to catch Hamlet.”

What is the appeal of “infinite space”? Is it a fantasy about freedom? The promise of a journey along the road to change? Escape unhindered by attachment? I think of boundless movement, unrestricted time. So luxurious to be the center of the universe, in charge of your destiny, the “king of infinite space.” Of course, there is always a catch. Ironically for Hamlet, dreams are the impediment. Bad or good, dreams wake him up, bring him back to the confines of the shell. Tragic. Or maybe it is farce—to rail against the restrictions of the ridiculous nutshell, mousetrap, court, play, mortal coil. Why would we voluntarily return?

Martha Lewis, Eva Mantell, Laura Watt and I are searching for space. We share a strong belief in the opportunity of context and a persistent dedication to the accumulation of gestures. Whether it is through a reach inside, turning inside out, cutting through, crumpling, drawing, thinking, frosting, trekking, reflecting, close scrutiny, blowing up, gazing out—we make space. The point is to go somewhere, remake, imagine. Beginning at the beginning, with paper, pencil, color, shape, line, scissors, hands (the basics) and an eye toward transformation. We take the overlooked, the discarded, some abstract interior animus, and we make it visible.

What is the scale of interiority? Whether it is vast or tiny, it is a matter of imagination. If we share a strategy in our approach, it is to make something which reveals itself as it is being made and to trust the material expression of that revelation to exist independently in the world. There is, in other words, a dual dynam- ic. The conjuring of a genuinely transformative experience and the practical awareness of the temporary, the visceral, the mundane.

Containers. A cup, the topography of a landscape, a piece of paper, a crocheted web, the interior space of the self. Associations are as puny as Hamlet’s nutshell and as grand as notions of paradise. My first question is: “is there anything in there?” or “what does that hold?” Starting with a container, therefore, automatically incorporates an idea about something unknown, an opportunity. Every container I can think of, in fact, has this wacky double nature of inside/outside, idea/object, body/soul. I begin to think about filling up and the risk of overflow. “Does that fit?” could be the next question. Raising thoughts of scale and space—too big, too small. Unmaking, undoing, unraveling, drawing, weaving, shaping, coloring—these are the activities that connect all this investigation to creating, establishing a concrete presence in the physical world. Taking a container apart and putting it back together, weaving connections or building narrative, literally or metaphorically, is a serious form of play. The making of an artifact or the creation of a new container is a social act and part of its allure is its usefulness in the world.

Abstraction is another commonality. I have always believed that the rectangle is both container and surface. The picture plane is both window and object. The drawn mark (or any gesture made by the human hand) is both icon and authentic proof of the human appetite for invention. Another fantastic thing Harold Bloom says about Hamlet is that “there is no ‘real’ Hamlet as there is no ‘real’ Shakespeare: the character like the writer, is reflecting pool, a spacious mirror in which we must see ourselves. Permit this dramatist a concourse of contraries and he will show us everybody and no- body, all at once.” As far as the visual goes, Abstraction in 2013 is the most flexible container of opposites.

Movement, even at its most abstract, makes you look, makes you follow, brings you from one place to another. In short, Movement is time. Speaking of our “mortal coil,” we are all going somewhere from the beginning. Can’t shake the ultimate limit. The most obvious journey can be seen in diagram form as the simplest, universal “container.” Interesting to think of all this activity, motion, making, visual storytelling, and play as a form of mourning, as it was for Hamlet. Allegiance to the inevitability of the transient experience and faith in the enduring object, shattering the container only to remake it, incorporating humor, sadness, drama and beauty, a fluid, changing confluence of contraries… that is our territory. How much space that that takes up is to be determined….

Melissa Marks

OVERFLOW: CONVERSATION

EVA
Melissa, I am really struck by your language of “filling up and the risk of overflow.” The word “overflow” almost sounds like a newly-invented word from the business world.

MARTHA
Me too, Eva, I am totally into this as a title. It suggests crossing the boundaries, being overly productive, abundant, may I even dare to say, “generous’? And it does have an appealing Alan Greenspan-like economic language aspect to it that really resonates.

LAURA
Melissa, I found that I responded to contemplating “infinite space” and to that ever-vexing topic of abstraction. In my work “infinite space” does a back flip. Through repetitive action and pattern across the page, space collapses. I start with an open unbounded grid and then I hem myself in, compiling marks until there seems nowhere else to go. And then I go on, and then the space within the work opens up again.

MARTHA
Laura, I am always thinking of the term “event horizon” when I look at your work. There is always a dizzying sense that one may be sucked into a black hole at the edge of your images. They have a funny disquieting choppy inevitability about them…with my own work I have become increasingly interested in the dimensional possibilities of paper, and have been crushing and crumpling it to create sculptural to- pologies—whole worlds in a nutshell, whole universes in a clenched fist. “Our Universe is a boundary of a space-time manifold with a larger number of dimensions…” in other words we are in a multi-verse, a multiplicity of possibilities.

