Exhibition at John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, WI
| New York artist Devorah Sperber's
works of art are simultaneously inviting and overwhelming, simple and baffling,
familiar and foreign. Using thousands of mass-produced items, Sperber creates
large-scale works of art that play with our sense of perception.
Sperber mediates reality by digitizing photographs and paintings before reconstructing those images as sculpture through obsessive, labor-intensive handwork. She employs commonplace objects to serve as pixels-the smallest individual elements that collectively form an image on a computer or television screen. The more pixels, or "dots" per square inch, the higher the resolution or visual clarity the image will have. While technology and industry strive to make pixels as small as possible-to enhance image quality for consumers-Sperber does the opposite. Asking us to consider what we see and how we see it, the artist degrades the image's resolution so that at close range it dissipates into an abstract exercise in color and texture. The sculptures fuse objects and images into complex experiential works that read differently in relation to the viewer's position.
Sperber's sculptural installations are immediately accessible through her use of recognizable imagery and objects, for example something famous such as Jackson Pollock's mid-twentieth-century Abstract Expressionist drip paintings or some pictorial commonplace such as a landscape or arabesque carpet pattern. Her images are not difficult to grasp; we have all seen something like them and can easily engage with them. Additionally, Sperber uses homey items such as spools of thread, marker caps, and chenille stems rather than traditional art materials to craft her works. These familiar items have the power to spark memories both personal and cultural-nostalgic scenes of mother's sewing box, markers left uncapped after exuberant use, or grade-school art projects made with pipe-cleaners (chenille stems)-which engender a sense of connectedness, a communal relationship to middle-American culture.
These unaltered and unconcealed quotidian materials, in Sperber's hands, form startlingly painting-like or photo-like images. Thanks to the work of Pointillist painters such as Seurat and Signac in late-nineteenth-century France-and ever increasingly in the age of digital photography-viewers have become accustomed to the idea that dabs of paint, or dots of color, which are abstract and individualized when viewed from close-up, can unite to create an image when seen from a certain distance. In painting "points" of color that were not mixed on a palette but, rather, in the eyes of viewers, the artists explored the physical process of seeing. Additionally, dots have been used for years in the printing industry in order to create an image mechanically. Benday dots, those tiny circles that blend together to comprise a screen-printed image such as seen in a newspaper, are commonly understood. With the advance of the digital age, we now have pixels, still a dot, but one that is highly mutable and dynamic. The pixel, from a technology standpoint, is a unit of information; for Sperber, the pixel is a point of intrigue.
Further toying with her interest in optical effects-such as those of scale on perception and how the eye prioritizes what it encounters-Sperber investigates both physical and mental aspects of visualization. By magnifying the elements of the image-the "pixels" such as they are-Sperber retards vision. In order to comprehend these expansive images as a whole, the viewer must encounter each from across the room or with another distancing device such as binoculars used in reverse or a rearview mirror. But grasping the image alone is not enough, Sperber demands further investigation from her audience.
In Sperber's earlier image choices, such as the picturesque view in Reflection on a Lake (1999) made with 5,760 strung together spools of thread or the rock wall in Virtual Environment I (1999-2000) made with 20,000 spools of thread, the colored spools that function as pixels are conjoined with a soothing image, both image and object are essentially innocuous-though their combined countenance is extraordinary. In more recent works, Lie like a Rug (2000-2001) and Shag Rug (2002), Sperber's pixels and images both evoke more complex associations. Sperber modeled Lie like a Rug on the world's first power-loomed (and American) rug, which had been modeled on a handmade Persian rug. In Sperber's reincarnation, the rug is comprised of 18,000 Letraset marker caps anchored to a flexible canvas. The colored dots on the marker caps become the pixels here, and the flexibility of the canvas allows the rug to undulate and wrinkle, appearing even more like an actual textile. Sperber's sculpture-inspired by something mass-produced inspired by something laboriously handmade-comes full circle with something laboriously handmade from something mass-produced.
Shag Rug, made with 165,000 chenille stems, draws on the visual culture of the "baby boomer" generation. Not only were shag rugs common items in the 1970's household, but the imagery she employs here-Jackson Pollock's drip painting Autumn Rhythm: Number 30 (1950) symbolizes another American innovation, the "action painting." All of Sperber's sculptures call attention to her process, of course, but the latter two inspirations are the products of sequential, physical, engrossing procedures. Pollock moved, almost danced, as he engaged his whole body in the act of dripping and flinging paint onto a canvas spread on the floor-and Sperber has wittily returned his work to the floor in this new material state, as a shag rug. For Sperber, the "action" is also of great importance, but her meticulous and even tedious process of attaching and shaping each individual two-inch-long chenille stem to its foam-board structure is the antithesis of Pollock's labor. Her relentless task is more akin to the making of the original hand-tied Persian rug, yet the image she captures, when viewed from a distance, has all the fluidity and movement of Pollock's landmark creations.
Sperber chose Pollock's "all-over" imagery as something that would easily dissolve into abstraction. She broke down the image into pixels on her computer, noting the expansive range of colors that comprise something that appeared-as a whole-to be predominantly browns, whites, and black. Sperber explains, "I was intrigued by Pollock's intuitive ability to produce high ratios of fractals in his drip paintings, thus recreating the natural world more accurately than the finest landscape painter, which may explain the experience one has when standing in front of a large Pollock drip painting. The fact that the drip paintings were created on the floor and that Pollock referred to them as 'arenas' which viewers could enter, solidified my decision to create a series of 'shag rugs' using Autumn Rhythm as a subject matter."
Besides the beauty of colors, besides the engaging imagery, besides the references to the science of seeing and to the history of art, Sperber is making a statement about labor. The work of art itself, with the rows of graded-color spools, the marching legions of caps, the crinkled fields of short chenille stems, is satisfying enough. But note that she labels or even titles the works with the quantities of their making: 20,000 spools of thread and 165,000 chenille stems. Knowing those numbers forces us to imagine her placing every single one. We envision the artist bent over like some feudal or sweatshop laborer-yet by her own choice.
Sperber is not alone in tackling obviously laborious processes; although, this combination of form, material, and method is entirely her own. In recent decades, painters such as Yayoi Kusama have worked obsessively on huge, minutely reticulated paintings. Sculptors like Tom Friedman and Tim Hawkinson have made works large and small in which an exacting sequence of repetitive actions yields a diagram or an object. Installation artists such as Ann Hamilton have created enormous works in which, amid expanses of horsehair or pennies, a person engages in a repetitive and almost mindless task like counting or juggling or crossing out lines in a book. Sperber's employment of materials is perhaps more mannerly, but with a purpose: the everyday associations of her materials recall conventional women's work and elevate it to the status of art.
It is possible that Sperber's labor, embodied in this work, is pleasantly meditative, and the artist might find both meaning and pleasure rather than drudgery in the physical actions of assembling these pieces by placing one item after another. Either way, Sperber has embedded labors of the human intellect and of artificial intelligence-in the computer pixelation and plotting that provide her with the compositions she executes in tangible materials-in her art. The feminist movement insisted that a woman should have the freedom to choose; Sperber has chosen to remain committed to physical labor and the use of the hand to shape and personalize meaning, and to use the computer as a tool.
Leslie Umberger is the Senior Curator at John Michael Kohler Arts Center.