MIKE WOMACK Spectres, Phantoms, and Poltergeists
September 15 – October 15, 2011
Unlike most visual art exhibitions, which tend to avoid discrete liminal moments of “beginning,” Mike Womack’s current show at ZieherSmith literally takes place on the other side of an unambiguous and quasi-magical threshold. Hulking in the entryway is a slab of blue-gray stone tabled on a crude wooden scaffold. Directly behind this peculiar object, affixed to the wall, a page of text is informally pinned. These mysterious elements mark the conceptual and physical gateway to the exhibition, suggestively titled Spectres, Phantoms, and Poltergeists.
That piece of Bluestone was, until a few months ago, sitting in the ground below the window Walt Whitman gazed out as he wrote his canonical poem “Song of Myself,” which, as one might guess, is the source of the aforementioned page of text. A passage from it is circled informally in blue pen:
To walk up my stoop is unaccountable … I pause to consider if it really be / That I eat and drink is spectacle enough for the great authors and schools / A morning-glory at my window satisfies me more than the metaphysics of books.
Like Uncle Walt, Womack has a knack for locating the profound in the modest, but also the modest in the profound. His prior exhibitions have watched him demystify complex technologies by breaking them down into basic components, and here Womack ingeniously plays off Whitman’s grounded humility to once again distill the phenomenological rudiments from moving image technologies whose power to mystify and mesmerize have evolved with the proficiency of a supernatural force.
Moving beyond the sculptural threshold and into the darkened gallery, which the artist has reconfigured for the purposes of this show, an undulating cerulean wall glows like a signal-less digital television. In fact, Womack purposefully set out to distill the intense emptiness of that familiar digital blue and present it on a larger and more dramatic scale. Its oddly iridescent but slightly matte surface both reflects and absorbs light, creating a paralyzing active/passive visual stasis. Aside from being knee-bucklingly gorgeous, and possibly the estranged love child of Richard Serra, Yves Klein, and James Turrell, “Blue Screen” provides the perfect literal and metaphorical backdrop for the conceptual jewels emerging from the interior darkness.
If the complexities of 19th century “reality” inspired Walt Whitman to reflect on the modest profundity of nature’s delicacies, Womack similarly reflects on our contemporary state of hyperreality, as seen through its visual eccentricities. In “Millions of years and a split second,”he pairs an image of video fuzz from an analog television signal with the pattern of mica and quartz from a slice of granite, formed millions of years ago in the earth’s mantle. The visual similarity amounts to a bizarre example of convergent evolution, juxtaposing timelines that are rarely placed side-by-side. Civilization’s clever domestication of the electromagnetic spectrum is conceptually upstaged by the cosmically vast conditions that gave form to the granite. Like “Song of Myself,” “Millions of years” amounts to an expansive reflection on the power of those little things whose chorus overwhelms the brilliance of individual voices.
Mike Womack has earned his stripes as an extraordinary phenomenological investigator, dissecting the mechanics of color and video bolt-by-bolt, reassembling them with the skill of a capable and peculiar visual poet as well as a clear analytical thinker. This coherent baseline affords him the latitude to perform some conceptual jazz without losing the beat.
Though every piece in Spectres retains the same level of intellectual and mechanical integrity that informed his past work, one feels freer than ever to appreciate it on a purely aesthetic level.
His kinetic video installation “We Are a Particle Stream” arrests the viewer with Tinguely-esque sculptural whimsy before exhuming the scientific ghosts haunting Eadweard Muybridge’s famous clip of galloping horses. A motorized string whips into a sine wave like a jump rope in the path of the clip’s digital projection, capturing the granulated packets of red, blue, and green that make up what one imagines to be black-and-white imagery. Watching this visual lesson unfold is by turns lovely and illuminating, like looking through a handmade microscope at atoms that make up the ground we stand on, and then noticing for the first time how handsome an atom can be.
Womack is one of the rare few who bypasses the innumerable interpretations of mechanically reproduced imagery and engages with the grammar of the imagery itself. With this in mind, Whitman, rather than Baudrillard, Lyotard, or Jameson, seems an apt touchstone. It’s also refreshing to take in a show partly founded on a literary conceit that eschews Brecht, Carver, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Apollinaire, et al. With all those seductive and fashionable tomes weighing down the shelves of fine art libraries, rarely does one encounter an artist with the inclination to source a text as foundational as Song of Myself.
Womack’s peculiar and enigmatic installations have moved a step beyond the hardware-store phenomenology we’ve seen and taken on an air of something magical. And there’s a certain irony in the title of the show, Spectres, Phantoms, and Poltergeists, because, while it possesses a supernatural eeriness, the haunting is primarily from the ghosts in post-industrial machinery, rather than from extra-material wraiths. But even so, Luddites and believers alike will leave a bit haunted by his spectacular technological exorcism.