Renee Gladman: Narratives of Magnitude
On ViewArtists Space
January 13–March 18, 2023
Mathematical symbols and equations nestle inside agitated blueprints of attenuated white line and centrifugal bursts of color. At times these expressions assume ordered linearity and at others, they are arranged in delicate but inscrutable swarms of disarray. As it turns out, these equations are sometimes sound: close looking reveals that musical notation is often littered among familiar signs and variables. ppp (pianissimo) begins to look deceivingly like calculus when added to variables, when solving coalesces with hearing. The variables here are unsolvable and these equations don’t mean anything. But of course, they don’t have to. Visiting Renee Gladman’s work is an exercise in moving outside of the strictures of knowable language, expanding into an uncertainty where math has nothing to do with finding determinate answers and everything to do with indeterminate movement, with inchoate space ready to be filled.
Gladman’s creative practice is a gathering between poetry, architecture, and drawing that might be broadly described as a ceaseless pressuring of meaning, a dauntless questioning of the relationship between signifier and signified. Gladman’s exhibition at Artists Space begins with reading—an appropriate entrée to her visual artwork, which is always deep in the murky boundaries between looking and reading, and between writing and drawing. The text that we begin with (written by the artist) is not so much an introduction as it is a disorientation to the indeterminacy that lies underneath systems of meaning. Its last line is a search for a form that seems impossible but is made possible in the drawings that hang in the next gallery: “I wanted math to be about how not knowing had a shape and then I wanted the shape to have something like a cloak you could put over it and place inside a fiction.”
The drawings themselves could be described as blueprints—diagrams of consciousness and feeling. The viewer follows the lines and arrows darting across the page like chalk on a blackboard, an unfurling of subliminal knowledge across blank surfaces. This aesthetic vocabulary directs us plainly toward the visual history of scientific knowledge production. A suite of nine pastel drawings collectively titled Slowly We Have the Feeling: Scores (2019–22) bears resemblance to the matrix-like sketches we might find in the scientific treatises of the Enlightenment era. Neatly drawn circles overlap with linear slopes and projectiles. But these symbols of order and topology are troubled by forms that recall the grammars of expressionism: smudges of colorful pastel and frenzied strokes of white pen that yield knotted forms rather than crisp lines. This dance between science and whimsy returns us to the musicality that the work’s title refers to, unsettling that enduring yet terrible dualism between the empirical and sensual ways of knowing.
Elsewhere in the gallery, drawings like Untitled (shash vector yellow) (2021) reference planetary charts. Here, glowing and viscous orbs of teal and turquoise pastel, coupled with a yellow arc, float on black paper like moons and planets against the inky void of the cosmos. But instead of charting any astrological facts, they seem to chart wonder and uncertainty: mathematical equations inside one of the moon-like circles have been redacted, and undulating eruptions of curving pen set the page into a state of dynamic unpredictability. The drawing gives shape to Gladman’s quest “to make the not-knowing look like knowing so that I could know it.”
Gladman’s literary work, which has included speculative fiction like Houses of Ravicka (2017), and meta-narratives on writing like Calamities (2016), has rigorously questioned the relationship between writing and other systems of meaning—drawing in particular. In these texts, Gladman articulates writing as drawing and vice versa: both are languages, modalities of description that take a line as their basic unit. Gladman’s drawings at Artists Space are an elaboration of this instinct. Entangled in Gladman’s colors and forms, the language of math and physics takes on the ambling cadence of poetic lineation and the free play of abstract draftsmanship. Here, we encounter writing as the undoing of meaning, as a way of drawing language without signifying anything. To use mathematical terms, Gladman’s drawings assume an asymptotic relationship to meaning: they are a subterfuge of form that steals from a familiar morphology of language, but denies us the ability to divine it. She dissolves language by torturing its shapes, taking them to a sort of bursting maximum, a weaving and curving tension that is almost gluttonous.
Take Untitled (moon math) (2022) for example: a cursive-like line of curling ink wanders on and on, forming something resembling a paragraph of written text. It is niched in a swirl of boisterous loops, arrows, and open circles. I lean toward the textual scribbles on the page and realize that none of it is legible as words; it is a mass of continuous inscrutability, an infinity of writing without words. Like the circular forms that surround it, Untitled (moon math) has no beginning or an end. “The line bore its own diacritical mark inside itself as a tendency for waywardness. Line [is] always about to go off like an unheld note,” writes Fred Moten in an introduction to Gladman’s 2020 book of drawings One Long Black Sentence. And indeed, Gladman’s lines are sustained errantry, ambling in all directions and none. Her drawn writings stretch on and on, and her pen sustains uninterrupted contact with the page for what feels like hours, feeding off of its own circuit of energy without pausing for breath. Here, writing is not so much language but motion, dynamic flow across the page.