July 2010: Book Review: June Leaf, Record 1974/1975 and Critical Communities, RITE

Record 1974/75. Mabou Coal Mines by June Leaf published by Steidl / www.steidlville.com

Book Review: June Leaf, Record 1974/1975 and Critical Communities, RITE

Record 1974/1975
by June Leaf
January 2010, Steidl

April 2010, Critical Communities

In a 1997 interview with Chuck Smith, the abstract painter Agnes Martin comments on the proliferation, and redundancy, of critical writing on art. She observes, ‘we have five big magazines coming out a month, people talking about art, and there’s just nothing you can say’.

Over a decade later, crises within art criticism are still a significant topic in aesthetic debate. In a recent Huffington Post article White Hot Editor-in-Chief, Noah Becker, reminds us that it is of utmost importance in aesthetic discourse to ‘write about or talk about the actual contemporary art in question’, rather than concentrate only on the ego-driven, discursive framework of verbal battles between celebrated art writers. Martin got it partially right: the art she refers to is often deliberately ineffable, non-verbal, formalist; made in defiance of language or narrative. This type of work may quite naturally attract projections from individual critical personalities or theoretical positions, due to its screen-like blankness. However (and you will understand this if you have ever tried), producing a coherent piece of writing about any kind of art – whether formal sculpture, live performance or neon text installation - with integrity, focus and clarity, is incredibly challenging.

Perhaps this is one reason behind a new sway of critical interest towards artists’ own writings, speech and notebooks. Two recently published books, June Leaf’s Record 1974/75 and Critical Communities’ RITE, both 2010, take substantially different approaches, but their appearance in this moment seems connected by the contemporary desire to discard tired critical methods and to explore new ways of communicating about (and through) art and writing.

On 26 November, 1974, June Leaf made her first handwritten, diary-type entry into her new sketchbook (reproduced for publication by Steidl), made during a difficult Winter spent in Mabou Coal Mines, Nova Scotia with her husband Robert Frank: “I don’t usually like to write because I am more satisfied by an action.” Perhaps this indicates a tendency, like that of Martin, to view some types of art writing as useless or static. Despite this disaffection with writing, as in Martin’s case, Leaf continues this practice throughout her workbook sometimes using a close conjunction of exploratory images and scrawled text, sometimes pausing the act of note-making for a few pages while a visual idea is refined through tentative, speculative drawing.

Record 1974/75. Mabou Coal Mines by June Leaf published by Steidl / www.steidlville.com

Drawing is key to Record. Leaf draws and writes with exactly the same materials: dark ink, ball-point pen and pencil, adding judicious splashes of painted, often primary, atmospheric colour with what looks like watercolour or gouache. In some places, the boundaries between drawing and writing begin to blur, offering an insight into a practicing artist’s process-based use of words as independent forms in an overall composition. This is evident in a beach scene (p. 47) in which the curling cursive date, ‘Nov 22’, in the top right corner of the page mimics – or perhaps prefigures - the shapes of penned-in clouds below. On turning the page (p. 49), three bristling drawings of sea creatures are stacked one above the next, with the bottom image being sealed off and captioned, ‘A WHALE’, in mock typewriter text: text produced explicitly through a graphic process rather than through traditional handwriting. In other places (such as p. 59) anxious black ink marks seem to be escaping from a figurative sketch of fingers manipulating a thin rope, slipping downwards until they form, not words, but repetitive curves and diagonals punctuated with sharp dots, which might dually refer to outlines of tiny people and spasmodic stabs at language-formation.  

Pertinent to Leaf’s inquisition into the visual and textual is the notion of narrative. While each page, or double page, certainly works as an energetic or delicate composition in its own right, the book as a whole comprises several interwoven narratives. Firstly, fragments of Leaf’s autobiography are caught, almost as if overheard, in her diaristic, infrequently dated, notes that run chronologically throughout the book. Leaf declares, in emphatic capitals, her desire to remove personal history from her art (p. 143); perhaps by using the journal in part as a safe space for storing personal thoughts, she might later abstract images and concepts away from their autobiographical roots into fully realised works. Second and third narratives are those of the development of motif and technique. Record opens with several pages of experimentation, in which the image of a knot is located as the eye of a bird, followed by a meditation on looking (drawings of a man focusing intently as he tries to thread a needle). A kind of free associative narrative continues, which seems to link up acts of looking and touching, with as much emphasis placed on the hands as the eyes; the knotted thread is now unraveled and the connections continue.

