I call it ORANGES

Art Reviews, Cultural Bric a Brac, Jargon Free

Location: Los Angeles, California, United States

I am an independent writer living in Los Angeles. I write Visual Art Reviews, General Cultural Essays, and Book Reviews.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Alexandra Grant and Synesthesia

Alexandra Grant
Honor Fraser Gallery
Through October 25, 2008

With Alexandra Grant’s work at Honor Fraser, I started to think about synesthesia, a central idea in the history of art both today and over the last hundred and twenty years. Basically, synesthesia involves a confusion of the senses or the real phenomena of one sense bringing forth an involuntary sensation of another sense. For example, the writer Vladimir Nabokov would experience the sensation of colors attached to certain letters. Charles Baudelaire and many symbolist writers and thinkers were obsessed with how one sense corresponds to other senses to create luxurious moments of pleasure – these ideas are embodied in Baudelaire’s poem “Correspondences” and in the shut-in pursuits of Des Esseintes, the main character of Joris-Karl Huysmans’ Against the Grain. One could say that the synesthesic impulse was an interesting symptom produced by a modernism where beliefs compelled unified visions and grand dreams. Now that we’ve, in a sense, given up those grand dreams, how are we to think of synesthesia? Is Grant’s work fundamentally different from the synesthesic impulse?

Grant’s work involves a mixture of the senses, the development of one sense (the visuality of painting) to stand in for taste, smell, touch, and hearing. Grant adds the mind to the mix, the central switching station of the senses. Grant’s new show presents each sense as a different “portal,” and each portal is an interpretation of texts by hypertext author and Grant collaborator Michael Joyce’s “Six Portals.” Perhaps the easiest portal to describe is the fourth entitled Fourth Portal (tongue), 2008. The work recalls a tongue, the pink orb floating in the center of the large paper like a big rubber ball. The tongue is covered in Spanish words written backwards. I associate the different words and Grant’s overall composition with medical diagrams of the tongue, with each part of the tongue associating to a different taste. On the diagram and in Grant’s work, words stand in for different tastes and flavors.

In a large way, a Grant portal is a metaphoric activity, a synthesis of ideas about language and images of senses without creating a moment of real life synesthesia. With that understood, I was greatly interested in what Grant thought of synesthesia, and in an interview with ArtSlant, I spoke to her about it.

I basically approached the issue on three fronts to see how one could think about synesthesia in the contemporary world. Perhaps the least likely way to think about synesthesia seems to be the Kandinsky version, the idea that since music is not bound in physical form, that painting should aspire to music and that aspiring to music is a way for painting to transcend the physical world and enter the spiritual world. Another way to think about synesthesia is in purely scientific terms, clinical tests determining how certain senses change and mix together under certain conditions. Still another way is what I would call the Steve Roden method, basically handmade synesthesia -- placing different vehicles for different senses together into clumsy systems, on one hand following the system but at the same time leaving oneself open to intuitive interpretation.

In interviewing Grant, I learned about her process in more detail and I was dazzled to find an interesting interpretation of all three takes on synesthesia. She told me that she was not interested as much in the use of one sense to evoke another sense, but in the exchange between our ideas (written, thought, represented) about sensation and in how we use those ideas to represent senses without directly experiencing them:

"In the large scale work “The Third Portal (ear)” I was faced with the challenge: how do I show sound? My first idea was to line the paper and lay Michael’s words out as musical notes, as a form of musical notation, but that only got me so far. The surface did not look like “sound.” Next, I used black paint to play a rhythm on the surface of the work, turning the painting into an instrument or drum. Though I may have created sound with my fingers, the resulting image suggested simple finger painting. Another idea was to think about sound in terms of structure and rhythm. I blacked out every other line. I thought of a favorite building in Barcelona where the rhythmic structure of its lines is broken up by flowers and plants growing in its windows, and so “overgrew” the lines of the work with words using a vibrant green. In a recent show at LACMA of Latin American colonial painting, there was a work that showed the word of God, literally painted diagonally across the sky as it emerged from a cloud. This painting was trying to show the word of god, the spoken word. So I chose to emulate – at least in concept – this diagonal composition. The last approach I took was one of scale: I wanted to make the largest scale word I’d ever painted to suggest volume, and chose the most spoken word I could think of: hi or “hola.” The piece becomes an accretion of all these different strategies (many of them failed) to represent sound."

So what we have in a Grant work (this doesn’t seem to be one of those times where what the artist thinks they are doing doesn’t particularly correspond with the experience of the work) are various strategies of conversion, many different ways of replacing one sense with another. These strategies are mixed together into one composition.

I was fascinated to learn of what Grant was thinking while making those images, how all of her experiences with representation had become individual, discreet “ways of perceiving” that could be mixed, used together, and interchangeable. Grant’s work isn’t like a Haiku for instance, where the actual sound of the words mimics the sounds of the poem’s content. My favorite Haiku is Buson’s “Coolness. The sound of the bell as it leaves the bell.” To me, the words “sound” and “leaves” change the chime of the word “bell.” To the modernist, the Haiku was the perfect union of form and content.

Grant is not a modernist, she strikes me more as collagist of perception, and in those collages, the spirituality of someone like Kandinsky has the same purchase as a synesthetic study in science or the misunderstanding and mistranslations of an international market. For example in Third Portal (Ear), I couldn’t help but remember that old story about Charles Demuth’s Figure Five in Gold, 1928, where Demuth claimed that he wanted an image to mimic the impact of a firetruck going by, its siren blaring. But perhaps closer to Grant’s own ambition, we should think of the conversion of Demuth’s image into an imagistic poem called “The Great Figure” by William Carlos Williams. For me, the story of Figure Five suggests a great deal about the joys of Grant’s work -- there is a constant cycling and rummaging of experience into image into words back to image and back to life. The sense that is represented (sound) is both present and yet not fully itself. In a large way, Grant’s work mimics what it is like to live -- how we organize, distort, reflect and use all the mixed up data we receive, how one sense can get in the way of another, how in a different way, a sense can augment the experience of another sense.

But maybe there is a deeper point to be made. On one hand, Grant’s work is of the moment. I can think of all sorts of ways of talking about her work that is very fashionable -- the idea of it as rhizomatic, relational, that the work it does not rely on a fixed model of human experience but is continuously open to change of context and distortion.

For me, the more important thing to note here is how quiet Grant’s work makes me, how it makes me wonder about our impulse to convert senses into other senses, how I seem to like moments of convergence more than the moments of disjoint. When Grant collages perception, she does not undermine or destroy the various “ways of perceiving” that she employs, but instead her works become generous containers of many things – logic, illogic, whimsy, sublimity, spirituality, and doubt. I tend to like this generous outlook. In contemporary art, it is easy to resign ourselves and just believe that all is frustration and that the nature of us is a twisted jumble of missed connections, but Grant’s work shows us that our pessimism is often a “way of looking,” an attitude that can be changed or exchanged for something else.