LAURA
So in response to Melissa’s query—what is the appeal of “infinite space”—I find that I am intrigued by the inherent contradiction within “infinite space.” I mean how do we really even define space, except when it is bounded; by its boundaries. Isn’t infinite space similar to infinite form, except form and space are opposites. But just try to get your head around infinite form. There is also the fear that arises in me, when I try to consider “infinite space.” What is one to do with it—how does one organize boundless movement and unrestricted time? Won’t I just dissipate into nothingness; into that ever-expanding infinity!
Isn’t infinite space just an infinite jest in which one gets to explore existentialism and eastern spiritual modalities whether one wants to or not? I find that in order to handle all these heady explorations, art historical, abstract strategies are quite concrete.

MARTHA
I think of my structures in the context of Membrane Cos- mology, which posits that our universe is part of a ‘bulk’ of many. Our brane is just one universe within a stacked multi-verse, with many dimensions. Membrane theory attempts to explain how the four forces (gravity, electromagnetism, strong and weak forces) in the universe might be unified. It also suggests that the Big Bang is the result of two flat membranes touching each other and crumpling, a seismic event producing the laws of nature and constants we see around us. There is implied movement and force in a crumple, along with the aspect of the discarded, the frustrated, the left behind, the abandoned idea…and Laura, I totally agree, to cope with these kinds of heady concepts, abstract strategies are indeed concrete. That is the beauty of this: the object is at once just a discarded ball of paper and on the other hand a cosmological model. A crumple IS the visual residue of a climactic event.

EVA
I love the idea of the visual residue and it relates to Laura’s question, “How do you organize boundless movement and unrestricted time?” It’s the heart of the art kind of question. For me this organization is the seat of self-consciousness, and the materials embody that self-consciousness. If I use a coffee cup, it’s to say I can’t stop being myself in order to understand infinite space from an objective viewpoint. The organization of these peeks into infinity is filtered and is flawed, subjective, comic. My artworks never stop being nutshells. And accompanying your grasp of physics, Martha and Laura, your work is also so personal.

MARTHA
Yeah, my work is a personalized admixture of love and anxiety. The ‘branes are influenced by physics and superstring theory (and my limited understanding thereof), with a dash of the erotics of car crashes via JG Ballard and John Chamberlain, and an affection for Brancusi. The works are a sort of hyper-real mapping as I am dragging the color across the creases and volutes to make them more apparent. In some ways I am not making so much, as rendering more visibly what is already there. I have an abhorrence of getting too “arty” or decorative with these structures. Generally I try to highlight the tensile strength created with the crush and the predictability of forms within the crumple. It’s a revelation of pathways, making what is already there more evident.

LAURA
The marks and images in my work go through a transformation from exterior description of space to interior feeling of space, and then move towards an infinite that is neither, interior or exterior space. A space that I understand as both descriptive, topographic, and emotional, narrative. That is the point that I am trying to reach with the repeated actions I am taking. Well I am not sure it is a good meditative practice—it is a close sibling to such practice.

MARTHA
Laura, it is twins! Here is the reflecting pool again. This ambivalence you described, this “both-ness” seems perfect for describing in a linear way something as complex as multidi-mensionality. And Eva, the narrative with your work about being about something ordinary and recognizable—a coffee cup—and yet about something larger and more philosophical at the same time—the background becoming the foreground—is something I can really relate to. I am interested that you create rules for this project, almost like a lab test, and additionally that the project is about pushing the limits of the coffee cup (it’s “tolerance for change”), which also evokes the scientific. This seems to be about the science of play, of variation within a simple object, and how to pull it in as many directions as possible.

EVA
The coffee cup series has an implicit Zen idea, that the container must be empty to receive wisdom, that change is a kind of condition we have no choice but to be present for. I am also present for the pop-culture moment we are in of top-down corporate concepts such as the plan to greet people when they walk into a store, not because of any interest in fellowship, but because of a corporate directive. You enter a store and walk in on a kind of a pantomime. So my paper coffee cup, my empty mythical vessel, is also an emblem of conformity and blandness that I find myself taking in a humane and even rebellious direction.

MARTHA
Do you think that the actual designers of the coffee cup went through similar endurance tests with their subjects? Who knows this object better, you or them? Are all coffee cups the same or is there variation among brands and even batch loads? How subtle are the distinctions here?

EVA
The cups I use are all the same basic design: printed ink on very strong, layered paper over a thin membrane of plastic. That inner plastic is so much like a thin layer of skin it some- times creeps me out, and I’m slightly aware that it might not be so healthy to put a very hot liquid into this plastic. Some companies use a kind of Styrofoam which seems questionable too. There’s an eco-cup which has some recycled paper in it, but it still has that plastic lining. (I go for the ceramic mug when I can.) Martha, you are testing paper to see what it can do too.

MARTHA
I am indeed. One of the topological papers I read said, “The crumpling of a piece of paper leaves permanent scars, showing a focusing of the stress.” This “focusing on stress” is for me where the interesting part begins, as I drag my pen across the fold of the structure, highlighting those pathways, routes, and events. Topological mathematics is full of “developable surfaces,” d-cones and Gaussian curvatures, which start with paper but are also relevant for everyday violence such as crashed cars.

