by Matthew Parrish
"Radio Rocks and Quick Constructions"
at Larry Becker Gallery through June 21st, 2008
When I see a painting, I attempt to isolate components of it to figure out where its essence lies. Is its quality enriched more by its spatial arrangement or its tonality? Its frame or its figures? Its fresh use of materials or its expansion of a genre? I hope my slicing and dicing fails because the best art usually becomes so due to an artists' ability to orchestrate diverse elements into a beautiful, unified conclusion (i.e. better art is a textured and balanced whole rather than a singular part).
But what if the essence of an artwork doesn't lie in aesthetics? Since I've seen a lot of paintings, I have a sense of what is good within the world of painting. I can run a new paintings' redness through my mental database of red paintings to compare and contrast. But what if an artwork's distinction exists in a different field like, for instance, technology? What if my search for what makes an artwork good leads me into a discipline about which I know very little?
Ever since Duchamp's Rotoreliefs from 1935 (Google it), artists have been incorporating technology (exact definition suspended) into their work. Duchamp's Rotoreliefs had a distinct aesthetic appeal (their dizzying, off-balance circles) that made the bridge between art and technology instantly perceptible. The pieces were beautiful and mechanical.
Dove Bradshaw's installations in "Radio Rocks and Quick Constructions," currently showing at the Larry Becker Gallery (through late June), are tougher to read. The immediate visual aspects are simply piles of rocks (Wissahickon schist, Pocono sandstone, and a basalt mixture) whose beauty are strictly of nature and not of the artist. The press release says that the arrangement of the rocks was "chosen to evoke cairns once used as Neolithic astronomical markers" and they "also function as multidirectional antennae." While I enjoy this connection to a primitive astral yearning, I also recognize that this facet or canton is not where the heart is. Tied and twisted through these pyramidal arrangements are wires, speakers, and small contraptions holding crystals and minerals. When one leans close, one can hear, depending on the work, slight "harmonies," buzzing, or a local radio station. Bradshaw has, with the help of inventor Robert Bishop, built "homemade" radios.
So, I've achieved my goal of finding the essence of the artwork and it lies in the context of the history of radio ingenuity, something that I know nothing about. In the framework of Bradshaw's career, when one considers that she's lived elbow-deep in the wonders of alchemy since 1969, this employment of rocks as transmitters is poetic because it adds another function to her primary medium. Not only can the chemical wonders of nature make aesthetically pleasing artworks, they can also function as means towards universal communication. However, when one disregards the internal logic of Bradshaw's oeuvre, one is left wondering if these radio constructions have anything that renders them distinct from commonplace high school (and basement) experiments.
The gallery statement reveals the following: "For the first time for this exhibition a radio telescope in North Carolina will directly transmit live radio emissions from Jupiter. Random radio storms including S-Bursts--sounds of less than a hundredth of a second occurring during storms lasting two or three hours--and Bow Shocks--the sound of solar wind-flow hitting Jupiter's magnetic field will be captured." I don't doubt the validity of this claim but I do wonder if the temporal aspect of this occurrence isn't coincidental. Did Bradshaw's specific structures garner this happening? Or did Bradshaw highjack the work of North Carolinian scientists (the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute to be exact) to add grandeur to her exhibition? To clarify: Could the North Carolinian scientists have transmitted these signals through any radio or did they singularly need Bradshaw's radio for this function? From my blind perspective, the former seems more likely.
With the preceding assumption cemented in my mind (unless someone proves otherwise), Bradshaw's art is pushed from magical to quirky and the essence of the work transforms into a routine science experiment adorned in primitive dressing. Don't take this assessment as an outright dismissal of her art, however, because the fact that Bradshaw continually finds new ways (within the context of her work) to dissolve the boundary between art and science is valuable in its own right. She was a forerunner of this effort and her work perpetually exhibits an innate interest in the materiality of things that we all can relate to.
Since the show, I've watched videos on YouTube of people making radios in order to try and find a standard for comparison, but my expedition is in its early stages and I can't relay any results yet.
NPR did an interesting series of articles/recordings titled "Where Science Meets Art" which can be found here. It includes write-ups about Bradshaw's kin and contemporaries Robert Smithson (see Spiral Jetty) and Ned Kahn (see Encircled Void).
Monday, June 9, 2008
by Matthew Parrish