Making it implicit: “Expanded Communication” at Bay Arts
Before Modernism, art drew upon a store of symbols common to all—or at least common to all the classically and biblically educated gentry who made up fine arts audiences. Modern and postmodern artists deconstruct common symbols, or dispense with them altogether. A contemporary artist’s pigeon need not represent the Holy Spirit—it could just as easily be an embodiment of resilience against the challenges of urban life, or a representation of the vulnerability of nature in the face of industry, or just a bird that perches on the windowsill of the artist’s studio. Contemporary artists do not assume a background of shared context, but actively shape the context in which their work understood.
Stephanie Kluk and Rebekah Wilhelm’s exhibition Expanded Communication is an exception to this generalization. In this show, now on display at Bay Arts, ambiguous images are given minimal interpretive context, leaving viewers largely free to devise their own readings.
Walking through the gallery, viewers are confronted with a black and white photograph of rippling water, under which a submerged child spreads their arms. Black hair floats as if freed from gravity, and is distorted by the water to look like the messy stroke of a thick brush.
Elsewhere, attendees will see a print made from a crushed piece of paper pressed under an inked metal sheet. The image is shaped like a heart—not like a Valentine’s Day hearts, but actual hearts that you would find in someone’s chest. Crinkles spread across the ovoid’s interiors like fine little veins.
Neither image has a title. In fact, every piece in the show is untitled. A lack of titles closes off one common starting point for aesthetic understanding. However, in Expanded Communication, the lack of interpretive guideposts is deliberate. Kluk and Wilhelm are interested in “implicit communication,” the transmission of ideas through non-explicit, non-overt means. Appropriately, the joint artist statement is brief—just two sentences—and therefore can be quoted here in full:
As Artists, our work is in essence an experiment in communication; a hopeful translation of personal ideas and ideals to an abstract and unknown audience. The work of Stephanie Kluk and Rebekah Wilhelm deals with this concept of implicit communication, both through process heavy production of work and the conceptual framework in how what is made can communicate.
Kluk and Wilhelm’s work is “experimental” not because the form or content of their works are new. Rather, it is experimental because the artists are attempting to express things which have not been said before in these ways. These mediums have not been employed to convey these messages. Though some of the work (Wilhelm’s especially) contains elements of chance, it is not intuitive; “ideas and ideals” guided its production. However, the artists tried to make as few assumptions about their (“abstract and unknown”) audience as possible. Therefore, they cannot know if their ideas and ideals will be successfully conveyed. Nonetheless, they are hopeful.
Kluk, the director of operations at Zygote Press, is a photographer employing a photolithographic printing technique. All seven of her pieces feature an unnamed child submerged in water. Some feature the child in a pool, but more often, they are in a sudsy bath. The child’s gender is unclear, as is their age. However, they are clearly not older than seven. The child is white, but not overly pale. Their hair is long and dark. Their crown, neck, shoulders, back, and limbs are shown, but not their face.
The lack of faces allows viewers to flit between interpretations of Kluk’s work as figurative pieces and abstractions. Just as we can switch between seeing the duck and seeing the rabbit in the famous ambiguous illustration, we can consider the photos either as depictions of a human form interacting with water, or as explorations of pure color, shape, and motion.
All the photos are shot from above, suggesting Kluk was standing over the child as they swam and bathed. The downward-looking perspective emphasizes the smallness of the child, even when their body takes up most of the frame. Especially in the bath, this perspective emphasizes the child’s vulnerability. Therefore, we sense parental affection and protectiveness. When the child examines a red toy among the bubbles of a bath, we share Kluk’s curiosity at the child’s own curiosity.
This is one possible reaction to Kluk’s work when it is taken as representational. But again, Kluk’s work welcomes more abstract readings. A trio of images are essentially pink color fields swirled with black and russet. The swirls are the child, shot blurrily from behind. The child does not appear to be moving—the photo depicts them sitting down in the bath. We can therefore hypothesize that the blur effect was made by moving the camera while the picture was taken. This makes for interesting commentary on the relativity of motion and space: A fixed point can look like it is in motion, if the observer herself is moving.
Wilhelm’s printing techniques boldly surrender much of the outcome to chance. To make her works, she applied ink to a metal plate, and then placed a crumpled piece of paper onto the ink. An unstained sheet of paper was placed on top, and then the plate was run through a press. The resulting image imposes onto two dimensions the 3D texture of the crumpled paper. Some images bring to mind a lightning bolt frozen in the sky, or a single moment in an amoeba’s transformation from one blobby shape into another.
But we shouldn’t approach Wilhelm’s prints the same way we approach cloud-gazing, looking for patterns in random configurations (“I see a dog!” “Look, a tree!” “Oh, there’s a—!”). If they represent anything, they do not represent via resemblance. Rather, their meaning is legible only when we consider the process by which they were made.
A handout available in the gallery explains what techniques Kluk and Wilhelm used to create their work. Here, Wilhelm tips her hand somewhat, and offers a semi-explicit notion of what her work is about. She writes that each print captures “an elusive moment in time.” When we look at one of her images, we know that the paper was crumpled like this for only an instant. However, a record of that instant is preserved in the ink. The transient has been captured, the dynamic made static. If they can be said to represent anything, Wilhelm’s prints represent time’s fleetingness, and our semi-successful efforts to grasp onto memory.
Expanded Communication runs through November 11 in the Sullivan Family Gallery at Bay Arts, located at 28795 Lake Road, Bay Village. For more information, call 440-871-6543 or go to bayarts.net.