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Known Unknowns and Steffani Jemison’s Stroke

Let’s consider both ends in the spectrum of possible exhibition designs. One day, you walk into a gallery and the wall texts include quotations from the artist, the curator, as well as scholars and poets responding to the work. These texts offer details and explain the nuances of the art in anticipation of any question […]

Steffani Jemison, Stroke. Slide courtesy of the Bindery Projects

Steffani Jemison, Stroke. Slide courtesy of the Bindery Projects

Let’s consider both ends in the spectrum of possible exhibition designs. One day, you walk into a gallery and the wall texts include quotations from the artist, the curator, as well as scholars and poets responding to the work. These texts offer details and explain the nuances of the art in anticipation of any question that might arise. On another afternoon, you walk into a different gallery where you notice no texts or accompanying information for the work on view. Even the artist is unnamed; the gallery and the exhibition are both called Untitled. The entire experience is undefined and open to interpretation.

Engaging with each of these extremes, Steffani Jemison’s current exhibition, Stroke, at The Bindery Projects in St. Paul teeters back and forth between the devoid and the didactic. Recently split into two rooms, the Bindery Projects now offers artists the opportunity to exhibit separate, complementary experiences. On one side of Stroke are ten sheets of acetate hung at various heights, some of them spilling onto the floor. Starting with two linear, coarse brushstrokes on acetate, Jemison imprints the strokes onto paper, scans the image to manipulate the original marks, and then prints the new paired composition onto fresh acetate. The placement of the sheets feels hurried, the marks random — but of course they are not. This is a thoughtful presentation of disjunction and cohesion: the coupled marks mutate from one to another with uniform novelty, while the sheets themselves bind the walls to the ground.

Jemison exhibits her work’s process, not its foundation. Indeed, Stroke interrogates the very meaning of ‘foundation.’ Rather than giving precedence to the origin, Jemison uses her sources, here brushstrokes on acetate, as tools for their own manipulation. Gallery co-founder Nate Young regards these sheets as Jemison’s “formal investigations of a mark. She locates, and moves past.”

Installation view of Stroke at the Bindery Projects. Photo: Nathaniel Young

Installation view of Stroke at the Bindery Projects. Photo: Nate Young, courtesy of the gallery

For the other gallery room Jemison has installed a set of projectors that alternately display a series of hand-made 35mm slides on which she has printed marks similar to those in the other room, as well as segments of sentences pulled from unattributed works of street fiction. To alleviate the typically severe transitions between images projected in sequence, Jemison has included a third machine, a “dissolve unit” that blends the slides with moments of darkness. As a result, the time between slides, in effect, becomes another image to take in, drawing us both to the adjacent pieces and to the sequence as a whole. Jemison accentuates this equity of attention by deliberately omitting specific references to her source-material. The darkness between the slides reminds me of what I’m not allowed to know.

Installation view. Photo: Nathaniel Young

Installation view. Photo: Nate Young, courtesy of the Bindery Projects

Jemison has a second show, currently on view at Juxtaposition Arts (JXTA), which is both a complement and a foil to her work at the Bindery Projects. Her roving library at JXTA, Alpha’s Bet Is Not Over Yet, embraces and makes transparent its own history through a rigorously annotated collection of periodicals emerging from the Black diaspora prior to 1950.

In combination, both exhibitions force us, as viewers, to examine the impulse to ascribe value based on such contextual information, and to consider with fresh eyes its (ir)relevance to the process of understanding a work of art.

In a recent interview for this article, Jemison explained that she uses “minimal materials to make the questions more explicit.” In fact, she has little interest in answers, instead using her body of work to question “how we characterize the artist’s production of knowledge.”

In Stroke, like a magician refusing to reveal her secrets Jemison has made her unique knowledge of the works’ origin stories at once central and irrelevant by announcing its inaccessibility to the viewer. With the slide-presentation, for example, Jemison does not claim the words as her own, but she has taken them. She knows the titles of the books, their authors and surrounding stories; the work becomes her vessel for privileged, unmoored information. We are not allowed to know where Stroke came from, or where it’s going, but we always know exactly where it is.

Exhibition information:

Stroke is on view at the Bindery Projects until this Friday, January 31. For gallery hours and details about the show, please visit their website.

