Almost nothing happens. That’s one way you might describe Cornell art lecturer Graham McDougal’s most recent untitled print installations, currently on display at the Olive Tjaden gallery (through January 28) and Milstein Hall gallery (through Feburary 10). McDougal bends shapes and patterns –— not unlike the way a jazz musician bends notes, taking a few shapes as templates and pushes them through a kind of machine. You quickly become attuned to these motifs (McDougal wisely sticks to black-and-white), and viewing the exhibit swiftly becomes a game of shadows.
The Tjaden gallery is small; the ten black-and-white silkscreen prints teeter on vanishing among a sea of white. But as you pace about the gallery, you fall into a hushed awe. You get the feeling that things are not as simple as they appear. What are you looking at, really?
It could be a corridor of stills from noir films. From a few meters away, one painting features a white oval against solid black. Peering at the ghostly shapes beyond the oval –— which could be an eye or a keyhole –— makes you feel like an eavesdropper (Hitchcock aficionados might remember an illustrious scene in Psycho). Then there’s another print of concentric white lines –— the close-up shot of an incriminating fingerprint on a table top, perhaps?
The cinematic quality is heightened as you vary your distance from the prints. Some classic optical illusions are at work here. Grey spots dance between intersecting lines. Striped lines quiver, and net-like forms quaver. As you step closer, the solid colours that clearly demarcate different shapes collapse into grainy patches. Some canvasses betray their appearance of solidity by glittering in the hard light. You might actually be compelled to touch some of the grid prints. The bold, intersecting lines soften and blur as you approach the canvasses; you could be perusing neatly cut squares of tartan fabric. There’s certainly a narrative or two (or several, probably) to be found in this series of innocuous-looking, mostly black squares.
Other canvasses feature black patterns on black backgrounds. The black on black, white on white prints hark back to the monochromatic paintings of the Russian painter Kazimir Malevich (notably his 1918 painting Suprematist Composition: White on White) and the American artist Robert Rauschenberg (such as his 1951 White Painting). Here, McDougal’s installation might be read in the context of John Cage’s famous remark that Rauschenberg’s White Paintings are like “landing strips for dust motes, light and shadow.” Like these paintings, McDougal’s work conjures a sense of infinite space. But beyond that, McDougal updates these earlier paintings by printing his work and relying on computer graphics; his work suggests the impossibility of pure experience in a heavily digitized age. Everything is mediatised and mediated.
In the Milstein gallery, McDougal’s laser prints are packed in taut processions that also looklike stills from black-and-white silent films (such as Richard Serra’s 1968 work Hand Catching Lead). There’s a clinical and conspiratorial air about the gallery. The space is permeable and austere; the concrete floor flinches as light streams in through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows. The setting gives the laser prints, organised in very precise lines, a vaguely industrial air. The distorted grid prints, in particular, look like badly frozen computer screens displaying building models or land use plans.
The laser prints look like ghosts of the silkscreen prints in the Tjaden gallery. On one wall, words rise and then vaporise through the various layers of each print. Fragments of phrases fly through swaying grids or grainy geometric shapes “Love,” “cooperate,” “you can,” “we are,” “Black Whiskey”. You find yourself hopelessly chasing dashes of the familiar through a very dense fog of lines and shapes. Something is passing by, but it’s too transient and inscrutable to be grasped.
There’s a clue at the entrance. The paragraph (which looks freshly photocopied) delineates replication, but you learn that only after getting over the large chunks of words that have been severely blanked out by correction tape. Suddenly the strings of prints, making very precise and bold streaks across the white walls, look like strands of DNA. McDougal unwinds the double helix, and unveils strands that are imperfect templates for new ones.
McDougal, a specialist in electronic imaging and printmaking, is no stranger to the serial image. He began exhibiting his work about self-publication and ephemera with 2007’s Proof, also displayed at Tjaden Hall. McDougal makes a brilliant move this year by displaying his art in two dissimilar gallery spaces. It’s clear that his prints react differently in each context, and this captures the idea of mediated experience.
Yes, things get lost in translation, but things are also found in translation. You just need to look a little harder.