EVA
That resonates with Melissa’s work, that topographic space is emotional and physical, embodied.

MELISSA
Yes, definitely important from the beginning was the notion of a body turned inside out, making an unseen interior landscape visible. I continue to work from the basic assumption that exposing that particular emotional landscape is best accomplished by me with line, form, color and a belief in the power of visual connections that are made by looking, feel- ing and thinking.

LAURA
Speaking of bodies: we all seem to work with “bodies” of work. Maybe some of you consider them series. I know for myself I will take an idea and a strategy of engagement with materials and work this out over a number of drawings or canvases. It seems to be an issue of the road not taken, the dividing branch, etc. This has become more and more primary to my working method. Do you work in series or bodies of work, and if so, what is its value?

MELISSA
“Adventures of Volitia” began as a “series” of drawings, an abstract event realized over the course of four panels, a paced consideration of a core-shaking internal disruption.
The idea was to allow the intuitive connections made by the recognition of familiar forms to encourage momentum. Provoking involvement, curiosity, attachment and projection from the viewer, all within the comfort of a pre-determined context. The separate panels functioned to create a system with a nod to an experience of beginning and end. The spaces “in between” made room for interruption and spontaneity. I saw the whole thing as a spastic diagram of the desire to get from here to there. In 1993, I described the “adventures” as an “abstract narrative”—meaning that it could be read from left to right, right to left, or jump-started from the middle, a circular story, retold with infinite variety. Limits were always important, each “adventure” was a discreet, self-contained experience and I do not use the word “comfort” lightly, boundaries are reassuring. The serial context, very simply, gives me a reason to make another one, a reason to continue that isn’t about copying myself. The “system” promotes a belief in beginning again, a shoring up against meaninglessness.

MARTHA
“SPASTIC DIAGRAMS”! That speaks to me too…. Bodies of work: yes but…hard to say, as I too work through an idea and then go on to something that looks different but usually relates, at least in my mind, art is one continuous project for me with various wormholes and out pockets. I would say all of my practice involves a personal investigation of the history of human knowledge through science and technology. I like blurring the collective “ the whole of human knowledge” with my own limited mostly analog means. I know Descartes is pretty unpopular these days but I have always loved that he tried to figure things out from the very personal vantage point of all he could know, reason and deduce. My work shudders between the minute and the unfathomably huge simultaneously. The ‘Branes are a kind of thought model made solid, objects at once tangible and philosophical. I am interested in that point where an idea and a plan accretes into a thing, an object, with the intimate and tactile counterbalancing the enormous scale of the implied nature of the project. There is a very do-it-yourself mentality to my aesthetic.

MELISSA
I absolutely see the project as a series, a flexible armature that allows me to work on multiple scales, in color and black & white, with language and performance, rhythm, endur- ance, and consistency. All of it generated from the same basic building block—the drawn mark—also known as “Volitia.” With this mounting accumulation of marks, forms and lines, with the gathering force of a visual evidence, I begin to get some traction on revealing the emotional life of a changing character, the reflexive potential of abstraction and the relentless opportunity of drawing. I have often referred to Volitia as “a self in a constant state of remaking”—I believe “seriality” makes the expression and recognition of transformation possible.
Examples of “seriality” with particular meaning for me include: Monet’s Haystacks and Poplars, Minimalist/ Conceptual strategies, Muybridge photographs, animated film cells, Hiroshige and Hokusai woodblock prints, the great High Renaissance fresco cycles, Superhero comics, even soap operas and serial television. All speak to the way we see ourselves, surges in the predictable continuum, proof of our protean, sloppy interconnected- ness….

EVA
I like the idea of Melissa’s being a series of episodes, with some anarchy in there. Mine might be more like a series of tests for what the form can physically take, as well as of my own improv. If I’m being scientific, it’s in a daydreaming sort of way, about a productive period in evolution when lots of microscopic structures arose in a burst of diversity. With ecological devastation on my conscious mind, playing at ecological or design diversity becomes a kind of tonic. And since I want to fully explore this particular rabbit hole, or nutshell, I keep the rules fairly strict. I want to keep a straight face and not rush through the story.
I have to say I was startled by your idea, Melissa, that the container represents death itself. It feels original and kind of shocking to say so soberly that the edge of the painting/paper/object represents death. No wonder we obsessively perform circus acts within the bounds of these silent lines.

MELISSA
Eva, I was hoping you would return to that idea. Martha introduced Hamlet into the conversation early on, when we began to discuss boundaries. What a beautiful line about the nutshell. As I am a fan, I re-read Harold Bloom’s essay. He talks about how for Hamlet, re-envisioning the self replaces the project of revenge and about “mourning as a mode of re- visionism”. I do believe there is a wild, uplifting, celebratory nature in what we do. But perhaps that is because, given the inevitability of context, we have no choice?

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