Indefinite Forms

By Kathryn Zimmerhanzel

Art is characterized by restlessness, change, construction, destruction, and by recreation. Art can concentrate, interpret, and disseminate ideas. Implicit is the process of making, the idea actualized as a deeply personal, yet somehow universal form. The power of such images is affirmed by art’s history: the deranged genius of invention in Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, the disquieting physicality of Egon Schiele’s chalk drawings, the disturbing sensuality of Tracy Emin’s monoprints. Objects like these carry the weight of the artist’s experience and the impulsive nature of the creative act. Unfinished and unruly, these forms are captivating in their immediacy, articulating the privacy and primacy of intellect and emotion.

Interested in these artistic foundations, French & Michigan has assembled studies which discuss the artist at work. The exhibition’s title, Practice, conveys not the unfinished forms that lie within, but the larger structure of artistic thought being proposed in each artist’s oeuvre. Art, therefore, is reconsidered through process. The object becomes a mode of inquiry. The exhibition invokes a new sort of visual and intellectual language, one defiant of restrictions imposed by medium and artistic discipline, creating interstices between practices and unraveling restrictions of categorization—no longer painter, sculptor, architect, writer, or filmmaker. The artist is a sort of philosopher, rendering ideas, inquests, and inquiries through written and visual imagery. 

Practice is organized around a simple principle—that of making. Looking to PRAXES Center for Contemporary Art, an artist residency based in Berlin, for inspiration, the exhibition reflects French & Michigan’s belief that the making is the expression of a process of thought, the proposition and working through of fundamental questions. PRAXES activates the process in the public sphere, investigating through displays of older works, collaborations, performances, unfinished or failed ideas, archives, and other materials. Practice calls for similar deliberation, exposing elements of process to encounter and critique, but also to a very personal, immediate, and comprehensive experience.

The result is a collection of essential manifestations, not necessarily of the artistic practice, but of the ideas that comprise it. Themes which arise in Jenelle Esparza’s collection of photographs, small paintings, found objects, and imprints culminate in an antique book, its pages interspersed with writings and artistic renderings. Despite the stylistic range of these studies, the associative elements of nostalgia, intimacy, and tenderness are not misplaced in the scope of her photographic work. Through modes equally experimental, Jaelah Kuehmichel explores identity in a range of stylistic and medium studies. Her work presents questions—those of gender identity in androgynous nude figures, and of artistic identity in her manifold approaches to creative representation. Overlying these themes, mathematical equations, simple yet powerful abstractions, and whimsical characters are brought together without an apparent link. Discarding norms of both gender and artistic absolutism, Kuehmichel works from a point of freedom so that what drives the work is that indefinite nature. 

Within the exhibition, the sketch implicates the search, resulting in unanticipated engagement through which the audience becomes the participant in discovery. Involving both viewer and artist, the allure lies in uncovering ideas submerged beneath articulations of compulsion and thought. This active relationship is further alluded to by many of the artists exhibited. David Alcantar is influenced by relationships, more specifically aspects of negotiation resulting from exchanges with the self and others. His studies reveal a more complex image of this idea as he works through material and form by which the concept is rendered. Directionless objects depicted fragmentarily are symbols of universally felt tensions, as sketched and modified forms relate an interior tension in his artistic process. The effect is a somehow more complete image of negotiation, the innate humanity of unresolved exchanges. 

Sketches inform a method of self-critique—the artist challenges and amends his or her own markings—revealing the inquest and even a metaphysical frustration that makes these studies ubiquitous. This becomes clear in the spontaneous sketches of Leonardo Hernandez, whose process is comprised of intimate, urgent, and personal expressions. Such vulnerability initiates a response from the viewer as personal connection provokes a participatory reading. The movement toward aesthetic and theoretical references to process in artistic product—sketch or notational devices used in “final” work—coincides with an almost codependent experience of meaning-making. The ambiguity characteristic to process results in a more involved connection between the artwork and the viewer who is willing to locate its underlying concept. 

The themes which the exhibition draws upon are also experienced in the work of Lee Michael Peterson. His drawings and paintings reveal the process in their completed forms, in which he layers sketches to form twisted and redolent versions of current events, celebrity culture, and the ego-centrism of our society. His studies included in Practice are reflective of these detached narratives and uncanny constructions. In one work, the artist displays his own blood, making a very literal statement of narcissistic self-awareness. Such intimate and obscure objects—which blur the line between process and product, private and public, durable and transitory, perception and reality—are very much in accordance with trends in the art world at large, where such manifestations and manipulations of process are a part of the contemporary conversation.

While inherently anti-monumental, the studies collected in Practice are formally endless, holding the potential for conceptual sprawl. The process—invoking concepts of notation and study—is not the means to an artistic end. Rather, it is evocative of an artist’s conceptual synthesis. The freedom derived from associative forms reinforce new perspectives in art, dematerializing constraints and medium specificity. Compulsively, the artist searches for meaning through their practice, equally so, the viewer searches for the same in the work. This exhibition endeavors to make the struggle known, and to locate the capacity of art to instigate a more profound communication.

Katy is the curatorial assistant at French & Michigan. Previous essays include Performing Motherhood published in the exhibition catalogue for Sarah Sudhoff: Supply and Demand

Practice is on view at French & Michigan Gallery through February 14, 2015.