Elizabeth Mead’s Signatures

by Charles Palermo

Elizabeth Mead’s latest project, a series of works in ink on paper, is called Signatures.  That is because the paper in almost all cases is folded in half and paired with another folded sheet so that their folds meet.  The ink image, which appears continuous across the two outward-facing half-sheets, looks like a two-page image that crosses the gutter of a book, so that the two folded sheets read as signatures, in the book-binding sense.  In fact, Mead has used a spacer of some kind to keep the folded sheets from lying flat.  This foregrounds their three-dimensionality and thus their resemblance to the spring of a bound book opened somewhere in the middle.  The way the signatures are mounted and framed—in shallow boxes that reiterate their rectangular shapes—makes this feature of them into a prime feature of one’s experience of the work.  The signatures cast shadows inside the box, which echo the vertical sides of the folded sheets and enter into a play with the verticality of the sides and edges of the boxes.  The shadows the signatures cast below them draw the profile of the pages’ curve onto the lower margin of the box, like the section-view of an engineer’s drawing, reminding the beholder of the signatures’ resemblance to an open book.

The continuity of the images across the “gutter,” then introduces a, if not the, key feature of Mead’s signatures: the fictional spaces of the image read as different from the discontinuous surface of the support.  If (and this is not the only alternative) one reads the ink image as a landscape, the gutter is not part of the landscape.  It does not assimilate itself to the fictional space of the pictured world; rather, it remains a fact that needs to be overlooked in order to make the landscape into an image of a continuous, open space.  This basic and crucial feature of the signatures requires several kinds of qualifiers, wherein lies much of the pictorial and ontological interest of the series.

The images are drawn with sticks dipped in iron gall ink.  Sometimes, ink or water is added with a loaded brush.  But the image is worked with sticks.  The character of the image varies considerably from work to work, and often within a given work, in the density of the pigment and in the continuousness of the ink’s coverage.  Some works are relatively dark and define their shapes on the spread surfaces of the folded sheets very clearly; others fade into the sheet, leaving little sense of their distinctness from the space of the folded sheets on three sides.  Some works achieve, then, the openness of landscape drawing sweeping over wide, distant planes while curiously aligning the lower edge of the image with the horizon, which suggests a kind of ground plane that recalls the ground planes of ancient Greek vase painting and the low horizons of Dutch Baroque landscape, all at once.  The result is an identification of the horizon with the lower framing edge of the image, a collapse of the fictional and the literal that intersects the opposition of the image space to the surface of the folded sheets at ninety degrees, so to speak.

This attention to the shape of the image points to another tension in the signatures: sometimes the clearly defined and clearly shaped boundaries of the image make the internal articulations left by the flow of the ink as it is moved with the stick seem like the texture of an object’s face—an object whose contours are the contour of the image.  These images tend toward the condition of still life, in which the image offers objects in isolation.  For them, the space of the page becomes a no-where defined by the objects’ presence.  Other images—typically with more rectangular formats—tend more toward landscape, so that one wants to look through their formats, as if through Albertian windows, toward internal articulations in the fields of ink that suggest clouds, terrain, suns and moons.  There, the space around the format becomes the space outside the image—external to it.

Of course, it is not so simple.  For instance, the objects’ shapes sometimes relate in conspicuous ways to the gutter that divides the image-space.  The space of the support enters into a relation (of unspecifiable priority—which could be said to come first?) with the object, as if it caused or reflected a division—a break—in the pictured object.  Sometimes, in images that incline toward landscape, dark incidents or gaps in horizontal pictorial elements mass themselves around the gutter, suggesting that they correspond (again, by some mysterious correlation) to some kind of crisis in the continuity of the landscape itself—a columnar thunderhead or a gorge that lets light shine in a dark line of hills.

In other cases, irregularities in the contour of the image can vacillate between appearing as accidents in the movement and absorption of the ink by the folded sheets, on one hand, and as part of the image—a luminous corner of light that erodes the solid grey mass of a cloud, a knick in the contour of a compact, stony object.  The task of defining the image itself is the task of feeling the willed in its relation to the accidental; the distinction becomes the distinction between the interior and the exterior of the image.  A space of reserved sheet inside a darkened space can be a mark of the stick’s imperfect contact with the page—an expressionistic or wabi-sabi aesthetic—or it can be a sun shining behind clouds, just bright enough to transmit its light and approximate shape through them or a moon high in a night sky.

These differences, these axes around which the signatures arrange themselves, call for responses.  They call for interpretive commitments, decisions about the care or haste, the willed or free, application of ink.  About the priority of gutter and gorge in a landscape, fold and break in a stony object.  The crisis that divides the landscape at the gutter can feel like a crisis, a divide, in time—as if the gutter divided a landscape in such a way as to locate the beholder in it, to arrest him or her in transit across it.  As if to say: this is where you are in the landscape or this is where the cleft in the stone admits your hand.

The formats of the images that read as landscapes—when they do, which is to say, when the beholder is able to see them that way—can narrow toward the top, often very slightly, but in a way that one might feel belongs to conventions of perspective or some other kind of projection.  Often, a projector sitting at a slightly oblique angle, tilted up or down, to its screen projects such a trapezoidal image.  This can suggest that the image one sees is not a projection of a deep space in the world, but the projection of an image of such a view.  If that is the case, then one’s relation to the “pages” of the “book” whose signatures join where the folded sheets meet starts to become problematic.  One is used to looking at a book as if one’s own position in relation to it were a matter of indifference, resting the book against one’s knees or laying it flat on a table or propping it up against a stack of other books.  To find in that page-space the evidence or conventions of projection serves, like the crisis in the landscape or object that locates in time and space some event or presence that orients the beholder to it, to raise issues that throw into relief the signatures’ relation to and difference from a book (and its indifference to the eye’s position).  If the image narrows at the top, perhaps I should place myself below it, like the projector, or above it, so that I see its anamorphosis revised to proper form.  But I will feel that narrowing as calling on me to understand my literal position (whatever it may be) in relation to the one(s) it projects for me, just as Masaccio’s Trinity projects a place for me among the mortals, just below the threshold of another, projected space.

All of these effects pit one’s literal experience, one’s sense of what one sees, against provisional interpretations, one’s sense of what or how one is meant to see.  All of this is to question the givenness of the work of art—to refuse the identity between the work and the object and to insist in various ways that the task of seeing the work is a matter of understanding what has been proposed, not of experiencing what is given.  This, one feels, makes the choice of the book the crux of the project.  That choice determines the signatures’ shape, places them at the intersection of the three-dimensional form of the codex and the space of the page.  But it also places them in relation to conventions of reading and printing and binding that are at odds with the seemingly natural and untaught experience of pictorial seeing—of visual recognition and resemblance.  What joins these opposites is the signature, which binds the page into the book and locates the beholder in the image.  It is also the name for the artist’s mark, the sign that asserts the artist as the one who authorizes such recognitions and interpretations, the will that expresses itself clearly or withdraws into ambiguity.