ERICA BAUM, MARCELLINE DELBECQ, ELLIE GA, KLARA HOBZA, NANCY DE HOLL, TOM HOLMES, DANIEL LEFCOURT
Aug 23 – Oct 11, 2008 // Opening Aug 23
Curated by Gabrielle Giattino
Subject Index brings together seven artists who leverage indirect strategies against the construction of meaning in semiotic and narrative systems. The desire to communicate is thwarted as these works question and evade simple readings. The artists use organizational systems such as grammar and documentation to point indirectly to their subjects, frustrating the drive to communicate completely. Museological systems themselves – in particular the MKM’s arcane collections – are explored and interrogated, as light is shed on the faults and cracks of organizational constructions. By subverting clear interpretations, the works in Subject Index suggest a critique of our culture’s emphasis on simple, un-nuanced structures of communication.
Daniel Lefcourt’s arrangement of blocks of black lines mimics the graphic convention of page layout design, and stands in as the introductory text for the exhibition. His ambiguous decoy opens Subject Index with a clear disavowal of the standard reliance on meaning of language. The statement is rendered in pure graphical terms, a schematic with multiple linguistic potentials, but minimal formal properties. Throughout the space, Lefcourt’s installations punctuate the exhibition, underlining the possibility of depicting language without using language. The visible information acts as an evasive declaration, or non-statement, which in itself is an indictment of language and our reliance on it.
The title of the exhibition is borrowed from a series of photographs taken by Erica Baum in the Frick Museum's Art Reference Library. In the subject index, artworks are indexed on cards, and categorized by the subjects they depict. A Botticelli Venus is catalogued as including nude figures, shells, and triumphs, for example. Baum photographs the individual cards of the index: typewritten words and scratchy pencil marks of unclear significance are pressed into grainy card-stock. By using – or in fact misusing – this system of organization, Baum creates associations and connotations unrelated to the originally described works. Though the photographs form incomplete pictures, her language is laid bare. The hidden work is always hinted at with descriptive or alliterative combinations of words, and these become concrete poems and playful allegories for hidden referents. Such chance encounters rework the photographic practice of framing and composition, turning Baum’s lens into an opaque window on an unseen world.
Nancy de Holl’s images at first seem transparent, opening onto the observed pictorial world. For Subject Index, the artist takes as her subject archeological depiction and systems of museological classification. In her color series, Peoples and Cultures, de Holl shoots sculpted objects in carefully constructed backdrops and lighting schemes producing photographs that resemble a museum catalogue of ancient artifacts. In black and white, the sculpted forms are more obscure and amorphous, resembling iconic objects – a plate, a shell, a trophy. In color, her images are so perfected and vibrant that they seem suspiciously stunning. In black and white, her high-contrast compositions reveal digital fissures that slice the picture plane. In fact, De Holl manipulates every aspect of her compositions, from subject to surface, reminding us, once again, of our gullibility when presented with seemingly straight documentation. As with all the artists in Subject Index, de Holl asks her viewer to take nothing for granted.
Tom Holmes, reminds us that there is no such thing as “straight photography.” A retinal omnivore, Holmes borrows, splices and propagates text and image, flattening signs and symbols so that his subjects become frenzied abstractions. In SkillSet, his work for Subject Index, he samples an image of Ikebana, a traditional Japanese flower arrangement. Paired with the Ikebana is an English term: “skill set,” which refers to one’s toolbox of professional abilities. For Holmes, “skillset” points specifically to the experience young artists are required to acquire in order to become employable in the American art world. The dynamic composite is presented as a textile, woven by traditional Nepalese rug weavers (weaving not being a skill in Holmes’s set). With his images, Holmes collapses multiple fields into his works that ask the viewer to consider urban advertising, global cultural production, and high abstraction in the same breath.
Klara Hobza’s work appears in the large, central room of Subject Index with the work of Tom Holmes. There, deferred meaning is on a collision course with confused signs. This artist often works using the scientific method, setting up unusual hypotheses, and allowing her work to emerge through experiments and trials. Playing the role of inventor/explorer, Hobza turns the lens onto Malmö Museums’ own odd and unique collection, and creates a work specifically for this location, addressing the subject of codes and transmission. In Searching for the Longwave, Hobza, begins in the technical museum’s collection with a bizarre longwave radio transmitter donated by the local boat club in the 1920s. Performing in the region with a copy of the primitive-looking antenna, the artist combines the object’s actual history as a transmitter with an invented mythology. Documentation of the artist attempting to receive radio signals in Malmö is exhibited alongside the original antenna itself. Hobza’s attempts to activate the apparatus literalize the exhibition’s theme of frustrated communication.
Ellie Ga similarly brings her art practice off the page and into the empirical world. Ga presents a new work relating to her trip aboard a polar schooner, where she spent five months as artist-in-residence and member of a ten-person crew. Ten Til Two: 10:10, reflects upon her limited records and obscure memories of polar night. The recollections of this extreme experience are translated through a laborious photographic process which mimics the layers of memory and forgetting. She pieces together the complex maps that the crew invented to navigate the breadth of ice in which they drifted. A series of slides showing the polar landscape dissolves between light and dark, interspersed with phrases parsed from the crewmembers’ personal diagrams defining their location in expansive ice. The comfort of photography as reportage is refused, and the desire for a linear pairing of image with memory is denied.
The finale of Subject Index is not a full-stop but an open-ended journey in itself. Marcelline Delbecq’s practice has moved away from photography towards the cinematic potential of writing. In Close, two stories unfold one visual and one verbal. A low, hand-held camera leads the viewer in a romp around the over-grown garden and grounds of La Maison Rose in Givérny, while the artist narrator guides the listener on an interior tour of the house. As the descriptions flow seductively in the form of a voice-over, the lush landscape extending before our eyes does not match the commentary. The viewer is left to visualize the inside of the house, while the eye follows lush greenery and winding footpaths. The artist-narrator baits her viewers, controlling their experience. Following the frenetic paths of this garden as a course of desire, word and image disconnect again: the subject is dodged once more. Delbecq’s elusive maison is described, but never appears on camera.