Ruth Van Beek
Okay Mountain, Austin
Through October 16, 2010
by Wendy Vogel
What’s with the rock coozy? I asked myself in front of Le monde sans soleil (2009), the black-and-white series of Inkjet prints tacked to the walls of Okay Mountain’s back room. The most straightforward work in Ruth van Beek’s exhibition The Great Blue Mountain Range (the Dutch artist’s first in the United States), the series contains images from the Spaarnestad photographic archive that are enigmatic, seemingly flatfooted, strung together in an amusing visual sentence. The image of a black, smoothly glazed stone tucked snugly into a knit case (a pet rock’s sleeping bag?), third from left, found itself among four images of disembodied human hands clutching various minerals, a picture turned on its side of two boys atop a boulder, a cluster of diamonds twinkling against a solid black background, a crumpled crossword puzzle and three lace handkerchiefs worked subtly into improvised sculptural gestures. The formal rhythm between the oblong prints echoed the subtle equivalence between body, earth and gesture contained therein: images of a search for empirical knowledge played against each other with a decidedly female trickster’s hand.
Images of rocks are present throughout The Great Blue Mountain Range. Megaliths ordinarily are mute, but as Robert Smithson remarked in “The Artist as Site-Seer,” his unfinished 1966-67 essay, these “prime objects” could contain not only precious resources and records of geologic time, but J.G. Ballard’s “noise of history” encoded by a mysterious language. Van Beek’s stones, rather than holding the symbolic keys to a prehistoric language, operate visually as playful surrogates of objecthood and occlusion itself.
Le monde sans soleil functions as a visual key to the rest of the exhibition. Two more small clusters of photographs, a brief two-channel digital slide projection, and vitrines of photo/objects round out the show. The vitrines, containing what might be considered photographic specimens culled from a swath of geologic time, contain snapshots of pets truncated into rock-like forms from vertical folds, domestic hobbyists and blown-up Internet printouts of crystal shapes collaged onto foamcore backing. Two re-photographed collages, untitled (orange) and untitled (yellow) (both 2009) depict simple interventions by the artist to existing images. Van Beek inscribes her authorship by gluing watercolors of rock-like shapes to found photographs, covering (in orange) what appears to be a cake stand and (in yellow) a sculpture atop a pedestal. In so doing, she strips the original meaning from both a domestic and an artistic trophy-stand, reclaiming pride of place through her blocky additions. Such collagist gestures become more complex and deft in her manipulation of tourist book pages and hand-sized apocalyptic scenes into stone-shaped origami, photographs of which are shown on the opposite wall.
Van Beek’s treatment of the photographic archive as a space for play and sculptural refashioning (particularly of such feminized, hand-sized objects as leisure tourist books and—in the vitrines—baby pictures and images by nature enthusiasts) hearkens back to the history of female collagists such as Hannah Höch and Martha Rosler. Yet instead of a deconstruction revealing the terror of the beauty industry or war, her images show an easy affinity for the techniques of scrapbooking and handicrafts and, in turn, a stubborn alliance with a material world and its possibilities for smart and critical permutations. Her interventions, subtle and low-tech, become (re-)photographs that enter the cycle of exchange and distribution of her archive. There, they allow her stone shapes’ muteness to speak once more, not the language of history, but a more personal, perhaps anthromorphic slang, like what you might imagine a pet rock whispering from its sleeping bag.
Wendy Vogel is Editor of ...might be good.