On Nothingness: A response to two articles dealing with voids - empty, blank and negative spaces, in art
Art / Niki Johnson's Altered Commemorative Plates at Cfile Shop / Cfile Foundation.
Cfileonline.org >> by ceramofiles
Traces of Extinct Animals at the Armory Show. Ashley P Taylor
hyperalergic.com March 6 2015
Since spending two years working in Thailand, a country where aesthetic tradition seems to demand that no space is left undecorated, empty, blank and negative spaces have, intermittently, but consistently, occupied my thoughts. I had hoped that returning to Zhejiang in China, the historic centre of the Song Dynasty might repair some of the damage done to my gaze by the over frilly temples and flashing lights of Bangkok.
So it was with eager interest that I fielded two articles dealing with voids in art. First Niki Johnson's God & Country series of commemorative plates, in which she carefully abrades away the country churches that sit in the middle of these ceramic artefacts, the sort of things most grandmothers used to mount on the sitting room wall — although my own paternal grandmother, more socialist that church goer, had a thing for blue Wedgwood, which come to think of it might be where my fetish for ceramics was seeded.
Johnson, it seems dose not seek to abrade god from the history of her country and writes in an accompanying note that “God becomes visible in the depiction of cumulus clouds,” but the erasure of the architecture that functioned in communities through a single superstitious belief system provides for a wealth of political interpretation. With their sharp angles, the voids that remain hardly amount to negative space, but are prominent statements and, from this viewers perspective, can be read as comment on the dwindling power of organised religion as a communal hub.
The artist also makes note of humanity's work in shaping the picturesque landscapes that remain. However, for my part the most telling work is Frieden's Evangelical Lutheran Church, Bernville, Pennsylvania, a construction that obliterated the surrounding nature, now leaving a ghostly spectre fronted by a few dwarfed trees, neat fields and a straight traversing road, a very orderly nature.
The most appealing work in this suite isSt Paul's Lutheran Church, Dayton, Ohio, that while utilising a similar foreground motif, gives a great deal of space to the billowing cumulus. Indeed, on a closer survey of others within the series one can recognise orderly fields, with conservative arbor frills and an underscoring road as a common compositional trick. In some the trees are used as framing devices to keep the viewer'seye in the frame, or given gestural shapes that function with the road, to lead the viewer into the picture. One oddity, Elk Horn Lutheran Church, Elk Horn, Iowa, splits the composition in half with a large, almost symbolic tree, dead centre.
I don't find these plates particularly engaging, form an aesthetic point of view. The empty space is a little too harsh for my liking, but, like the artist, I recognise the power of such objects and that I certainly would not have scrutinised them as closely as I have had Johnson not altered them.But, in particular, it's the political nature of the work that grabs me, and I wonder, if she is some kind of ISIS vandal destroying the image and tradition that is still so valued by many of her country folk, what would such folk say. Then I wonder if perhaps some equally imaginative artist might see the opportunity afforded by the blank space and fill it in with some sort of more contemporary communal hub, perhaps replace nature: pastoral or wilderness. While I wouldn't find space for them in my own home I certainly appreciate the discursive space afforded by these plates.
The state of nature and humanity's dominance, or enslaving of it, is more central in the second article: Traces of Extinct Animals at the Armory Show. Here Brandon Ballangee cuts out the images of now extinct animals from early 19thcentury style prints, the period at which the current extinction era began. They are then framed and the frames placed in close proximity, in the salon style of the period, against a Victorian red wall, resulting in what Ashley P Taylor, neatly terms “a menagerie of absence”.
The resulting silhouettes work better than the angular voids on the plates, as the outlines blend with the background. This may have much to do with the close up nature of the images and the fact that the voids are not as stark. Often the branches the absent birds rest upon cut across the void and in so doing provide more detail to the spectral form. Shadow is also a key player in these works, an advantage of the paper medium.
There is a quietness within these works, that I didn't find in Johnson's commemorative plates, an eerie silence that invokes contemplation and ultimately a deep concern about the rate of extinction and environmental degradation, none more so that Ballangee's RIP Great Auk: After John Gould, in which the now extinct bird dominates the frame, in the throws of gulping down a whole fish, while in the background others stand – penguin like on a rocky outcrop. This particular work serves well to, achieve the artists desire in making the viewer “more conservation-minded” and reminding us of the current state of the polar regions.
Both these articles, report on work that interferes with illustrative artefacts, that would not, during the period in which they were produced, be considered works of art, but have since been co-opted into that sphere. In them I have found a space for contemplation and focus upon the nature of emptiness, blank and negative space, or nothingness.
Then I look out of my window from the 11thfloor of my Ningbo apartment and see the chaotic traffic, neon stabbing through grey sky gloom, hear impatient horns and hurried chatter, and lament the loss of nothingness in a province that once produced the most serene landscapes, that lifted the spirit from winding path, across still lakes to welcoming teahouses and upward to improbable mist cloaked mountain peaks. That land Marco Polo, referred to as paradise on earth. But then serenity is a casualty of developing economies and our addiction to growth at any cost.