St. Louis Art Museum

Nov 3, 1999 at 4:00 am
It's probably too early to look back at the art of the 1990s and try to identify a catchword or phrase that sums up the zeitgeist of the decade's art. But maybe it's not too soon to make some observations on what appear to be recurring motifs in much recent art. One of the most prominent of these motifs is, odd as it may seem, ambiguity.

Perhaps the current fixation with ambiguity is a result of turn-of-the-millennium anxiety. There's certainly a precedent for that. At the turn of the 19th century, artists in Europe and the U.S. turned out some of the strangest, most twisted forms ever seen. Art Nouveau designs were chock full of anxious ambiguity -- they were at once beautiful and nightmarish, thriving and decaying, familiar and otherworldly.

Current artistic pursuits of ambiguity take on a variety of forms. Artists destabilize sexual categories; they cast into doubt standard models of knowledge; they pressure distinctions between experience and memory, the past and the present, art and life, fact and fiction. This occurs in the identity fictions staged by Cindy Sherman and by Yasumasa Morimura; in the orchestrated spontaneity of Jeff Wall's photographs; in Matt Mullican's grandiose but phony cosmologies; or in books like The Factory of Facts by Luc Sante, a "biography" that proposes a multiplicity of possible pasts for the author, all or none of which may be to some degree "true."

At its worst, this kind of ambiguity in art can amount to lazy equivocation. (It can also be used to excuse bad art.) But at its best, it can be productive, reflecting and adding to the richness of knowledge, experience and expression. It's this kind of ambiguity that appears to be at the heart of a group of new works by Joan Hall that make up the Currents 79 show now on view at the St. Louis Art Museum.

Hall heads the printmaking area at Washington University. But though the works in this show incorporate print processes, they also seem to want to be more than prints; they are simultaneously works of papermaking, painting and mixed-media sculpture with kinetic potential. In the shorthand description, the six works in this show consist of multiple, large-scale layers of printed paper, attached to one another only at the top edge, and hung on the wall.

The shorthand description, however, doesn't do the works justice. For that, a closer look is necessary, beginning with the paper itself. Hall, appealing to Japanese models of papermaking, uses gampi paper and handmade kozo. Kozo is made from the fleshy inner bark of the mulberry tree, which yields a translucent and lustrous paper, the material of choice for making Japanese shoji screens and calligraphy paper.

Hall treats her kozo paper sculpturally -- the sheets bear the mark of their making, showing off fibers and pocks and varying in thickness. Some of the sheets are tinted while in the pulp stage; others are printed after they are dry. Hall also paints with paper -- that is, she uses tinted pulp to draw or paint patterns, forms and structures onto paper.

Typically the more translucent sheets, some as large as 10 by 7 feet, make up the top layers. They only partially obscure the colors and patterns on the sheets below, which are bold enough to register on the surface. In "Gale Drift" (1999), this effect is especially strong: Abstract symbols appear to seep into the top layer from some uncertain point of origin in the lower depths.

The experience of "reading" one of Hall's works is akin to visually skimming the surface of the ocean to see what's hidden in its depths. Colors and forms are legible, but it remains uncertain how deeply they are embedded or to what degree they are distorted by what covers them.

The evocation of water is conscious on Hall's part. An avid sailor, Hall has certainly observed the magical effects water can have on light, color and form. She incorporates all sorts of watery effects into her layers of paper, from the glint of its shiny surface to the more solid density of water's mass.

The drawn patterns and forms embedded in the layers of these works also make oblique references to the water. The strange drawing floating on the intense blue-silver surface of "Rogue Wave" (1999) looks something like a nautical chronometer. But its scientific pretensions are belied by the unschooled scrawl with which it is rendered. It's a scientific tool rendered in a nonscientific manner; its meaning is richly ambiguous.

Other works in this show evoke the water in more subtle, formalist ways. One of the very finest is "Tangle in the Triangle" (1999), which consists of eight layers of paper -- the top ones translucent and membranelike, the lower ones dense or gauzy -- harboring grid patterns and abstract forms. Over the top of this complex mixture, Hall has suspended a narrow panel of glass, with aqua-colored linear patterns sandblasted into the surface. The work is a complex evocation of water and light, liquid and solid, permanence and ephemerality.

Hall's pieces also call to mind the beauty of paintings by Mark Rothko. Rothko knew that in the right combination, color and scale alone could make for a powerful and emotional viewing experience. His huge colorfield abstractions were meant not to overwhelm but to embrace the viewer and produce an intimate encounter. Hall's works are comparable in scale to Rothko's, and her sure handling of formal elements is just as moving and intimate.

But Hall's works contain a dimensional quality that Rothko's oil paintings don't have. Each layer of each work shows the evidence of its making, only to be obscured or transformed by another layer, and another, and another. The result is not a single, discrete work of art but an accumulated record of several working sessions. Each piece can be read like a palimpsest that echoes ideas and experiences but never issues forth a definitive statement. And there is a beauty in this ambiguity.

Currents 79: Joan Hall is on view at the St. Louis Art Museum through Nov. 28.