Record 1974/75. Mabou Coal Mines by June Leaf published by Steidl / www.steidlville.com

Before moving onto a brief discussion of RITE, it must be mentioned that Steidl showcases via Record the remarkable reproduction techniques used by the publishing company’s ‘digital darkroom’. The book is a delight to handle and to examine up close: every stain, smudge, rubbed out graphite score and pressure mark in the original sketchbook has been captured in the facsimile. This attention to detail naturally allows for Leaf’s linear sensitivity, speed, inventiveness and variety to be appreciated in depth, making this publication a valuable document in researching Leaf’s emotional, skillful work and, equally, for more general studies of artistic process.

RITE, a publication produced by the members of collaborative, London and Yorkshire based artists group Critical Communities, also focuses attention on the use of writing as process, this time in live and cross-disciplinary art. The book comprises brief, varied contributions by selected artists from within the group, utilising text, a variety of fonts, photography, graphic design and montage.

Emma Cocker’s piece, ‘Re: Writing, 1993-2009, 2000 words’ (p. 13-21), is a collection of 296 footnotes, including one image, separated by neat semicolons and displayed in small, professional-looking type at the bottom of each of seven pages. Phrases range from the art-typical, ‘(202) Pause is then a critical gesture’, to the romantic, ‘(269) The pages flutter like butterfly’s wings warmed in the sun’, and the psychological, ‘(255) Keeping certain voices at bay’. A curious attempt might be made to read the notes as a linear, or a dreamlike, narrative, however what is more useful about them is that they appear to refer back to a multitude of unknown/unknowable thoughts, texts, actions or observations collated by the artist. Footnotes become, therefore, a way of figuring those longing-filled gaps in contemporary criticism that initially provoked Critical Communities to begin writing for, and amongst, themselves.

It feels unfair to make a selection of ‘other standout pieces’ in this book, as RITE’s ethos is determinedly democratic and collaborative. The potential failings (digression, dullness, self-obsession, obscurity, corny or awkward phrasing) of many of the book’s texts are probably symptoms of the ambiguous expectation of audience on the part of RITE’s artists. Some of the texts appear to be useful, exploratory exercises enabling an individual or group to develop or to document their practice, perhaps through tracing a memory as in Amelia Crouch’s work on experiences of Mona Hatoum’s ‘Measures of Distance’ (p. 54-58). These diaristic pieces generate sympathy, and evoke a spirit of emotional openness, rather than being compelling pieces of writing for general consumption. On the other hand, many of the texts attempt to anticipate their readers’ gripes in less than subtle ways, such as in Emma Bennet’s line, ‘Yes, this grammatical pedantry may seem a little arch’ (p. 91). Positively though, conversational framing, or fragmented montage – as in David Berridge’s simple but engaging non-puzzle ‘Match the Diagram and the Phrase’ (p. 86-90) - refers back to RITE’s roots in live art process, rather than in polished writing-as-product.

Both Record and RITE are broadly titled after their respective functions. However, both books spill quickly outside of their remits, working more as textual-visual performances or displays, rather than as critical, or even truthful, documents. In this way, Record and RITE, though very different publications, feel similarly romantic, desirous, self-conscious. This marks them out as books by artists. These books ask to be read differently, slowly; sometimes critically, at other times emotionally; with caution, with patience; with generosity and with pleasure. They show that paying attention to the ways in which artists use and expand text is particularly appropriate right now, gently to challenge and to refresh what is typically acceptable as art writing, both for artists and for critics.

Becky Hunter

Becky Hunter is a writer based in London and Durham, UK. She is Assistant Editor for Whitehot Magazine.

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