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Counting Time and the Illusion of Precision

We use numbers in an attempt to measure precisely, to know exactly of how much of something we have.  It’s perhaps ironic, then, that we use numbers to measure time, as numerical values are at once infinite, in the universal sense, and extremely limited in the personal sphere, our clocks always running.  Either way, how […]

From “Counting Time” by Art Gillespie. Photo courtesy of Douglas Flanders Art.

We use numbers in an attempt to measure precisely, to know exactly of how much of something we have.  It’s perhaps ironic, then, that we use numbers to measure time, as numerical values are at once infinite, in the universal sense, and extremely limited in the personal sphere, our clocks always running.  Either way, how much time is there? The work on display in Counting Time: Recent Work by Art Gillespie at Douglas Flanders Art explores this conundrum in a brain-tickling way.

From a distance, Gillespie’s pieces are exemplary of clean, black and white precision.  But when you get up close, you notice the chafed, uneven surface — how it looks beat up, disintegrating.  Gillespie starts with a piece of black tar paper, paints it white, and then, using stencils, painstakingly scrapes and removes the white to once again reveal blackness surrounding the letters and numbers. The dark areas are rough and full of texture, at odds with the numeric precision.  Seeing the work in person, I wondered how the pieces might be changed by digital reproduction, if the black areas lost their texture and dimension to the smooth sheen of a print. A glossy, flat rendering of his images would likely make the illusion of using numbers to communicate precise temporal information more believable: the line would be cleaner, allowing for less doubt. Which makes it all the more interesting that he’s chosen to leave room for that very sort of uncertainty, with the rough, uneven textures of reality; he’s left visible the marks of physical labor behind the works’ creation, of craftsmanship, and in so doing, he’s reintroduced the messiness of human struggle into the ideologically orderly world of scientific measurement.  His aren’t fixed, static measures; there is a neurotic, anxious life in Gillespie’s numbers.

Fortunately, Gillespie was in the gallery when I visited the exhibition, so I could ask him directly about the work. He said he’d been thinking about how he could use letters and numbers to form a line, about using them as content, and that in these works he’s exploring that idea.  That is, we know exactly what we are looking at, a letter or a word; we recognize these things. But taken together, the words become abstract, meaningless, lost in the sea of numbers, in the unyielding flow of time they are trying to represent, to capture. In this way, counting time is like trying to hold a flowing river in your hands: the water passes through your grasp, and any idea that you’re actually holding something in your hand is an illusion.

Gillespie said each piece took approximately a month to create, which means that the current show represents a year of labor. Looking around the gallery, seeing the accumulation of works as individual months of his life gathered on the wall, I felt a touch of vertigo, as if I were standing in a room surrounded by every one of those days.

I highly recommend you experience this subtle, mind-bending show for yourself. As with most independent galleries, admission is free and the gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday, from 11 am to 6 pm. If you find yourself in Lyn-Lake or Uptown Minneapolis, or anywhere nearby, you should stop in and give your mind a spin via the engaging work of Art Gillespie.

Noted exhibition details:

Counting Time by Art Gillespie is on view through December 29 at Douglas Flanders Art, 910 West Lake Street, Minneapolis, MN 55408

Jay Orff is a writer, musician and filmmaker living in Minneapolis. His fiction has appeared in Reed, Spout, Chain and Harper’s Magazine.

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