Blog Post

The Wolves from Three Angles; Or, The Benefits of the Middle.

This winter break, I had the opportunity to do a studio visit with Halsey Rodman, whose piece The Wolves from Three Angles is up in a three-person show “A Room in Three Movements,” currently at Sue Scott Gallery (http://www.suescottgallery.com/).  

I want to talk about two aspects of this piece: its painted “face” (and the gestural method that produced this face), and its tripartite structure.  The importance of the second aspect follows from the method of first, so I’ll give a brief description of the piece and then explain how these two aspects work together.

The Wolves from Three Angles is a large piece – almost nine feet long and eight feet high.  At first glance, it looks like a series of similar, but not identical, paintings on large fiberboard panels.  There are three of them, and fiberboard “flags” top each of the three units.  It’s only when you begin to walk around the piece that you see other elements: the panels on which the big paintings appear are actually structured like shelving units, and there are small gouache and pencil drawings attached to two other sides of the piece.  These elements are entirely hidden unless you move around the sculpture; further elements require an even closer inspection.  The shelves’ interiors, it turns out, are also painted, and, as you move along the sculpture, you might realize that the tones of the painted surfaces work through a sequence – the colors move in shade from lighter to darker.

The curvilinear lines of the paintings chime with some of Rodman’s earlier large pieces, The ConstructIt’s Not Getting Bigger You’re Getting Closer, and related drawings. In these, though, Rodman used a homemade projector to cast a large metal and wire sculpture’s shadow on a wall and subsequently traced the shadows made from different axes of light.  The visual grammar remains in these new painted surfaces, but Rodman has abandoned his silhouetting method. These lines are free-drawn.  Perhaps the viewer can tease out a “wolf” shape (a crested peach patch looks particularly vulpine), but the general effect is abstract and motile.  Additionally, each painted surface, while similar, is markedly different on closer examination.  One reads these surfaces as a series of similar, but not identical, paintings.  There’s a discomfiting effect on the viewer: there seems to be a logic, or at least a rubric, organizing the repetitions, but because they aren’t quite repetitions, because they aren’t quite versions, any effort the viewer takes to comprehend the method behind the piece falls short.   This is not only because so many kinds of repetition are reflected in the piece (there are three flags, all at slightly different angles; the flags are painted in slightly different shades of grey, pink, orange; the angles joining the three main “units” are almost, but not quite, the same), but also because the methods Rodman uses to signal repetition as a thematic are also multiple.  It’s a different thing to use a shaded pigment than it is to use a different angle, and both of these are different from the hidden method of gestural painting which structures the painted face of the piece, and which I’ll describe below.

My point here is that these are all aspects that one gathers through a close observation of the piece – to be sure, one must walk around and inspect each plane closely, but all of this is legible.  On the other hand, the gestural method, though integral to the piece’s argument, hides in plain sight, impossible to see as a method unless one asks the artist, or unless the methodology circulates in another way.  This draws attention to method’s status as both an argument for a project and as the (potentially) most invisible aspect of a project. Rodman explained the method this way: he paints each stroke in the piece’s figures (that is, the pinky-orange swirls on the piece’s face – the green ground features yet another method) in sequence, but that sequence is idiosyncratic and random.  Rodman begins randomly on one panel and then tries to reproduce the same stroke on the next panel, and the one following that.  Then the process is repeated, with another random panel chosen as the “first” example of a specific stroke. 

This means there is no “original” painting; they develop synchronically, though there is an order to their painting.  In this way, Rodman tests the ground between repetition (how to mimic a gesture which produced one stroke) and sequence (how to translate an effort to repeat a gesture into a (potentially) endlessly repeatable sequence of gestures)?  Curiously, the middle stroke, the stroke that contains both the shift from the first iteration to the second, and then from the second to the third –– not the experience of gesture as such (the first stroke) or the push into series (the third) – offers the project’s most flexible ground.  Rodman said that after the third stroke, he felt like he had “learned” the gesture – that it would be reproducible ad infinitum (not unlike, say, the mechanized movements of a factory worker – an idea I’ll explore more in my next post about a “performed sculpture” in which I participated).  The movement from the first to the second stroke stands in sharp distinction from that shaping the movement from the second to the third stroke.

By using these guidelines, Rodman not only produces something like free-floating gesture (a movement devoid of broader cultural meaning, but imbued with meaning nevertheless).  The residue (or trace) of that gesture remains, too.  In many ways these two points also connect Rodman’s sculpture to Brian Rotman’s work on the somatic source of alphabetic inscription, something I’ve written about here before.  But, for my purposes now, I want to think about how the middle step – the second movement – importantly pushes this behavior from act to gesture.  The significance lies in the felt difference between the repetition (the adjustment from first stroke to second stroke) and the fully gestural act (the adjustment from second, repeated stroke to third, more finely tuned stroke). 

We can imagine this as a process of registration: when we produce a lithograph, for example, we must line up the plates precisely so that the colors and lines are synchronized.  It often takes a few tries to get this “right,” and print-makers can correct their work by examining the bleed-over on the first print-run. Similarly, Rodman’s first stroke in each sequence counted as an “original,” or at least as a template – the second stroke attempted to get as close as possible to the first stroke, and the third then follows from the calibration Rodman makes after comparing the first two iterations.  It doesn’t come solely from either, but must be developed from the felt experience built up after two run-throughs.   Even if the second movement is remarkably close to the first, it’s the felt experience of that proximity that allows the artist to turn towards the repetitive—that is, the gestural. 

Aware of this, the tripling effect of the piece takes on new significance.  In some ways, the third stroke/block/shelf/flag acts as a reminder of the gulf between repetition and sequence – to actually turn a pair into a series requires one to accommodate information that depends not only on the “original,” but also the “copy.”  We don’t think of machined or repeated things this way, perhaps, but this seems to hold true (calibration is central to machine-use) and are especially true, as I’ve been suggesting here, of gestural repetition.  What’s stunning about such reproduction is, of course, how any and all efforts to reproduce gesture ultimately fail.  This is something theorist Carrie Noland discusses in her book Agency and Embodiment, which offers a corrective to the anti-phenomenological performance studies that developed in the wake of hard-line deconstruction.   Noland writes:  “…the term “reexperience” offers the possibility that through repetition, through reenactment, the subject may reexperience her own moving body as an embodied sign – that is, as a sign and as a form of embodied animation” (Noland, 191).  In my view, it’s just this kind of work managed by the the middle movement in Rodman’s curtailed gestural sequences. While the residue of the gesture remains in the paint’s matter, the method diminishes our capacity to perceive these paintings as patterns devoted to gesture’s production.  That is, we can’t “see” the sequence in the finished product – there is no conveyable “meaning” in the gestural here (no original exists in this sequence), but it’s gestural nevertheless.  

In my next few posts I’ll be discussing a “performed sculpture” I also took part in over the break.

Claire Jarvis's picture
I'm an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Stanford, working primarily on Victorian literature and culture.