Walk The Line: Another Crystal Chain Gang
Sarah Farrar, Michael Hirschfeld Gallery Curator, City Gallery Wellington, 2006
In his 1967 essay ‘Ultramoderne’ American artist Robert Smithson quotes art historian George Kubler as saying that the history of art resembles a ‘broken but much repaired chain made of string and wire’ that connects ‘occasional jeweled links’.[i] The works of two Wellington-based artists Lee Jensen and Kate Woods create a comparable chain of connections with art and design history. In particular, their works examine mysterious traces of culture, revealing how we pick through remnants of the past, making selections and teasing out meaning. Woods and Jensen are each involved in a process of evaluating what is ‘significant’ and what is ‘insignificant’ practice. Jensen elevates marginalia—detail and the decorative—while Woods unpacks the sense of the monumental by making handcrafted marquette renditions of major Land Art works from the 1960s and 70s and incorporating them into found landscape prints.
As well as referring to the fragile lineage of art history, the ‘occasional jeweled links’ are also apt in relation to Jensen and Woods’ individual art practices. Both artists share a fascination with the crystalline and the jewel-like. In 2000, curator Allan Smith developed an exhibition for the Auckland Art Gallery exploring prismatic geometry in recent art, The Crystal Chain Gang. In the exhibition catalogue, Smith argued that: ‘The crystal, an object in which mathematics and mysticism are often said to meet, has a long history in human culture and a special place in modernity.’[ii] The idea of the crystalline suggests a slow evolution of form, from a simple shape to something quite complex and fractured.
Crystalline forms are frequently associated with a sense of modernity or futurism; as Gilles Deleuze put it, ‘What we see in the crystal is always the bursting forth of life, of time, in its dividing in two or differentiation.’[iii] Crystalline shapes can seem strangely ‘out of this world’—as evidenced by Robert Smithson’s description of one of Donald Judd’s works as like a giant crystal from another planet. Intriguingly, photographs of some Land Art projects from the 1960s and 70s resemble strange crop circles or alien-like constructions amidst barren landscapes (eg. Robert Morris’ Observatory 1971).
Kate Woods’ latest suite of work ‘Spaced’ explores the possibility of Land Art works being re- located to typical New Zealand landscapes. Woods has collected found photographs and paintings of landscapes—both scenic and suburban—including the ubiquitous White’s Aviation prints that once graced many a New Zealand home and office. Onto these found images she has constructed and placed painted cardboard structures and then re-photographed the work to make a final two- dimensional photographic image. Crystalline forms seem to be growing and multiplying, as though these works once released into the landscape kept evolving and morphing. Some works reference particular Earthworks such as Carl Andre’s Rock Rile (1968), Robert Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed (1970) and Walter de Maria’s The Lightning Field (1977).
Woods’ photographed cardboard forms have a pseudo-mathematical feel to them and they have a striking parallel in Gavin Hipkins’ 1999-2000 photographic suite The Model (Action). This is a suite of images documenting painted cardboard mathematical models constructed by a Victoria University mathematics lecturer in the 1960s to demonstrate ‘the ninety-two non-uniform convex polyhedra with regular faces’. Far from being precise and highly finished, these models are, like Woods’ constructions, endearingly handcrafted and slightly wonky.
Kate Woods is intrigued by the use of photography to document Land Art projects and the often strict limitations the artists placed on photography of their works. Frequently people were banned from taking any photos of the works on site—hence only a few authorised photographs exist of many major works such as The Lightning Field. For most of us, our experience with these works is through small photographic reproductions—frequently in black and white—in books and magazines; or in our imaginations as we try and visualise the scale and monumentality of such works. Woods
has placed her fictional land artworks within similarly fictitious landscapes, what she describes as ‘places you will never physically arrive in yet seem familiar.’[iv]
While Woods has scoured op shops for the kitsch landscape prints that form the sites of her Land Art works, Lee Jensen has trawled the history of typography and design for forms and symbols to make up his work ‘Five Treasures’. Jensen is inspired by print ephemera, what he calls ‘the dust of design’. He has written that: ‘Ornament, like dust, is what remains, a reminder of past fancies forgotten; and not just ill-remembered, but abandoned, like a child at a fair, youthful cupidity, print ephemera, old pornography in a cupboard. My work starts in this place, a site of some friction and chaffing between worlds. I want to pick up these fragments, bring this “grammar of ornament” into a contemporary context with all its baggage—vapidity, kitsch, the sweet rot of bathos. Can ornament still resonate or suggest a new interpretative vocabulary? Is the symbolic lexicon of decoration still valid, or a site for the production of new forms?’[v]
To experience Jensen’s work from beginning to end it is imperative to ‘walk the line’ of the room. Pattern emerges from the wall, crystalline in its detail and complexity building to a powerful crescendo of pattern and colour. Jensen pulls together fragments from across cultures; east meeting west in a fascinating interplay of historical forms and contemporary material: laser-cut acrylic vinyl used by industrial sign writers.
In ‘Walk The Line’, Jensen and Woods collage together remnants of history and fantasy. Through Jensen’s elevation of marginalia and ephemera and Woods’ handcrafted miniature monuments, these artists demonstrate that sampling from the past, the pick and mix of historical quotation, continues to be an important aspect of contemporary art practice.
[i] Robert Smithson, ‘Ultramoderne’, quoted in Allan Smith, The Crystal Chain Gang; prismatic geometry in recent art, Auckland: Auckland Art Gallery, 2000, p.16.
[ii] [iii] [iv] [v] Smith, p.5. Gilles Deleuze, ‘The Crystals of Time’, quoted in Smith, p.5. Kate Woods, artist statement, 2006. Lee Jensen, artist statement, 2005.