Day Jobs, Dictators and Musical Scales: Carol Szymanski at Tanja Grunert
Carol Szymanski: My Life is an Index at Tanja Grunert Gallery
September 15 to October 18, 2015
33A Orchard Street (between Canal and Hester streets)
New York, 646 944 6197
There were essentially two bodies of work festively commingled in Carol Szymanski’s solo show, “My Life is an Index” at Tanja Grunert this fall — each made under different circumstances. A portion of the work was squeezed out in free moments while performing a demanding day job. The rest of it was deliberately produced as part of the artist’s recently resumed full-time studio practice, which had been set aside about a decade ago. The show makes a case for why, even if you have to keep your day job, you should find a way to keep making work. Her book of wry daily accumulations, called Cockshut Dummy Desk Version (2004-2015), was the heart of the show. Note the word play in the book’s title: “Cockshut” and “Dummy” are synonyms, albeit obscure, chosen by the artist for the words in the name of London’s The Evening Standard tabloid, which she passed on the newsstands during her workday commute. Reminiscent of an old-school library reference tool, the 12-inch stack of two-hole-punched, letter-size pages were bound by a pair of upright metal loops. 11 years in the making, the self-published tome was presented on a small vintage table with a stool in the middle of the gallery. The book’s culturally diverse, encyclopedic content has been shown previously in different forms. To support her family, Szymanski put her studio practice on pause in the early 2000s to take the aforementioned day job as an investment banker, the demands of which only left time for composing one daily email — of images, text or both. The subjects of her messages were based on free-association responses to her day’s experiences paradoxically organized around the comprehensive epistemological classes found in Roget’s Thesaurus. Hillary Clinton-style, the emails have been saved, printed and bound.
Cockshut Dummy was reformatted in two ways in the exhibition: uploaded digitally on a wall-mounted iPad installed near the front door, and edited down to a single quote in 833, Cheerfulness; “Ciao Berlusconi, Libia sta benissimo, non c’e problema” (2015), which was silk-screened on the opposite wall. The phrases in the title of the work which comprised the selected quote broadcast — in large dark blue, hand painted letters — the cheery words of former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi to his pal, Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi just before their respective falls from power. Szymanski selected the quote because it most perfectly represented the profoundly absurd and dangerous sphere she was privy to while working inside an established financial institution as world markets collapsed.
By presenting the book in these different ways the artist established a loose formal connection to the second, more recent body of work spilling around the space, reviving the artist’s multidisciplinary exploration of units of expression. Szymanski’s 12 tone interjection series (2015) graphs Arnold Schoenberg’s modern musical scale with involuntary vocalizations, two-letter musical alphabets, an encoding of color with different emotions, hand gestures, and composite letter forms. Framed in white, the silkscreen print presents 8 rows of text and pictograms stacked in 12 columns banded in the colors of the spectrum. In correlating these multi-sensory elements, some created by the artist and others credited to writers, scientists and musicians from the last five centuries, Szymanski offers us rudimentary tools for building new languages, presumably in order to think new thoughts. The work on paper functions as a Rosetta Stone-like key to her newest work; she has also translated its concepts into various physical forms, including here neon sculptures, shaped floating inflatables made of Mylar, abstract cibachrome photographs and flat, single-image paintings. Content from Szmanski’s two oeuvres was also intertwined in musical compositions by Betsy McClelland performed in the gallery by Ekmeles Vocal Ensemble during the run of the exhibition and in readings by Mary Ann Caws and Barry Schwabsky.
The artist’s consideration and practical application of the philosophy of knowledge is the fundamental connection between the pieces associated with the book and those related to the 12 tone series. How, as part of making our way in the world, do we make and use categories? Recent brain research shows that language, which is dependent on classification systems, is one of the drivers in the evolution of the structure of our brains; what and how we think ultimately affects what we are capable of conceiving. In a 2014 interview, Szymanski cited the work of cognitive linguist George Lakoff, author of Women, Fire and Dangerous Things (1987), as one of her inspirations. Lakoff summarizes the potential for his new way of organizing our thoughts, “[We] will be considering … a shift from classical categories to prototype-based categories defined by cognitive models. It is a change that implies other changes: changes in the concepts of truth, knowledge, meaning, rationality—even grammar.” Cockshut Dummy alloys specific information Szymanski gleaned from her work in the material world with the artist’s philosophical concerns, while the 12 tone series reveals the artist’s response to related ideas made in a cloistered, open-ended context. Overall, the more recent, brightly colored work creates an upbeat, scavenger hunt aesthetic with Szymanski celebrating the freedom of her return to the studio.
As with the new research on the workings of the brain Szymanski’s more recent work overall feels bold and intriguing, but also somewhat preliminary; some of her objects suggest but don’t fully embody her ideas. Ironically, while engaging to ponder, the instructional 12- tone chart took some of the fun away from one’s own decoding of the images and materials in the show. I found myself musing about alternative installations of the exhibition where a reduced selection of work was included. The iPad, 12-tone chart, the neon and floating sculpture appear superfluous to the viewer’s explication of such engaging objects as the book on its table, the photographs, silk-screened wall text and a set of smaller paintings and photograph fragments exhibited in a cluster. Cockshut Dummy, created in a less-is-more environment feels more inherently resolved and tied to the tenor of our times; a weighty prize for the deserving winner of the show’s party game.