Alexis Granwell: Provisional Remains
The ruin is a site of decay and remembrance – the armature that allows us to imagine life in a past or parallel time. Thus the ruin is always destroyed and re-creating itself in our individual psyches and collective culture. When archaeologists uncover a historic site, their first order of operation is to photograph every detail using black and white film, so that in the event that digital or advanced photographic technologies are not available, the images will be legible through the elementary act of holding the processed film to the sun. This is a logic appropriately developed by those who specialize in the lost, destroyed, discarded, decayed, and forgotten. It is crucial that these disinterested images capture the site as it was found, untouched and unexamined, revealing only fragmentary evidence; all that is seen is what lies at the surface, and the new skin that has come to envelop it. Clues are numbered, collected, classified, or their identity may be left unsolved. Sometimes additional pieces of the puzzle emerge, further illustrating the fiction and conjecture that has developed around this curious trove. It is typical that a complete history never emerges.
Production and maintenance of the unresolved have a distinct presence in current art. As painter and critic Sharon Butler has observed on the renewed interest in abstraction among contemporary painters, there is a distinct predilection for the incomplete, or forms that remain fixed in an unfinished state, while also asserting and reassessing “basic elements like color, composition, and balance… looking for unexpected outcomes rather than handsome results.” Sympatico with Butler’s observations, the works in Lean To signal only the provisional, or at their most defined, the mere traces of remains.
In works identifiable as neither armature nor skin, rigid geometry is clearly a starting point but yields nothing stable. Small sculptures composed of interlocking skeletal and tendril-like limbs are reminiscent of the interior of Antoni Gaudi’s Basilica of the Sagrada Família, as these corporeal and alien structures appear at once to be on the verge of collapse while also growing exponentially. The holistic geometry of Buckminster Fuller is apparent as well as these lines converge to form erratic polygons whose meeting, miraculously, yields solids.
Laid out on a work table and appearing at once as tools, models, and portals, Granwell’s structures are direct and immediate protective spaces, in the artist’s terms, they are built for survival, integrated with nature, and capable of degrading back into the land. Neither monumental nor miniature, the jarring metaphysical effect of either status is experienced simultaneously and remains ever present and unresolved. In some works, wooden supports precariously prop tangles of richly worked Abaca paper and water putty over wires, echoing each other in their obscuring and reinforcing of ageless tensions between form and function. In another instance, a skewed tangle of bending and stretching lines pile and collapse as they arc over a stoic white cube that serves as a base. Here, a rich prussian blue coats the segments that rest on this anchor, while those reaching towards the ground quickly fade to whites and grays, signaling a new relationship to the stark white below, and assuming an organic quality evocative of an inevitable cycle of wither and decay.
Color for Granwell serves a transitional function for its capability of fusing two disparate elements, such as wire and paper, in a unified visual and physical form. Curator Edward Fry wrote of David Smith’s painted cubist sculptures that the artist’s use of color in these works was both for the purpose of “perceptual tension and illusion to a picture plane,” thereby challenging the established boundaries of sculpture by allowing color to serve a three-dimensional purpose. Smith’s practice, like Granwell’s, began with formal investigations into the relationship between the physical and pictorial. Trained as a painter and always operating with a visual focus, Smith’s migration from the picture plane to dimensional forms necessarily maintained an inquiry into the ability of color, according to Fry, to convey information about structure. In Granwell’s works, color similarly expresses a relationship between skin and support, where one inspires the legibility of the other. Previous sculptural works resembling architectural reliefs traversed the 2 and 3-dimensional by relying on the wall as their support, while their composition depended on a dense layering of engineered elements and rough scraps of discarded material. In these works, like the current series, color and line also become codes for weight, support, and the dual illusion of mass or minute scale.
This consideration of underlying and overlaying structure is also apparent in a series of large scale prints. In these 2-dimensional works, sparse lines and points also seem to signal coordinates, or appear as fragments of a greater schematic. They may map an ancient city, or are perhaps the deteriorating plans for a home or a tomb. Color is again fundamental, yet here as an indicator of temporal shift between the present time of the artist, and an envisioned future or past.
An assertive streak of yellow washes down Continuous Footing, as a curtain draped over a set. This image is purely uncanny, and can at once be recognized as a lavish house, a temple or simply a shelter. Interior details as a half-moon window and an ornamental doorway can be partially deciphered, yet may also be a trick of the eye and imagination, searching for the familiar in what is otherwise now plainly barren. In Phase-locked we see the foot of a rocky slope, the face of which is mottled and degraded from weather, war, overgrowth or drought. In stark contrast to the intricate texture of this surface, a blank slab rests at the perspectival center of the composition indicating a door or a missing piece. Regardless of its origin or function, this monolith is recognized as the ruins of industry, craft, social activity or trade, a monument to former use, or signaling a past reality now relegated to myth. Doors feature widely in each of these works, and uniformly obscure as much as they reveal.
Other works in the series include openings and enclosures depicted as the mouth of a cave, raw and molded by the natural elements surrounding it. Deceptive in their neutrality, a cave may readily be various kinds of shelter: one designed for safe-guarding in times of war and turmoil, while also evidence of an intentional act of destruction, or a last-resort line of defense. One of these caves allows us a glimpse inside, where the familiar crossing of beams and braces conjures scenes of the earliest American industrialization and the expansion of the railroads, or the archaeological discovery of a crypt. Yet this footprint of human activity reveals no clues, and instead appears as a relic, or a snapshot framed by a vast rocky expanse that was once an impediment, a shield, or both. The cave in another work rests with its mouth gaping open, speechless and timeworn. This hole is also an impasse; Obscured as it is, this site cannot be analyzed and cannot be read. There are simply the traces of something entirely other, and that is all.
Butler, Sharon, “The New Casualists,” The Brooklyn Rail, June 2011. http://www.brooklynrail.org/2011/06/artseen/abstract-painting-the-new-casualists.
I am reminded of the title of an essay on Vija Celmins’ drawings of the sea and sky: “What thought is like,” in Stewart, Susan, The Open Studio: Essays on Art and Aesthetics, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2005.