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   October 2009
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"How Will I Know?" by Myranda Bair at the Maryland Institute College of Art
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Myranda Bair . . . from page 1

Such a concept is representative of Bair's practice as a whole; when asked to characterize her work, she explains, "I want everything to take as little space as possible." To accomplish this, she often works in and on paper—a perfect medium for art that deals with fragility and the passing of time and the related actions of archiving and remembering, as hers often does. Her 2007 MFA thesis show at Maryland Institute College of Art, for which she named each work after a Whitney Houston ballad, included a series of 33 watercolor illustrations of every piece of rock-climbing equipment a pair of climbers would need ("I Wanna Dance with Somebody") |1| and a mountain constructed of crinkled paper with two watercolor sleeping bags at its base ("How Will I Know?").|0| Her most recent work, which will be on display at this year’s 35 x 35 exhibition, centers on salamanders as fragile specimens, essentially stand-ins for human beings and their frailties. Painted in watercolor on paper and presented in glass jars, these specimens inhabit their enclosures like more traditional works on paper do their frames.|2-3| Paper seems pervasive in contemporary art at the moment; for example, the Museum of Modern Art is exhibiting works on paper from its contemporary collections, with images in ink and watercolor and even cigarettes on paper. Seeing these works, and Bair’s, demonstrates just how aptly paper can encapsulate human experience and artistic process simultaneously.

One can easily draw connections between Bair’s project and work from Sophie Calle and Tracey Emin, two artists whom she admires. Calle, however, usually makes photographs a part of her documentation process; photography is absent from Bair’s work, replaced by watercolor—an arguably more intimate, and of course more subjective, mode of capturing images, one more ideally suited to address one-sided memories and imprecise longings. Love Letters functions something like Emin’s notorious embroidered tent, which bore the names of everyone she had to that point slept with, giving viewers just a hint of salacious detail in a somewhat whimsical, but mostly defiant, manner. There is something defiant about the love letters as well, but it’s much less a defiance of conservative sensibilities and more an insistence that over-sharing is useful, certainly therapeutic for the artist but emotionally impactful for the viewer as well.

Maybe this viewer is meant to feel a little uncomfortable in breaking down walls that should be somewhat impenetrable. At times the letters can be gut-wrenching, at least if the viewer comes equipped with some point of reference; in “The last apology email,” after reviewing the events of an especially disastrous Christmas party, Bair writes,

I’m sorry it wasn't enough.
I'm sorry, I only wanted more.
I'm sorry that I need you to love me—

I can't help it.

Like a whisper, the italicized words at the end of this email that Bair did send to an ex-boyfriend are intimate enough to give the viewer pause—something akin to the artist checking into a hotel suite and inviting an audience to watch her dream, or booking a hall and inviting viewers to snip away strips of her clothing, as Yoko Ono famously did with Cut Piece.

Bair fittingly demonstrates excellent recall when it comes to conversations she’s been a part of, and she remembers a critique offered by one of her professors at MICA: “The problem with conceptual art is, it just doesn’t work.” This is clearly a polemical statement, but its chief problem here is not its mistakenness—it’s in its oversimplification of work that has both conceptual and material presence. To speak of the Love Letters’ “material presence” seems odd and possibly irrelevant, but it’s not, in the modest opinion of this writer. The small cream-colored sheets of handmade paper, which Bair orders from Florence, are about six inches by eight, tentative and almost striving for insignificance in a sea of white wall. Rather than handwriting the text, however, the artist uses a laser printer, which she finds “more relatable,” in contrast to the “more personal” delicacy of the stationary. Orderly arranged throughout the gallery and simply tacked to the walls instead of framed, which is perhaps the key, the letters have an abject quality; their undeniable reality is that they can be literally crushed. They are stand-ins for the artist, who can be crushed in other ways.|4|

To complement the letters, Bair’s Lost at Sea will also be on display at CRL. Consisting of a boat illustrated in watercolor and floating in static craft paper waves on the gallery wall, Lost at Sea at least in theory shares Love Letters’ interactive quality because the boat can be moved around the wall just as the stepstool can be moved around the gallery for letter-viewing.|5| It also continues Love Letters’ embrace of uncertainty. The letter project will end when Bair turns 30, as it began when she entered her 20s—to generalize, the decade of one’s life that is practically defined by doubt and indecision. If, as Bair explained, “it’s about trying to understand where people are coming from,” it’s surely about her trying to understand herself as well. Lost at Sea, in turn, features an actually unmoored vessel, and it’s made again of ephemera and takes up as little space as possible. Together, the works are adaptable but affected, much like the artist.

