The Cerritos College Art Gallery is pleased to present marking time: selected works, 1977-2012, a 35-year survey of the fragile geometric structures and evocative video installations of Marsia Alexander-Clarke.
Born and raised in Valparaiso, Chile, Alexander-Clarke moved to the United States as a teenager, studying painting first at Park College, in Missouri, during the late 1950s and then, throughout the 1960s, privately under the pioneering Abstract Expressionist Ethel Schwabacher, as well as at the New School for Social Research and the Art Students League of New York. In the mid-1970s, after relocating to Southern California to study at Claremont Graduate University, Alexander-Clarke began to produce three-dimensional works in the style of the then-dominant Minimalist themes of linearity and modularity, à la Sol LeWitt. Her pieces at the time, however, were not primarily inspired by Minimalism, but, rather, by the indigenous structures she had experienced during her South American youth (especially ladders and gateways, with their attendant spiritual significance), as evidenced most notably by the small-scale assemblages she called Pueblos Olvidados (Forgotten Villages). This might explain why Alexander-Clarke’s pieces were always made from decidedly fragile materials, such as paper, tape, rhoplex, and string, granting them an organic liveliness that ran counter to the prevalent tech-savvy finish-fetish of the 1970s Los Angeles art scene.
As if to amplify this anthropological and biomorphic resonance, Alexander-Clarke’s works from this period were designed to be temporarily embedded in an existing ecosystem. Starting with her Nomadic Sculptures series, exhibited in 1978 at the Guggenheim Gallery at Chapmen College, followed shortly thereafter by the related series, Desert Pieces, Reverberations, and Canto Primario, Alexander-Clarke presented her work initially in a natural environment (for a limited audience, and sometimes just herself), only later to be relocated to a gallery space. The works, then, had a double-life (or perhaps after-life is a more apt term), with the secondary nature of display within the cold white cube of the gallery highlighted by the overt nomadicism of the works themselves. Like the bichos (critters) from the earlier art practice of the Brazilian neoconcreto artist Lygia Clark, most of the Nomadic Sculptures, and the other related series, were engineered to migrate internally as well as externally, collapsing upon themselves in order to visually self-reference their, to use Alexander-Clarke’s language, ‘active’ and ‘dormant’ states. As with a photographic image, the ‘sleeping’ iteration of the sculpture functioned both as an art object unto itself, as well as a representational document of something else entirely.
Not surprisingly, this challenge to the phenomenological conundrum of gallery display, coupled with her focus on the natural environment, eventually brought Alexander-Clarke into contact with a number of practitioners of the Land Art movement. In 1980, as part of the seminal multi-venue exhibition, Architectural Sculpture, which included such notable artists as Alice Aycock, Nancy Holt, Gordon Matta-Clark, Robert Morris, and Robert Smithson, Alexander-Clarke’s Reverberations series was featured on the Cal Tech campus, alongside Bruce Nauman’s Untitled (Equilateral Triangle), which, by chance, was just recreated at the MAK Center’s Schindler House last month. Unlike the commonly monolithic quality of many Land Art pieces, however, Alexander-Clarke’s joint focus on easy mobility and spiritual intimacy set her work apart, leading her in other directions going forward.
Throughout the rest of the 1980s, Alexander-Clarke experimented with additional and alternative techniques for framing motion and process in her work. Her Six Sculptures series, exhibited at Rio Hondo College Art Gallery in 1987, used wood lathing, stretched taunt with cabling under obvious and unstable tension, to suggest the fragility of form. Her Torre series of the late 1980s layered wire mesh over wooden forms that resembled flattened versions of her frequent cuboidal and pyramidal structures. As the viewer moves around these pieces, an optical effect is produced, not unlike the work of Jesus Rafael Soto, but perhaps more directly meant to reference pixilation on the screen of a television monitor. It was, after all, around this time that Alexander-Clarke began to work increasingly, and eventually primarily, with video. The conceptual transition to the cinematic medium is seen again in her Los Huesos del Nido (The Bones of the Nest) series, which bare a striking resemblance to memorial altars displaying sacred or ritualistic objects. The huesos (or bones), long wooden stelae, each lovingly frame a single cell from a 35mm filmstrip, images generally hidden within the flow of mediated motion. By isolating and highlighting the shamanic character of the secreted information within the filmic roll, Alexander-Clarke directly connected her newly adopted medium to her earlier sculptural works, such as Incubnas (Canto Primario series), which incubated hand written notes within their constructed bodies, and her T-Boxes, miniature Duchampian treasure boxes containing loose geometric forms.
By the late 1990s, Alexander-Clarke had fully integrated video into her practice, creating large-scale installations such as S-T-R-E-T-C-H-I-N-G, exhibited in two different variations at El Camino College Art Gallery and the California Museum of Photography in 1997 and 1999, respectively. S-T-R-E-T-C-H-I-N-G brought the viewer into heavily mediated contact with a victim of Huntington’s Disease, as well as her immediate family, but in a fashion that managed to effectively heighten empathy rather than filtering it into disassociation. As pages from the Book of Job scroll by on multiple monitors, suggesting, perhaps, that suffering is inherent and inevitable to the human condition, interview footage of the woman’s family fade in and out, interlaced with slow motion footage of the woman’s face vacillating between vacant expression and tormented scream. On the floor, in a display resembling a digital version of John Everett Millais’ drowning Ophelia, synced monitors present the fragmented body of a woman lying in stasis - part meditating yogi, part emaciated corpse - water rushing endlessly over her, like time itself.
