DOUG ARGUE Artspeak and The Art of Translationby Alana Shilling-Janoff
Edelman Arts | February 22 – March 30, 2013
Once upon a time, Arthur Danto proclaimed the death of grand narratives that defined art movements and pronounced contemporary art beyond the “pale of history,” bereft of a unifying narrative. But even if contemporary art does lack a narrative, there is no dearth of errant ideologues clamoring to establish new conceptual fiefdoms. The threat they can pose to works they promote is epitomized in Edelman Arts’ Art of Translation, a solo exhibition of 11 large format oil paintings by past Rome Prize fellow Doug Argue.
The works featured are the latest in Argue’s recent project employing letters as stand-ins for space, line, and other properties of the visual arts. Passages from Melville’s Moby Dick as well as many other texts serve as sources. Like Rabelais’s Diogenes with his pail, Argue stretches his letters; he twists, elongates, distorts, contorts, distends, twirls, curls, and cajoles them into unfamiliar shapes against an oil paint background. Though Argue’s governing conceit has possibilities, these are blighted when his gallery claims that “[Argue’s art] embodies all the questions one might contemplate, and yields all the answers.” Such ersatz mysticism makes it difficult to take the works on view seriously and evaluate what in the project succeeds and what fails.
Argue’s work is shown to its best advantage when experienced without such philosophical distortion. Consider the eponymous “The Art of Translation” (2013). The source of letters is Homer’s Iliad, however, their provenance matters far less than the effect they create. Spreading across the canvas (over seven feet long), letters define space and change color value to give the impression of water illuminated by the hint of an aging noon-day sun beaming from the gallery’s wings. An undulating swell emerges, the kind of wave known only to deep water, far from known land. Scrutinize the canvas in search of the letters themselves and the effect is lost; step five feet away and you’ve rediscovered the sea.
The letters employed in “Red Letter Day” (2012) encourage another kind of experience, a vicarious feel of jubilation. A profusion of vibrantly colored letters stream across the canvas while gleaming white letters burst from the center, providing a focal point: is this the birthplace of signs in letter-land or the abyss into which they might fall? Regardless, by making old conventions—letters—invent unique visual effects, the work invites the viewer to experience the benediction imparted in that uncanny sense that something’s coming, something good.
“Drift Dive” (2013) exploits the figurative potential of letters in a particularly complex way, using it both to establish form and destroy it. Like indolent schools of fish, letters drift beneath water’s surface. A series of decisive, calligraphic Kline-like strokes cut across the canvas, as if to suggest something corporeal—or its shadow. The opposition of piscine letters and thick, urgent brushstrokes suggests depth by creating a tension between shallow and deep water while simultaneously subverting it. Those impassioned strokes literally seep over the letters, a reminder that the illusion of depth is always just that, illusion. And this is one of the strengths of Argue’s project: he can manipulate linguistic signs to the point that they imitate artistic convention.
Argue has stated that letters embody flux—continuity in change—which he sees as a principle of language and the universe. This may be, but his surfaces seem to stagnate when Argue gets caught in his own glib conceptual framework. For example, in “Hello,” red arrows direct letters in an unconvincing cosmic dance, while the weeping, wilting serifs of “The First Language” remain mute. When I spoke with Argue at his studio, he discoursed fluently on everything from pre-Socratic philosophy to Borges. When pressed to connect these ideas to his art, however, Argue shrugged, flatly declaring, “I’m no scholar […] the main thing art can do is express […] I’m looking for that visceral moment of expression.” He sometimes achieves this.
Yet, Edelman insists upon billing Argue’s work as “life propositions: as much wave as particle […] projecting into what the Frankfurt theorist Ernst Bloch terms the ‘not-yet.’” From the nonsensical scientific allusion to the unnecessarily abstruse nod to historical materialism, statements such as these are a weary iteration of generic, insubstantial artspeak that undermines the expressive potential in an artist’s work. When thus framed, this exhibition repels the very experiential quality that marks Argue’s most compelling attempts. In a world where the autotelic idiocy of Damien Hirst’s declarations of capturing “something that was there or wasn’t there” are received with nods and approbation, Argue needs to take sides. There’s no ambiguity in The Art of Translation: sometimes, something’s there. Sometimes it isn’t. If we can elude the arrant nonsense, we might manage to know.
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