Alice Attie, Again and Again and Again (detail), 2008
30 x 22 inches, Ink on paper, courtesy Foley Gallery
May 2009, Alice Attie at Foley Gallery
547 W 27th Street, 5th floor
New York, NY 10001
April 16 through May 23
I write. I use the English language for this task. In all of the different arenas I write in, characters and words serve as tools, methods of conveyance, a series of abstract representations that point to an idea or a set of ideas. In this light, words are infused with a certain level of transcendence. A word is perceived/apprehended, which, seemingly automatically, triggers chemicals in the brain (or wherever), and this “conjures” an image, a link, an idea, a series of firing synapses.
Because I am a writer my relationship to the English language possesses a particularity about it that most people generally do not need to concern themselves with. Likewise, as a graphic artist, I have a relationship to text itself that has placed me in a privileged position in regards to my understanding of text as a graphic and aesthetic element.
And so it was with sheer delight that I entered Foley Gallery and stood in front of the work of Alice Attie. I witnessed several things all at once, especially with the text-oriented pieces. However, how Alice Attie uses characters and language is in many ways far more encompassing than how the same is utilized in writing in general and in the graphic arts. Endurance and determination are at work here, plus a level of exploratory bravado that the realm of contemporary art affords. Or Alice Attie has afforded herself.
Different viewing perspectives of the pieces give entirely different readings. One of the most prominent examples is The Inferno by Dante Alighieri. Looking like a cross between a graphic flame and a clot of seaweed reaching from the ocean floor, The Inferno by Dante Alighieri, upon closer inspection, becomes something entirely novel: it wipes the graphic slate clean and embraces the human/super-human qualities of endurance, determination, focus, concept and devotion. I'll accent the last quality, because, without it, all of the others would fall apart sooner or later. And the word “devotion” is one of the few that I can actually hang the work on, religious signification or not. The forms/form that makes up The Inferno by Dante Alighieri is the actual text of Dante's piece in its entirety.
Gazing at this piece up-close is to enter oneself into a conversation with human devotion. How does one, or, rather, how did she do it? By being persistent, of course. By devoting herself to the task. For me, this previous sentence invites notions of religion and transcendence.
Alice Attie's text pieces are “transcendence in action”. Many of her works themselves transcend towards something else, and some, like the collages, become places we arrive at through transcendence. However I will not write about the collages; these deserve their own article.
Alice Attie's Letter, after all is said and done and I've viewed everything else is, for me, the anchor. It does not resemble the others in that it employs characters and words from a pre-existing alphabet. It does not. It's characters are, in the end, culled from something else. I do not know where from. And I do not care to find out, at least for now. In fact I think it's entirely besides the point from where. I am still far too enthralled by the piece both as a whole and as a potential to ask those questions. I'm so enthralled I dare not call it “beautiful” or “transcendental” or “timeless”. I simply gravitate towards it eventually, from whichever corner in Foley Gallery I find myself. I always return. And I end up standing there, facing it, gazing, without a solid clue as to where it's taking me.
Alice Attie, Letter (detail), 2008, 30 x 22 inches, Ink on paper, courtesy Foley Gallery
“Made up” or “false” characters of language have always had a draw. In middle school I knew other children who enthralled each other and themselves by creating a coded language for note passing. If I remember correctly the stated function was forgotten about rather quickly but the actual characters—the forms themselves—somehow pointed to a potential, a transcendence that was impossible at the time to verbalize. It was transfixing.
There is great promise in scribbles. Scribbles/unknown characters tend to be both defiant and rich with untapped energy. They're like nuclear energy cells, or a well of fossil fuels. They're also signposts, pointing off and away from the pavement and into the dense wooded area off to the side, an area with no foreseeable pathway. Does this mean that unknown characters are to be used as, at the bare minimum, sliding signifiers, quickly exchanging their meaning depending on the viewer? Or are they entirely relegated to the status of a graphic, an aesthetic piece, an objet d'art? Is this what happens when we apprehend an unknown alphabet or a set of characters? Does it immediately take on the status of an aesthetic and, therefore, empty of linguistic significance? Is there a difference in our perception and knowledge? By that I mean, specifically, does it matter if we are certain that what we're looking at is a legitimate (read: in use or out of use) language?
Gazing at Letter I could not be sure. I didn't, ultimately know if the characters are aggregates of a known and “legitimate” system, or if they are, in the end, scribbles. It is precisely this lack of solidity in my perception of the work that creates great, heaving potential to begin with. Letter, before my gaze, shimmered within this pathway of potential, off the main thoroughfare and into the dense wooded area.
There is mystery in Letter. Mystery is, in fact, potential in its purest form. Missing pieces, unknown elements, open ended questions. To gaze at Letter is to gaze at pure written language—a set of unknown characters traversing a page, spaced evenly, covering the surface and pointing everywhere else, away from the page. To be at that precipice, to be engaged with something physical yet be straddling a constant, open-ended capability is to start to engage with what the existentialists termed “authenticity”. At Foley Gallery, this was the project, in my eyes, the grappling with authenticity. And this is all it needed to be.
Alice Attie, Letter, 2008, 30 x 22 inches, Ink on paper, courtesy Foley Gallery
Hans Michaud is a freelance journalist in New York.
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