The Process of Reading Becomes an Act of Creation

It is a big deal when an internationally-recognized artist comes to town—particularly one who has local roots like Ann Hamilton. Her current exhibition,reading at Carl Solway is not the kind of large-scale, multi-sensory, immersive installation that one might expect from the artist.

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Instead, the curated exhibition consists mainly of text-heavy prints that have informed and supported past projects. reading might most resonate with Hamilton’s fans in the way she emphasizes her own artistic process. It also marks the occasion of the gallery’s publishing of the book Ann Hamilton: book weights (human carriage), which features glossy images of the exhibition’s eponymous prints.

Included in the exhibition are the eighteen aforementioned large-scale archival inkjet prints of collateral materials from her Guggenheim installation human carriage, (2009); two of the actual carriages, which are pictured in the aforementioned prints; seven double-paged blue prints of open books with Hamilton’s personal notations; two smaller pigment prints from 2006; eight unframed, black and white archival inkjet prints; one wide digital pigment print; and a variable speed spinning video projection dating from 2000. The works are either text-based or make metaphorical allusion to the act of reading—an integral part of Hamilton’s art-making process. While continuing her examination of cerebral subjects, the publishing of printed editions (both photographic prints as well as books) is an economically savvy move, making her nearly uncollectible work collectable as prints, a long-established Solway tradition.

The strongest component in reading is Hamilton’s book weights series, as it is one of the only groupings included in the exhibition that successfully captures the quality of monumentality in Hamilton’s oeuvre. In her accompanying book, the artist described the “act of finding” that led to the creation of these prints. Upon scanning the face of small stacks of book text she used in the Guggenheim installation (created by guillotining thin lines from paperback books and rejoining them via bookbinding methods) for inventory purposes, Hamilton and her assistants discovered an “unexpectedly beautiful body of work.” Indeed, the prints appear much more impressive in size and scale than their real-life counterpart.

The two bound carriage(s) arranged on waist-high pedestals in archival glass vitrines near their printed counterparts, are surprisingly diminutive and fanned out to reveal their components, looking almost like primitive neck collars or headpieces for tiny beings. While integral to one’s understanding of the prints’ origins, they also diminish the monumentality of said works. Additionally, by placing the small sections of book text underneath glass, the artist unexpectedly underscores their quality as precious objet d’art.

Much of what is included in reading is antithetical to Hamilton’s past work—or at least the work for which she is best known. However, reading seems to be a window into her artistic method. In PBS’s iconic art21 series, Hamilton said, “The paradoxical structure of my work is often to engage that place of in-betweenness; to engage it, not to make a picture of it, not to make it its subject, but actually to try to work at that place in a way that demonstrates it, that’s demonstrative, that occupies it.” Thus, Hamilton typically explores boundaries of doing and being by making work that attempts to materialize the invisible, as in the red dust which trickled down a white wall, revealing Braille lettering in Myein, (1999) her installation for the Venice Biennale. Furthermore, although she has made photographic & printed editions in the past (she has several previous books and typically references written works when interviewed about her art,) her approach has been less about the final object than the experience. One such example is her photographic series face to face, in which Hamilton placed a pin-hole camera in her mouth, making it into the photographic aperture.

The artist’s interest in the art-making experience is consistent. Hamilton’s emphasis on process is particularly evident in the variable speed electro mechanical spinning video installation, (ghost…a border act. spinning video), (2000). The continuously looped film projected clockwise around the walls of the back gallery is a close-up view of the tips of fingers holding black pencil writing on white paper. The camera (a pen-sized “stylus” Hamilton has used in several past installations) focuses solely on the pencil hitting paper, thus emphasizing the mark-making—the trace of the act. The accompanying audio seems to emanate from the walls as the pencil draws, and either the film is looped backwards at some point or the act of watching makes the paper seem to fly underneath the pencil and not vice versa.

Hamilton’s pseudo-performance at the exhibition’s opening, in which she asked audience members to read single words from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Circles,” off of alphabetically arranged 8.5″ X 11″ sheets of printed paper, may have been the most “Ann Hamilton”-like element of the entire exhibition. This ephemeral act demonstrated the artist’s commitment to experience but also alluded to her reputation for engaging local communities and creating site-specific installations—something this exhibition would be without, were it not for the opening night’s performance.

Throughout the galleries, we are provided with allusions to Hamilton’s process. Her personal thoughts/notations are revealed in the scanned blue prints (themselves metaphorical references to the act of creation) of the artist’s own books used as research. Each title of the seven blue prints are the respective titles of the actual books, proceeded by the word “reading…” For instance, the blue print reading… “Poetry and the Fate of the Senses” by Susan Stewart. In this work, Hamilton underlined “what we measure is the interval between a beginning and an end,” manifesting her interest in boundaries of being and doing, and wrote “materialize” in the margins, reaffirming the artist’s commitment to the labor of art’s creation.

The action of reading is, like the exhibition of the same name, a trace of doing. If one might find a fault with reading, it is that some of the printed works are unnecessarily over-scaled, as in the eight black-and-white one-word unframed archival inkjet prints in one of the back galleries. One might argue that the curators were trying to include some weight of physicality to Hamilton’s show to compensate for the disparity between this and her immersive installations, which so often include massive amounts of materials within imposing spaces. However, in emphasizing the process of art creation the artist & curators reveal that looking at and thinking about words is an integral part of Hamilton’s artistic process.

– Maria Seda-Reeder

Ann Hamilton, reading at the Carl Solway Gallery, 424 Findlay Street Cincinnati, Ohio 45214. Tel. 513.621.0069, Gallery Hours: Mon-Fri: 9am-5pm, Sat: 12pm-5pm.
Through Dec. 23, 2010.


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