Myranda Bair's work is on exhibit in Salt Lake at the 35 x 35 exhibit at Finch Lane Gallery through November 6. A reception with the artists will be part of Gallery Stroll, October 16, 6 - 9 pm. Bair's Love Letters will be on display at Tell me everything, as you remember it, a group exhibition curated by Leona Scull-Hons, that opens Saturday, October 17th, at the Creative Research Laboratory at the University of Texas, Austin, and continues through November 7.
Exhibition Review: Ephraim
The Seventh Side
Meridith Pingree at the CUAC
by Geoff Wichert

Growing up in Utah, Meridith Pingree was surrounded by evidence of geometry contributing its structures to nature. Consider hexagons; these most efficiently packable of all shapes give form to living things across the spectrum, from the honeycombs of bees to the triangular shalpe of Sego Lilies. Nor was Pingree the only Utah native who, on growing up to become an artist, found such familiar themes viable and versatile components of her art. Fans of Annie Kennedy will see a certain connection between her art and Pingree’s; not only do both women draw on themes found in nature, but both use indigenous household materials to give their ideas material reality. For Kennedy, of course, it’s wax, oil, and survival supplies. For Pingree, it’s safety pins, skewers, plastic costume jewelry, and zippers. For Meridith Pingree, these simple ingredients enable her to embark on a journey out of our familiar, Euclidean, three-dimensional space and into a realm that would seem to be perfectly cerebral, perfectly imaginary, if it weren’t for the way she tracks it down and brings it into the gallery to hang on the wall or dangle from the ceiling, often while writhing in response to the viewer’s own presence.

Some artists paint. Others sculpt. Scientists and mathematicians call Pingree’s primary medium hyperbolic geometry. To get an idea how one of her works comes into being, we might try to imagine this process. Consider the honeycomb, or a sink full of foaming soap suds. Both will be made up almost entirely of hexagons, six-sided shapes that come about when circles press together until they take up all the space. Circles won’t fit tightly enough, but hexagons leave no space unfilled. Each hexagon is surrounded by six other identical shapes, and each corner is the meeting place of three sides. A two-dimensional surface like a piece of drawing paper can be neatly covered by such figures repeated until the page is used up. Pingree might begin to explore what lies beyond this pattern by asking what would happen if there were seven matched sides instead of six. As in turns out, it’s not something that can be drawn on a flat surface, because it fact what happens is the surface buckles. Like lichen growing on a rock, the surface pattern exceeds the surface area, and more complex and elaborate shapes come into being. Many of Pingree’s works are, basically, fabrics that she has brought into being by following through with such initially simple mental exercises.

Meredith Pingree installing her work at the CUAC
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Of course it that were all there was to it, it would be closer to Geometry than to art. This is where those commonplace materials come in. You can construct a geometric figure with a protractor, but it’s more interesting to use a plastic spider ring to make an octagon, or by skipping one leg, a heptagon, or by skipping every other leg, a square. It’s axiomatic in hyperbolic geometry that there are no regular triangles, no parallel lines, no congruent shapes. In other words, everything happens once, but nothing happens exactly the same way twice. Thus Pingree’s theoretical fabrics grow into objects of complex shape and brilliant colors and come to resemble the things they share a common mathematical origin with: living things. To these she may then give the power of motion, equipping them with electric motors and high-tech sensors that make them move about on their own or in response to a viewer’s presence. In this way she brings her studio process, the discovery-by-doing of how certain components with certain modular dimensions create certain objects with variable and uncertain dimensions, into the gallery. She also points the way to a perceptual process that has been taking up a lot of our collective attention lately: how a two-dimensional space makes the transition to a three-dimensional space, and how we can conceive of a four-, or even an eleven-dimensional space by following them. Art has always played a pivotal role in new ways of perceiving and envisioning the world.

FURTHER NOTE: The Central Utah Art Center continues to offer new and exciting perceptual advances, some of them built on a foundation so familiar one must look twice to see how new they are. In an exhibit last month that unfortunately closed before it could be reviewed here, Tennessee artist Farrar Hood showed paintings that uncovered some of the invisible processes that allow us to build a semblance of the world we see in our mind’s eye. Working primarily in large, bravura canvases on which intriguing figures engage in dramatic scenes of compressed, unsettling action, Hood undertakes to paint not the ideas that fill a mind, or even the emotions that ripple beneath them, but the even-more-murky beginnings of consciousness as it emerges from the underlying impressions that clue us in to our own being and let us know we’re alive.|5| Her subjects’ motto might be, “I am uneasy: therefore I am.”

Meridith Pingree's works are at the CUAC through November 9.

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