Review of Lucy Pullen’s A Thousand Miles of Dust and Ashes

Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver, BC, Canada
March 14–April 27, 2003

Silver, as metallic substance or as a colour, as it relates to use and exchange value, and even exhibition value. Silver is central to Lucy Pullen's A Thousand Miles of Dust and Ashes , an exhibition curated by Reid Shier at the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver. The melancholy and sheer grandeur (dare I say sublimity) of the title belies the modest and idiosyncratic quality of the works on display: a silver print of the artist in a reflective silver skirt ( Still(Flash) ) a rope sculpture ( The Thing ) covered in the same silver material that the skirt was made, and a series of double line drawings on circular grounds of metallic paper ( Portals ). The connotations of ruination, even apocalypse, of the title are at odds with the quasi-scientific/futuristic tone of the works themselves.

These works defy product-oriented art practices. A sense of process and discovery are evinced by an attention to materials. Like an alchemical experiment or a geological vein, the metallic, reflective quality of silver runs through all the work. The alchemical relates to this sense of discovery and of the "magical" (I am thinking here of the invention of photography and the idea of drawing with light). An other-worldliness emanates from the silver print. Photographing the silver reflective material of the skirt using a flash at night produced this effect; her skirt becomes this empty hole of glowing light, acting as an opening through which the viewer enters or gets sucked in (like the door in Poltergeist ). The snake-like sculpture, "The Thing," a meandering tangle of ropes that rise and fall in defiance of gravity, recalls Laocoon being strangled by sea-snakes. The viewer's gaze, likewise, gets caught up in this sinuous, reflective, tangled mass--a cross between an Eva Hesse and a Jackie Winsor. The silver "snakeskin" covering these ropes is so artificial that one ends up thinking more about what lies beneath this skin, as if the ropes acted as the musculature of the sculpture. While largely abstract, the works refer to figuration; even Portals , the series of meandering double line drawings made by the artist's hand automatistically, seem to have unconsciously taken on the form of plant-life or breasts.

In the sheer eclecticism of the exhibition, one wonders what relation these works have with one another, besides silver. A vague sense of exploring the fundamentals of time and space, in the most abstract, scientific sense, seems to permeate the work: exposure time, capturing impressions of reflective light onto film; the flattening or swallowing up of a three-dimensional body by a glowing void; the phenomenological aspect of The Thing and its dependence on perambulation, with its multiple positive and negative entrance points in space; the illusion of three dimensionality using simple drawn contour lines on a flat surface. All of these basic sculptural, drawn, and photographic elements reflect back on the mediums themselves: flatness, light, dimensionality, and defiance of gravity. In a way, the spectre of modernism seems to have returned, or rather the work reminds us that it never went away, or that it can return from the future, or that future and past fold in upon themselves, as explained by quantum physics and science fiction.  

The works act as portals between past and future. For me, the photograph evokes Malevich's Black Square , a sublime model of the third dimension evoked by the second dimension, which in turn allegorizes notions of the fourth dimension through models of the third (in portraying herself in the photo is Pullen acting out the role of the artist as demiurge?). The drawings, in their very shape and linear concentricity, seem to be pointing to the self-referential deconstruction of the circular shape itself, and is reminiscent of Duchamp's, Rotoreliefs , which were perhaps a joke on the practices of hypnotism in the service of unlocking the unconscious "beyond."

Compared to gold, silver is more of a utilitarian metal (money, but also silverware). It might designate "second place" but then this exhibition is not about taking part in a competition or contest; and as far as fostering a critical art practice goes, gold tends to be too flashy and ostentatious. Silver is a more philosophical and utilitarian metal/colour. In mining such an eclectic array of materials and practices, Pullen's work presents us with a "silver standard" for experimental art practice.

(First published in Canadian Art Magazine Fall 2003)