GORDON HALL AND PER SE ANDby Dana Kopel and Jody Graf
Temple Contemporary, Tyler School of Art
JANUARY 14 – 22, 2016
It has become a commonplace within contemporary art discourse to speak of placing objects in “conversation” with one another. In Gordon Hall’s AND PER SE AND, held at the Temple Contemporary, this phrase is stripped of its curatorial affectation and retooled, amplified.
The exhibition is comprised of a long narrow plinth, a stage of sorts, upon which twenty-three “hand-held” sculptures interact in carefully considered geometries. Most speak a familiar minimalist vernacular of cylinders, blocks and spheres. Others flirt with the representational or symbolic registers: two half-moon slivers double as a pair of oversized parentheses; small pink “shims” approximate rubber erasers; a lump of clay carries the imprint of the fist that once held it; and, in the only instance of straightforward figuration, a cast claw holds a small sphere in its talons. Each sculpture is scaled to fit in the artist’s hand, and the touch of this absent hand—caring, gripping, erotic—extends throughout, suggested even in the unyielding wood and plaster surfaces of these objects, most of which have been sanded down, caressed, into their hard, smooth complexions. Together, they construct what Hall terms an “object sentence”: a carefully composed lexicon of abstract forms that slip in and out of recognition. Balancing illegibility with extreme specificity, it is a language that we feel we both do, and do not, already know.
Hall developed these objects in concert with twenty-three passages of text, culled from a variety of sources spanning Wikipedia entries, essays by Judith Butler and Roland Barthes, personal correspondence, and family word games. The affiliations and discrepancies between these two lexicons—object-based and linguistic—were made manifest in Hall’s hour-long lecture-performance. In a dissolution of the boundary between event and object characteristic of Hall’s work, the exhibition doubled as the set for this performance, the sculptures as its props. Material stasis is rendered inherently anticipatory: it is simply the state prior to potential activation.
In the performance, each textual fragment corresponded to a combination of objects, which Hall methodically laid out in precise but improvisatory arrangements: visual sentences, perpetually rewritten. Projected live onto a large screen behind the plinth, each arrangement served as a formal counterpoint to its companion text, which the artist read aloud. The texts, alternately colloquial, theoretical, and poetic, reveal an intense investment in language itself: its component parts, its grammatical rules and normative structures, and the way these might be rearranged or undermined. The last textual passage doubles as an explanation of the exhibition’s title—“and per se and” was the proper spelling for &, the ampersand, which was historically considered the last letter of the English alphabet—and in doing so draws attention to the ways in which language mutates over time. Other fragments comprise a list of palindromes (PULL UP IF I PULL UP, NEVER ODD OR EVEN—the latter also served as the title of Hall’s 2015 exhibition at Foxy Production) or a pair of phrases repeated ad infinitum, building to a circular yet accumulative logic.
This aggregative energy is reflected in Hall’s emphasis on those parts of language that suggest states of merging or becoming, such as prepositions and conjunctions, rather than those, like the noun, that offer definitional or ontological certitude. One textual fragment, for example, comprises a modified version of the exhibition’s promotional material; stripped of all nouns, verbs, and adjectives, the resulting sentences are rendered abstract, heavy on the tongue. Language becomes something to be pushed, shifted, reconfigured—literally, in the case of the wooden parentheses, for example, or more figuratively in the structure of the palindrome, in which the order of letters serves not only to produce meaning but also to create a formal structure. In this sense, language is at once malleable and divisible into a set of solid, constituent segments, a status mirrored by the “object sentences,” which emerge from a fixed vocabulary yet are unceasingly rearranged to generate new meanings.
By setting up two parallel lexicons, linguistic and object-based, and allowing them to merge or displace each other, Hall, it might be alleged, undermines the communicative clarity of both. Yet the work evinces a real investment in and care for these languages. By breaking down and reworking them, the artist suggests alternative potentials for language and form, for what they can do beyond standard usage. Not simplistically utopian, Hall’s work reimagines what’s possible with what’s already at hand. This process generates a productive ambiguity in which normative structures—not only language but gender, a longstanding concern within Hall’s practice—are reframed as sites of intervention against seemingly legible or fixed norms. Hall states at one point during the performance, quoting Édouard Glissant, “We demand the right to opacity,” suggesting that indeterminacy itself can be political. If AND PER SE AND prompts a reexamination of relationships between language and object, the tangible and the immaterial, the new understandings produced might allow for a theorization of gender as simultaneously physical and virtual, embodied without being intrinsically tied to particular body parts and their normative coding.