An art-ful weekend, including the grand opening of "Best Kept Secret" at the Laguna Art Museum--an ambitious recollection of the lively art scene at the University of California, Irvine, in the critical decade starting in the mid-1960s. A great contribution to this year's celebration of Southern California art in the Pacific Standard Time events.
More of this later. In the meantime, let me begin at the end of the weekend. We drove up to Cal State Long Beach yesterday afternoon to attend the opening of our friend's--and the daughter of our friends'--Cassie Jones's BFA show, Ad Nauseam. Cassie has been studying in the printmaking department at CSULB, and has come up with some remarkable work, beautifully installed...
... in a small gallery entirely suited to its scale and intention. Having seen Cassie's art work develop over the years, we were expecting, I don't know... something different. We were, in fact, astonished at the maturity and level of skill she has achieved. While sparse and aesthetically "minimal" at first glance, her images are intricate, engaging, requiring intense scrutiny and participation on the part of the viewer. It's a rewarding pleasure.
Cassie works with language, "translating" it into the parallel language of art. Taking a page from books that have a special resonance for her--Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea--she painstakingly, and literally, deconstructs the text, dissecting the individual letters surgically and rearranging them alphabetically on a page adjacent to the original. From a Vonnegut page, she excises that familiar, endlessly repeated ironic phrase, "so it goes," and reconfigures the purloined fragments in a patterned sequence. Or taking a single word--"optimism"--she copies it on narrow tape repeatedly, obsessively, in tiny handwritten letters, using the tape to construct horizontal images that resemble abstract landscapes, some light, some dark, the words now barely legible but powerfully present. A neat trick, converting language into landscape.
Described like this, Cassie's work risks seeming a dry and intellectual exercise. Far from it. The obsessive quality of the labor involved suggests a passionate engagement with the texts and words she works with, and carries us along with that engagement. Her images subtly capture--and update--the emotional and philosophical core of her chosen books, the rueful irony of Vonnegut's preoccupation with senseless slaughter and the existential dread of Sartre's nausea...
In a contemporary context, given her repetitive rendering of the latter's title word, it's hard for the eye to miss the juxtaposition of the letters U, and S, and A. The mind--my mind, at least--makes an irresistible leap into the sickening, paralytic morass into which we seem to have sunk, as a country, in our recent history. The image, based on a novel from the late, pre-World War II 1930s, becomes startlingly, uncomfortably relevant.
In part, too, as I see it, Cassie's work is a study of obsession itself. In her artist's statement, she makes reference to the nature of art as "work," and what she has done is indeed incredibly labor-intensive: hence, ad nauseam. There is much lazy art abroad these days, in the galleries, and it's refreshing to find a young artist so dedicated to the persistence involved in making work that is at once truly beautiful, in the aesthetic sense, and replete with both personal and transpersonal significance. The work is also rooted in a tradition of artists using books, texts, words as medium. Now that I think of it, I recall having written the catalogue introduction for a show entitled "Word Art" back in the 1970s. It's a tradition which, as Cassie shows, is not yet exhausted. I wish I had images of her work to share. I don't. If the artist happens to read these words and has some images she's ready to share, I'll happily post them. Meantime, congratulations, Cassie. This is fine work, way more accomplished than what I'd expect to find in a BFA show; it promises great things for the future.