A loss for words

Sep 4, 2002 at 12:00 am

It’s the exception rather than the rule that art confronts trauma head-on. Notable unflinching examples include Picasso’s Guernica, the artist’s response to the Fascist bombing of the Spanish town of that name, and Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat, the republican painter’s reaction to the French revolutionary’s assassination. More often, the relation is much less direct: the anti-art gestures of the Dadaists in revulsion at the slaughter in the trenches of World War I; or the flurries of notes of the beboppers in free-flight beyond the limits of Cold War repression.

For the better part of the past year, Detroit artist Lynne Avadenka has been producing a series of works on paper in response to the tragedy of Sept. 11. The untitled series combines a range of printmaking techniques with elements added by hand to create dozens of unique artworks. Each piece is one of a kind. However, they all share two things: the typeset phrase “bodies at rest; bodies in motion,” repeated over and over in rows and layers; and rounded symbolic forms, in black-and-white and in color, that appear in various configurations.

While the series is motivated by the events of Sept. 11, it actually continues Avadenka’s long-standing concern with the idea of loss. To be sure, Sept. 11 was an emphatic reminder of the absolute contingency of things, how conspicuously and irrevocably susceptible to loss we are, both as individuals and as a community. But Avadenka’s work reminds us that we live always in the shadow of death, which can come at any time. The role of art is not to provide us with a means to forget the pain of that dreadful fact, but instead to help us sustain a relation to it.

The text “bodies at rest; bodies in motion” refers to the second law of Newtonian physics, which states that bodies at rest tend to stay at rest and bodies in motion tend to stay in motion. Densely printed across each of Avadenka’s compositions, the phrase is meant to evoke on one level the moment when bodies hurtling through the air at near-supersonic speed violently collided with inert bodies occupying the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the outer rings of the Pentagon. The phrase also recalls the bodies now resting in peace and those mobilized into action because of the attack. Produced by sending the same sheet of paper multiple times through the printing press, the blur of misaligned words visually registers the shock of impact at ground zero.

The rounded shapes are drawn either freehand or with stencils. Some forms are simply circular or elliptical outlines, suggesting the corona of an eclipse, the cyclical patterns of planetary orbits and other celestial movements through the cosmos, or perhaps more grimly the “atomic shadow” of vaporized bodies. The more-solid globular shapes evoke the corpuscles of human blood or stains on a laboratory slide. Funnel-like whorls seem to represent vortices of energy, yet the modeling of three-dimensional volume on a number of these shapes indicates that they could be coverings of some kind, such as the coiled wrappings of a mummy or the filled sack of a body bag.

The notion of duality pervades Avadenka’s series: in the contrast between the purely black machine-made letterforms and the colorful variety of the hand-drawn, hand-painted elements — and similarly in the explicitness of the typeset message and the ambiguity of the visual symbols. There’s also the duality of the physical and virtual designation of space, especially in works where a thin piece of paper is fused onto a larger, heavier sheet by pressure from the printing press, creating an actual difference between the background inside a composition and the otherwise blank expanse of space around it.

These dualities reference the double nature of all artworks and how they sustain loss. For an artwork is a thing, an object, with a meaning, a subject. It’s a synthesis of inert matter and animate spirit, a combination of physical form and expressive content. The “work” of the work of art is also twofold in the sense that it is a noun, referring to the object itself, and a verb, referring to the process of making it. In other words, an artwork is a body at rest, which bears the touches of art work, that is, the actions of a body in motion, specifically the artist’s.

Upon further reflection, however, the duality of the work of art collapses like a black hole. For regardless of how earnest the artist’s intention, how passionate her expression, however much she has tried to free the life force from the confines of dead matter, what remains in the work of art of the art of working it is only a residue, a trace of the artist’s process. The artwork is in this sense a corpse, an empty vessel, left behind by the spirit that created it. It is thus a ruin, a fragment, something that can never be whole, even though each individual artwork is in and of itself a unity of the elements of which it consists. While the “work” of art as a noun (the body at rest) is always present, the “work” of art as a verb (the body in motion) is forever departed.

Avadenka’s series acknowledges this paradox in that while the concept of the project is simple enough, the actual variations on it are endless, therefore making it impossible to comprehend the concept in its entirety. As a result, the particular expression of the concept will always be incomplete. All we have are the partial, inanimate vestiges of the living mind from which the thought emerged, and the only resolution to the dilemma is to recognize that there is no resolution available. We must live with the incompleteness, sustaining our relationship to the loss of the body in motion, the remains of which are at rest in the body of the work, because there is nothing else we can do.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Avadenka’s series in response to Sept. 11 is untitled for no other reason than that she just can’t find words to adequately express (which is to say find a way to put a limit on) what is intended by it, even as she continues to labor at its production and to believe that there is a compelling reason for her to keep doing so. This “something that cannot be expressed” is also known as the ineffable. It is, ultimately, the subject of all art.

No Detroit gallery exhibition is planned for Avadenka’s Sept. 11 series. Instead, she has created a limited-edition postcard featuring an image from the series, and the words “Try to remember the kind of September” from the Broadway play The Fantastics, and “Yet they who passed away long ago are a burden on our fate,” from Rilke. She can be reached at [email protected].

Vince Carducci writes about art in context for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]