Alpha’s Bet Is Not Over Yet also closes this Friday. Visit’s JXTA’s website for information about their new studios and educational programming.

Nathan Young — no relation to the Bindery Projects’ cofounder Nate Young —  is currently working on his M.A. at the University of Chicago, exploring the significance of Nástio Mosquito’s recent video-installations, which you can see at the Walker Art Center’s exhibition 9 Artists, open through Valentine’s Day.

Found Objects and the Nature of Things

In 2007, the inaugural year of the Form + Content co-op gallery, members Jay Isenberg and Lynda Monick-Isenberg designed Dialogue on the Wall, an exhibition seeking to recreate the environment at the border between Israel and Palestine. They built a 10-foot-high concrete wall to split the room, with chain-link ceilings and video-installations and performance art on either side. This gallery is […]

Karen Wirth, Found. Photo courtesy of the artist and Form + Content Gallery.

Karen Wirth, Found. Photo courtesy of the artist and Form + Content Gallery.

In 2007, the inaugural year of the Form + Content co-op gallery, members Jay Isenberg and Lynda Monick-Isenberg designed Dialogue on the Wall, an exhibition seeking to recreate the environment at the border between Israel and Palestine. They built a 10-foot-high concrete wall to split the room, with chain-link ceilings and video-installations and performance art on either side.

This gallery is a chameleon, ready to shift to the will of each of the 13 member artists’ distinct vision. Jil Evans merges abstract expressionism with references to the baroque styles of Dutch vanitas paintings. Kenneth Steinbach scrimshaws maps on ivory piano keys, and Howard Oransky makes sculptures of stone and glass with monoprints on transparent fabric. In 2009, Jay Isenberg led an exhibition tackling the housing crisis with contributions by architects, capitalists, landscape painters, photographers, scientists and educators.

LMI_LamentatinsII-01 LMI_LamentationsII-02 LMI_LametationsII-04

For the current exhibition, Found Objects, Monick-Isenberg has invited Garth Rockcastle and Karen Wirth into the mix for a cohesive presentation of artworks that live at the intersection of culture and nature. Weaving industrial material into the fabric of organic forms, Rockcastle snuggles bundles of wire and steel wool into a bird’s nest. Alongside a lizard sculpted from soda can shrapnel, he places a kitschy wooden snake beneath a real snake’s shed skin. Rockcastle’s work recalls the romanticism of early 20th-century conservation efforts against industrial interventions into the organic cycles of the natural world.

Karen Wirth literally constructs language with obscure objects. She spells “The Measure of Time” with the repurposed curves and angles of scales, rulers, and protractors. An arrangement of strange, sometimes unidentifiable tools becomes “Thingamajig/bob;” sticks, antlers, and knives articulate “The Nature of Things.” There’s peace in the symmetry of form and content in Wirth’s art.

Monick-Isenberg’s Lamentations series (see above) heightens the exhibition’s sense of reverent wonder. She makes paper a mirror to nature by drawing beautiful life-scaled copies of forlorn flora and fauna: a dead crow and a downed woodpecker, frayed rope and fractured teeth, the leaf of an Indonesian fig tree and a solemn, unopened egg. Two of her drawings include a narrow rectangle of torn fabric, a traditional Jewish marker of the bereaved; Monick-Isenberg, a convert to the faith, has named her series in memory of the destruction of the First and Second Temples of Jerusalem.

Garth Rockcastle, Hybrid Nest. Installation view, photo courtesy of the author.

Garth Rockcastle, Hybrid Nest, (installation view), photo courtesy of the author.

Taken together, Rockcastle, Wirth, and Monick-Isenberg have designed a space for welcoming, coherent conversation about the construction of culture at the expense of nature. Found Objects resonates as both funerary and celebratory. This is art presented as a gift, as a token of why we should care.

Related exhibition details:

Found Objects is on view at Form + Content gallery through August 3. For more information, gallery hours, and additional details about the contributing artists: http://www.formandcontent.org/index.htm

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Nathan Young graduated from Macalester College and will attend the University of Chicago  to study the intersections of art and economics. He owns one work of art. Find him on Twitter: @nrp_y

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