“Energy Scaffolds and Information Architecture”
Louise Despont at the Drawing Center with Aaron Taylor Kuffner
By ADRIAN COLEMAN, MAR. 2016
In 1909, E.M. Forster’s science fiction story “Machine Stops” described a future society that lived underground, shunning physical engagement for a life mediated by screens and automatic devices. A century in advance, Forster anticipated our age of “Information Architecture.” The euphemism describes the cataloging of electronic data but often implies a virtual environment detached from the consequences of its real-world interventions. Laura Poitras, for instance, lays bare this desensitizing effect in her Whitney installation; “Astro Noise” is a chilling examination of the American mass surveillance and drone programs.
In today’s climate, one might reasonably expect “Energy Scaffolds and Information Architecture” to contend with the technological and inhuman. In fact, Louise Despont’s exhibition is a votive offering to the hand-made and sensual. Despont’s drawings are efflorescent geometric abstractions, derived from kaleidoscopic symmetries and inscribed in pencil on antique ledger paper. They hang within two specially-constructed spaces, a square enclosure hedgehogged with exterior wooden dowels and an elliptical room like the oval of Monet’s Orangerie. Mounted to the gallery walls, bronze gongs and metallophones quietly intone to programmed mallets. This is Aaron Taylor Kuffner’s gamelatron, a mechanized version of a ceremonial Indonesian orchestra. Despont’s drawings have been called meditative before, but the additional choreography of sound and space evokes a particularly ritualistic viewing experience. At the entry, there is even a bench with compartments to remove one’s shoes. Two years ago, I wrote of the same artist: “Despont’s work is a reminder that abstraction has existed through the ages, and the revolution of western Modern art, with its proclivity for fields, grids, and the nonobjective, is somewhat overstated.” Her current show confirms a similarly overlooked notion, that the Internet has no monopoly on immaterial transmissions.
The installation’s layout is as formal and rigorous as Despont’s drawings. The percussion instruments, centered on the gap between the rooms, hang in reflected arrangements at either side. The architecture and its pathways are aligned to the axis of the gallery’s cast iron columns.
The elliptical room is the more expansive, public area. Even when few visitors are present, its corner-less form and three entry ways suggests the gentle movement and mingling of bodies. By contrast, the square enclosure, which Despont calls the Pure Potential room, has a pronounced interiority. Its spiky surface is like the wall of an anechoic chamber, designed to disrupt the passage of sound. The extroversion and introspection of the spaces translates to the drawings inhabiting them. In the elliptical room, the images wrap the arc of the partition as an immersive frieze. They allude to grand-sized human figuration. The Pure Potential drawings operate at a smaller scale, in their dimension and apparent subject. The show’s two knock-outs, Fertilization and Embryo, are hypnotic interpretations of a cellular process. They combine the lush transparency of a Mackintosh watercolor with the radiance of an O’Keeffe hibiscus. The drawings Pure Potential No. 3 and 4 are perhaps the most minimal and child-like pieces Despont has made. The grid of circles and lozenges appear across bright rectangles, like a dream in which Robert Delaunay attempts nautical flag design. Notably, the drawings of the Pure Potential room are made on ledger paper previously untouched. They contain not a loop of handwriting. The pages of the elliptical room, however, are textured in the cursive accountancy of past users. Despont is the solitary maker of one drawing set and a participant in the other.
If the rooms encourage an intimate inspection of the drawings, Kuffner’s soundscape promotes a broader, panoramic gaze. Like Depont’s constructions, the chiming of the gamelatron has a three-dimensional quality that orients the viewer within the gallery. The visitor’s perception of specific tones intensifies with proximity to individual instruments and varies according to the architecture between. Combinations of the ensemble play the musical patterns from different points along the walls. The sounds’ direction and clarity alternates. The sensitive listener may circulate in ways the visual experience alone would not suggest. A visitor may find herself lingering outside the rooms, peering at drawings through doorways and from a distance. From such vantages, the studious complexities of Despont’s drawings, evident from two or three feet, give way to bolder compositional moves. In the elliptical room, for instance, the exotic checkerboards of inlaid rectangles congeal into muted backgrounds. Organic figures pop forward with greater urgency. Pixelated transitions of hue, from mauve through gray-green to cream, become luxuriant gradations.
Scale is so important to Despont’s drawings. The work exists simultaneously as a series of intricate impressions and colossal gestures. Microcosms of marks nest within macrocosms and ultimately whole cartographies of color. For the first time, Despont’s drawings hang naked and unglazed. She has substituted another type of framing or “energy scaffold.” Her shaped spaces and Kuffner’s gamelatron emphasize the need to encounter the work with the body, to measure oneself against it, to be enveloped. Despont’s drawings cannot be seen, fully or even partially, through the reproduction of a screen. WM
view all articles from this author
Adrian Coleman is a painter and architect living in New York. His work has appeared, among other places, at the Brooklyn Museum in 2013.