Dark marks on a white background tend to look like handwriting. Even when the lines don’t resemble letters, our eyes trick us into thinking that we’re in the presence of a written language. A talented painter — one skilled in the art of visual illusion — can turn a canvas of squiggles into a Rosetta Stone. Entering a roomful of artful loops and curls can feel like stepping into an illuminated manuscript.
There is a room like that in Rahway. Not every artist showing in “Traces” at The Gallery Space is equally intriguing, but smart curation by Lawrence Cappiello has made a quietly fascinating mini-Babel out of this historic building. It’s fitting: the gallery was once the Rahway Public Library. The eerie “Traces” might be the ghostly afterimage of the books and papers that once filled this space.
For instance, there is a metamorphic quality to the small but resonant paintings on paper by the aptly named Lisa Pressman. Her pieces look like pages of books unearthed at a dig, rendered illegible by the weight of time and history, but whispering of secret knowledge nonetheless. All the ingredients that make up a book — oil, ink, pulp, adhesive, textile for binding — are present in “Manuscript 5,” but they have been steamrolled flat. Raised markings in ocher-colored paint on a smoke-stained background look like they could be letters; they beckon the viewer into the frame and dare us to decipher them. “A Message 2” gives us recognizable characters from the alphabet we know. Yet no discursive meaning coheres. Instead, the artist has artfully smeared the paint and sutured the skin-like paper with red thread.
Pressman’s pieces feel like literary residue, but literature they’re not. They hint that some disaster has happened that has wiped literature out, but left enough marks behind to remind us where we have been.
This may not be speculative fiction. Social media has redirected the attention of former avid readers toward the endless online scroll and the fragmentary apprehension of meaning. Print has been on the ropes for years. Pictures increasingly do the work that words used to do. Libraries are under siege in many parts of America.
In Michael Teters’ discomfiting encaustic panel “Babel’s Circuit,” a heap of letters, numerals and punctuation are loaded onto a white triangle piercing a grey mist. Seven dots cast red streaks that shimmer like reflections on still water. Have the elements of written language been stashed on a slow boat to nowhere? Are they getting shipped into an indefinite future, overwhelming in its vastness?
“An Explanation From God,” another encaustic piece by Teters, deepens those questions. The artist has scratched deep grooves into a green square. When the piece is plugged into the wall, an alien script leaps to its surface. It looks like it should be readable, but the scrawled characters belong to no known alphabet. This is a bodega sign in the window of a confounding and illegible city — a place where riddles exist right out in the open, but are insoluble anyway.
That strange city, filled with unrecognizable marks, finds its neighbor in the weird, enthralling carborundum prints by Len Merlo. In “Two Nuke Cooling Towers,” a power plant radiating streaks of energy is surrounded by symbols: downward-pointing arrows, Xs marking spots in the middle of rectangles, a procession of eyeball-like dotted circles, shaky razor lines cut into the charcoal-grey gloom. A long, tall column to the left of the towers is stuffed with more circles, diagonal slashes, and arrows.
Are these industrial hieroglyphics the key to taming the plant? Or are they unrelated? There is no way to know. We’re mystified by our own machinery, and we lack the language to talk about their workings.
In the context of “Traces,” even the floral cyanotype prints by Heather Palecek and the distant, filament-like blue clouds rendered in oil stick by Laura Lou Levy, feel heavy with portent. Other pieces in the show seem to speak of a cryptic past and an unsearchable future simultaneously, like Marybeth Rothman’s amalgams of beeswax and pigment that could be windows on to the outside world from a wallpapered interior, and the post-industrial sculptures of Robert Lach, who teases plastic trash into the shape of organic structures like seed-pods and tree trunks.
Then there are the paintings that inspired the exhibition: the hypnagogic visions of Mona Brody, whose works in oil, shellac, and wax on linen have the spectral quality of a trip through the veil into a netherworld of shadow. Sometimes, Brody’s paintings suggest depth but keep the viewer at bay, and sometimes they grab you by the collar and plunge you into the middle of a dark pool. Brody’s canvases, big as doorways, have a tendency to impose their chilly mood on the work around them.
There are five Brody originals in “Traces,” which means that she has done as much to dictate the cryptic feel of the show as Cappiello has. The three best are night swims in choppy waters, and they hang side by side on the north wall of The Gallery Space. In these paintings, a pair of thick stripes in midnight blue part to reveal a thick, smoke-like curl of white paint. It’s a curtain opening, or perhaps closing, on a single character, partially occluded but announcing its presence anyway.
Like so much of “Traces,” meaning dances just beyond interpretation, tantalizing the mind, keeping the viewer guessing.
As it turns out, you can ask the artists yourself. “Traces” is a short-run exhibition — it has only been on view for a few weeks, and Cappiello will be taking it down soon. But it culminates in an artist talk, May 20 from 1 to 3 p.m.
Most of the painters, sculptors and visual poets involved in the show will be present. Perhaps they will tell you what they’re getting at.
Or maybe they will let the pieces speak — in weird, echoed, haunting languages yet unheard.
“Traces” will be at The Gallery Space in Rahway through May 20. Artists in the exhibition include Mona Brody, Robert Lach, Laura Lou Levy, Len Merlo, Heather Palecek, Lisa Pressman, Marybeth Rothman and Michael Teters. Visit galleryspacerahway.com.
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