Monday, August 18, 2008

Review of Caitlin Wells MFA exhibition: Waiting Room REVIEW BY MANDY ESPEZEL

Caitlin Wells’ MFA exhibition from the University of Alberta’s printmaking department is a collection of seven mixed media wall mounted images, and three video pieces; two of which are projections, the other a horizontal series of four small screens. In the first seven works, Wells builds up images using a combination of grids, intersecting lines and fluctuating ink stains. The videos are time elapsed documentation of ink tablets dissolving and absorbing into paper, streaming in forward and reverse sequence. The show as a whole operates as an implied conversation between structure and chaos.

Both mediums serve as visual representations for the larger ideas that Wells mentions in her statement for the show. She talks about how the transient nature of life informs the work. Visual art is used as a tool for understanding and communication. In Wells’ lexicon, graphs become symbolic of the ordered world, where we document change in order to decipher the events around us. Time can be represented in a consistent and unified manner; broken down into an easily recognizable format. The ink stains function as signifier for the un-ordered and individual, an abstract and unpredictable component that cannot be totally controlled. By combining these elements, Wells works to reconcile the incongruent.

The physical wall pieces make use of some very fundamental and well controlled visual essentials. There is the structural base of the grid representing a system of measurement and control. On top of this float the intricate ink forms, shifting in tone and density. In some of the pieces, interweaving lines bind around the ink-figures, connecting them to one another, exchanging information. Wells complicates these images by varying the surface qualities. One element may be extremely glossy, one matte, co-existing in the same atmosphere. There are also some surprising components of physicality, where pieces of clear or black material protrude off the canvas one or two inches thick. The graph paper is used to depict an environment that both balances and contrasts with the ambiguous shapes of the ink stains. The components are structurally minimalistic, but Wells assembles her chosen forms of mark making into complete and challenging images.

She uses the same basic visual elements in the videos, but the process of ink staining and drying becomes the central focus. One projection shows a tablet of white substance dissolving into a stream of liquid that creeps over a black surface, and then is shown being sucked back into the tablet in reverse. The second projection is similar, but features a black tablet on white paper. Instead of a stream, the black ink feathers out all around the central source. When played in reverse, the stain peels back over the paper fibres with reluctance. The four smaller screens document this wetting and spreading process as well. Instead of being projected onto the wall however, you look down on these screens, as though observing some ongoing experiment. The graph paper re-appears in these videos, adding to that quality of investigation.

At the start of Wells’ artist statement, she has a quote from Alan Lightman’s novel Einstein’s Dreams. Lightman spoke at the Arts and Science Symposium back in November of 07 as a part of the Cultural Capital of Canada programming, and his ideas about how we interact, and about the relationship between Art and Science have clearly influenced Wells’ practice. There is a visual emphasis on balance in these drawings, and the repetition/reversal of the videos encourages concentrated observation. There is also an intensity that exists within this subtlety. The embracement of specific visual cues allows for absolute dedication to there signified meaning. The reason the graph paper is successful as both a formal element and as conceptual representation, is that Wells believes totally in the power of that representation. Her ink stains provide contrast and tonal complexity, but they also function figuratively, evoking loneliness, or frustration, or humour. The opportunity to read into these pictures is endless because of the place they strive to inhabit: between the literal and the representational.

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