On ViewBridget Donahue Gallery
November 10, 2019 – January 26, 2020
The works in Ragen Moss’s exhibition, 8 Animals, invite us to explore the vexed relationship between written language and the material poetics of sculpture. The pieces contain elements of hand-written text that, despite being embedded within the work, never settle into a definitive relationship with their sculptural containers. These hollow forms, made from molded polyethylene plastic embellished with acrylic paint, hang from the gallery ceiling on braided steel cables. Evocative couplets punctuate these torso-like works, appearing in black script on red heart-shaped vessels suspended on delicate wire within the larger shell: “DAMP SHADOW,” “COMFORT REGIMENS,” “SILENCING DISTANCE,” “MEZZANINE LENDER,” “OLD HANDSHAKE,” to name a few examples. Two pieces have longer passages scrawled across their sides with opaque references to salt content and the firmness of a body. Are these bits of speech, codenames, or glimpses of interior states?
Just to the right of the gallery entrance, five sculptures made from the same mold hang in a neat row that anchors the installation. Each of these works have the word “Again…” scrawled unceremoniously on what seems like the neck. And on the opposite side we find “And, Again…” written in the same script. The urge to unpack the significance of the writing interrupts the act of gazing into the alluring contours and glossy haze of such luminescent shells. Something changes when we find ourselves looking at language. The text alters our relationship to the sculpture, but it does so in a register that does not directly intersect with their form. By forcing us to oscillate between looking and reading, Moss’s work draws out the contrast between these modes of interaction.
Language does not depend on its materiality for impact, whereas for sculpture the two are inseparable. A word can be typewritten or scribbled on a napkin, yet once we decipher it, all of its specificity and resonance come flooding in. Sculpture, on the other hand, derives its potency from its physical presence. Its ability to provoke associations depends entirely on its material qualities. The decision to hand-write the bits of text and the question of where to place them are certainly aesthetic concerns, but Moss does not appear to prioritize these formal qualities. Her script is casual, and her placement is direct and frontal. The words deliver their punch despite their appearance, not because of it. Through her antagonistic overlay of language and sculptural vocabulary, Moss heightens the categorical differences in the nature of their expressive force.
Much of the colorful patterning and layering of paint in Moss’s works has the same casual quickness as the artist’s handwriting. These surface interventions are mostly thin and translucent—a necessary measure in order to view the text within. That the qualities of color and pattern have been relegated to pure surface further pressurizes the fragments of language: we look to the words to fill out the insides of these hollow volumes, and it is tempting to expect the text to establish concrete identities or provide firm boundaries for our visual relationship to the work. The words in this show are differently structured glimpses that do not possess the authoritative quality that we might want written language to provide. The text provokes a category of expectation to which the sculptures cannot directly respond. This condition asks us to consider the conflation of spatial and psychological notions of interiority, and what role language might play in granting access to this realm or perhaps distorting it.
Leader, reclining (2019) is notable among the group because Moss has painted the lower third of the sculpture with rich, brushy chunks of acrylic paint. On the opposite side lies a patch of luscious blue squares with zippy yellow and red lines that form a plaid-like pattern. These are the most saturated hues in the entire exhibition, and the only passage where the surface of the sculpture is completely opaque. This inscrutability leaves us to wonder what is contained within. The density of paint gives way to a black haze and then clear plastic near the top of the piece. Five arrows drawn onto the surface point downward, and the words “FLATTENING FORCE” appear alongside one of them. It is as if the presence of words has forced all the delightful bits down into the bottom of the vessel. This moment is the most explicit demonstration that language can both enliven and constrict the sensuousness of form.