MAKERS: Rebekah Wilhelm
The first time I saw Rebekah Wilhelm’s work I was seriously frustrated. The piece was a large installation of tiny scraps of paper strung together like a chain mail screen (above). On each piece of paper was a word, just barely legible in the dim light of the gallery. As I found myself struggling to read the words and piece together sentences it dawned on me: oh wait, I’ll bet this is exactly what she wants me to be doing. I became an instant fan.
Wilhelm’s work isn’t easy. She tests the limits of her viewers, challenges them. As she explains in her own words, “with my work I attempt to push, examine, and test the power dynamic and relationship between myself and my audience.” Whether or not you are aware, as an art viewer your traditional role is to receive what the artist is presenting. Sure, you bring your own knowledge, culture, and experiences to the interpretation of what you are seeing, but artists have the ability to control your experience. Wilhelm likes to toy with her ability to manipulate the viewer – often controlling how much information you can even glean from the piece in the first place. And sometimes she makes it truly difficult (she told me an anecdote of a woman actually screaming at one of her installations because Wilhelm had rendered the words in such a way that they were unreadable).
Wilhelm isn’t the first artist to explore the viewer’s responsibility or the role language can play in this exchange. Joseph Kosuth immediately came to mind back when I was straining my eyes to read her installation (an artist she later told me she greatly admires). Kosuth’s work isn’t about having a lovely, casual, art-viewing experience. For example, his installation Zero & Not (below) consists of crossed out words wrapped around a large room – nearly impossible to read. To add even more to the viewer’s task, some are in German (taken from Freud’s writing), and they are also presented out of order.
This is an analytical work to be sure – and it’s a work of art that can only truly be appreciated if you are in the room to experience it, struggling to piece together some meaning – in other words, the finished “work of art” as such is not nearly as important as the idea behind it. In all likelihood the words on the wall were just painted over, because there is no object here, merely an idea.
This is the essence of conceptual art. As defined by Sol Lewitt (another artist that Wilhelm admires): “In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”
Like Kosuth, Wilhelm’s work challenges the viewer, and it is also largely conceptual – in the end the finished object isn’t nearly as important as the road it took to get there. I had a chance to chat with her about her process during a recent visit to Zygote Press (where Wilhelm is the shop manager), and she showed me some of her new work, with which she is continuing to explore some of these ideas.
On the surface, these new prints seem fairly simple – almost abstract – a single folded-up piece of paper on a black ground. You can appreciate their aesthetic qualities, admire these quiet compositions and Wilhelm’s ability to achieve a calculated but delicate sense of balance. They float on the surface like studies from an origami manual. But because these were made by an artist that has a penchant for pushing her viewers, I had a feeling that there was far more behind these elegant new prints than can be seen – so I asked Wilhelm how she creates works such as these:
“A new artwork begins in my studio as a question or proposal in my mind. The first two to three weeks of a project is all thought work, ruminating on the question or thought that I was/am interested in, writing and editing thoughts. During that time I try to clarify my idea, think through how that idea or concept can be visualized and or translated, what process and materials would be appropriate, and if it needs to be visualized. I approach a finished piece of work as a type of proposal to answer a question or thought that I am interested in.”
During this rumination period, Wilhelm mostly explores her idea through writing – putting words to paper is a crucial part of her process. Ideas come, some are edited, some are discarded – and I’m imagining her floor strewn with crumpled up papers. These new prints (above) to me resemble notes that have been tossed away. Each contains a single ghostly etherial shape, but there are no words on these papers, no indications of meaning. As a viewer, going down that road won’t work, because basically all you are looking at is just a folded piece of paper. But I started to enjoy thinking of each of them as a discarded idea – maybe these ideas didn’t make the cut, but these wrong turns can still be hauntingly beautiful.
Technically speaking, you are looking at a Pressure Print Monotype Lithograph. Wilhelm makes each print by inking up a metal plate, then placing a crumpled up piece of paper directly on to the ink. A fresh piece of paper is placed on top, then it is run through a press (above). Obviously there is a large element of chance when the paper passes through the machine, and as each is one of a kind there is a lot of trial and error involved. The resulting image is surprisingly graceful – each individual print capturing an elusive moment in time.
A second group of prints features multiple sheets of paper crumpled across the entire plane of the composition. These are made the same way, but now Wilhelm is dealing with far more variables as she crushes several sheets of paper through the press. With more complexity comes more movement. As your eye scans the surface, the folds transform into peaks and valleys – for me the entire piece becomes a landscape of discarded thoughts. Here is the pile I envisioned, the discarded jottings that could potentially fill a nearby trashcan. There’s definitely a bit of chaos here; these are not nearly as composed as the singular sheets. I enjoy the conceit that these are all castaway, unrelated thoughts comingling – a helter-skelter combination of invisible text.
But maybe in this mess you might re-discover “the one”, “the winner” – you might have inadvertently tossed the answer to all of your questions into the bin. Now I am looking at the single sheets as ideas that were once lost in the chaos of discarded thoughts, but when revisited proved to be able to stand on their own.
I’m reminded of seeing British artist Tracey Emin back in 2007 raise a flag on a flagpole along the Thames that said:
ONE SECRET IS TO SAVE EVERYTHING.
Her contention was that even the mistakes in life, the discarded ideas and failures are worth saving. “Everything in life is worth something, even the most painful experiences” she said to the crowd. “From every mistake I make I try to save something good out of it.”
I realize that all of these thoughts and interpretations of Wilhelm’s lovely new prints are largely occurring in my head, when in reality all that I’m looking at is a folded up piece of paper. This is why I’m such a fan – Wilhelm forces me to do some work to truly appreciate her art – but trust me, it’s worth it.
Currently Wilhelm is in Dresden, Germany making prints at the Grafikwerkstatt as part of the Dresden Exchange. Supported by the Ohio Arts Council, this Exchange sends two Ohio artists to work in Dresden every Fall, and brings two artists to Zygote’s workshop here in Cleveland from Germany. Wilhelm will be back to show her work in a two person show at Bay Arts with Stephanie Kluk, that opens Friday, Oct 13 from 6-9 pm called E X P A N D E D Communication. You can see more of her work at Rebekahwilhelm.com.
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