CAROL SZYMANSKI A Distance As Close As It Can Be
ELGA WIMMER | APRIL 1 – APRIL 31, 2016
Carol Szymanski, a talented and established sculptor and conceptual artist, who has worked both in New York and London, put up her fourth solo show at Elga Wimmer Gallery. The mainstay of the exhibition is a group of large Cibachrome photographs that depict two bodies of Szymanski’s work together: a 2015 series of Mylar sculptures, named “solfege inflatables”, and a painting series entitled “Icons” (also 2015). The photos capture the reflections of color from the “Icons” in the silver surface of the Mylar sculptures. By trapping the information radiating from the three-dimensional works, Szymanski creates an aesthetic, based on her earlier art in a way that does not duplicate it but, as the press release comments, “expands the language” of perception. Though mostly abstract, the photos are dense with color and build compositions of startling intricacy.
Although this exhibition presents more material than is easy to internalize in a single visit, one senses that Szymanski wants to deepen the visual experience of her work by contextualizing it with poetry, philosophy, and music. Szymanski is often eager to elaborate her art with texts. “A distance as close as it can be” is a quotation taken from critic Walter Benjamin’s exploration of aura, a kind of atmosphere of beauty and mystique linked to the extension of urban experience. The titles of the Mylar sculptures come from Pierre Reverdy’s 1921 poem “Coin obscur.” Additionally, the artist derives text from philosopher Ted Cohen for her ten-year-long email art project cockshut dummy (2005 – 15). A third small but complicated work is a matrix of the twelve Cibachrome prints—set up in the manner of a Schoenbergian grid, the photos are arranged into a twelve-by-twelve network, like tone rows. With their fractured view, the prints offer a visual complexity comparable to the twelve-tone musical organization, as well as expanding on some of the difficult ideas encountered in her philosophically derived wall texts.
At stake here is the continuation of the modernist high ideal, one in which intellectual insight and a complicated means of production join force to create, in Szymanski’s case, a show in which image, text, and idea are equally considered. At the same time, though, the artist clearly remains visually oriented, finding a balance between concept and object that enhances our visual experience of her work. The light reflections on the splintered planes of the Mylar sculptures create a complex imagery that is hard to read except in abstract terms. Because of the way the photos are taken, the photo often seems divided like a pie, with tranches of color emanating outward from a central point. The photo named a ball carried away (2015) is unreadable in a figurative sense, yet the coherent intricacy of the work’s parts—its ability to hold onto a visual center despite the chaotic surface we see—make the work as rational as it is expressive.
The real critical question here is how much guidance do we need in our encounter with the complexities of Szymanski’s art? This is clearly work to ponder as well as to enjoy. One might be puzzled by the relations between the philosophical writing and the images; after thought, however, it becomes clear that the artist is building an intuitive structure, linking a conceptual and also poetic text to a self-referential body of art. The poetry is derived from the juxtaposition of the mediums, whose effect is cumulative, greater than the sum of its parts. Sometimes even the abstraction is overtaken by a seemingly recognizable image: for example, in The Winds Crossed, Variation 1 (2016), the folds in the Mylar result in what looks very much like an Arctic landscape, complete with an apocalyptic, blood-red sky. It seems as if glaciers are catching light in the photo, and that there is a sharp peak in the center of the composition.
Actually, the word composition is not quite right—and this is where Szymanski’s project becomes exciting and original. Despite the tight arrangement imposed by the twelve-tone scale as an organizing principle, these images are truly about the expressiveness of chance. The imagery is random, generated by the unplanned reflection of the paintings on Mylar. And in her references to philosophy and music, the artist expands upon the intellectual implications of a picture of a picture. Remarkably, this does not result in an overly elaborate self-awareness on the artist’s part. Instead the twists and turns of the Mylar and the colors reflected in its creases bring about the recognition that, in the early years of the 21st century, art is mostly about other art. In Szymanski’s project, rather than a constraint, this becomes a freedom.
JONATHAN GOODMAN is a teacher and author specializing in Asian art, about which he has been writing for more than twenty years.