The unusually didactic and figurative nature of S-T-R-E-T-C-H-I-N-G, however poetic its execution, ultimately led Alexander-Clarke to seek greater levels of abstraction in the video works that followed, returning increasingly to the modernist grid of her earlier sculptural work, which now functioned as the invisible scaffolding on which to assemble repetitious fragments of video footage collected during travel and through taped interviews. In doing so, she recognized that the representational character of the photographic medium is only amplified through video playback, which recreates not just the space, but also the pace, of time. Duration, as such, is a fundamental structural component of video and, therefore, when manipulated and modulated, becomes its primary element of expression. By extracting modular units of video footage and layering them across the geometric matrix of the screen, Alexander-Clarke was able to play with duration in complex ways that functioned to continuously disrupt the viewer’s experience of time. Recalling the looping sonic progression of Richard Serra’s and Nancy Holt’s famous video collaboration, Boomerang (1974), works such as Dan (2002) and Hortensia (2002) use post-production rather than telepresence to disorient the viewer. While the subjects of Alexander-Clarke’s video pieces are clearly not disassociated from their own subjectivity, as was Nancy Holt in Boomerang, the fragmentation of image and overlapping sound suggests a collective subjectivity of mediated precarity that resonates with the fleeting snippets of language that remain audible, such as Hortensia’s discussion of her own immigration and experience of cultural displacement.
Built upon the same utopian modernist grid as Hortensia and Dan, Ut Coelum (2003) finally removed any last remnant of comprehensible language from the composition to fully embrace a married abstraction of sight and sound. Using a performance by an all-female choir, Ut Coelum creates an impenetrable wall of sound, an auditory drone, eliciting a trance-like state of heightened visual consciousness in the viewer. The rapid and interlaced movements existing relationally between the multiple layers of video fragments function as a counter-point to the slowly unfolding motion of the musical melody. The stimulated synapses of the viewer’s mind fire in response to the visual gestures, bridging the senses to create a holistic musical score that exists only partially as audible sound. Inspired in part by the algorithmic compositional strategies of contemporary atonal and indeterminate music, and in particular the work of Morton Feldman, Alexander-Clarke increasingly saw the fragmentary video units as akin to the reiterated cellular phrases, motifs, and patterns of the minimalist music of Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Philip Glass.
Through her Compression series, including CS: Elevator (2002), Alexander-Clarke had already started to conceptually modulate the backbone of the grid, while still working within its encompassing embrace. Playing off the term in digital video production for reducing visual redundancy through removal of unnecessary data, CS: Elevator loops upon itself, each time shrinking the scale of individual video units, but only to crowd more of those very units onto the screen. As the semi-representational industrial elevator climbs from floor to floor, the viewer’s experience compounds to ever-increasing levels of visual complexity, such that more of the same becomes, with each pass, something completely new. Fusing her interest in cellular repetition and modulation with an increasing desire to break out of the limits of a simple grid, Alexander-Clarke turned back, as she often had before, to the organic, and yet still organized, chaos of the natural environment. Works such as Noche (2007) and Lluvia (2008) use compositional strategies to replicate the experience of meteorological phenomena, from the languid progression of the moon on a windy night and the ephemera of shimmering lights in Noche to the violent upheaval of rain and flashes of lightning in Lluvia. In addition, culled from footage captured during a return trip to her native Chile, the downpour of images in Lluvia alludes, as well, to the fickle nature of human memory and the impossibility of sustaining the past, including, and especially, through technological representation.
In her most recent video projects, including Lento (2012) and Yermo (2012), Alexander-Clarke’s mature mastery of her medium finds new, and yet quite familiar, territory. Reminiscent in form to her skeletal structures of the 1970s, elongated linear elements fade in and out of view, weaving together a tapestry that is forever on the loom and, as with those earlier Nomadic Sculptures, the process is, in fact, the primary goal of the product. Against a dark background, bars of color twist and turn, deconstructing the naïve utopian dream of modernist stability into a composition of deceptively biomorphic dynamism. Through a process of temporal aliasing, created by extreme cropping (a practice that can be seen in Alexander-Clarke’s work as far back as her paintings of the sixties and her photographs of the eighties) combined with the original motion of the camera, illusory motion reversal confuses the viewer’s sensory perceptions. Though harkening back to the very origins of abstraction in film and video, most notably the experiments of Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling, these newest pieces in Alexander-Clarke’s extended oeuvre have no direct precedent in video art.
David Smith was known to call his sculptures “drawings in space.” No doubt this turn of phrase was chosen to highlight a gestural aspect of his sculptures, perhaps to compensate for his use of industrial materials and certainly to firmly entrench his work within the authorial mystique tied to Abstract Expressionism. It is notable, therefore, that Alexander-Clarke uses the term ‘marks’ to describe the micro-elements of her video works, seeing each repeated cropped video fragment as an individuated unit of an ephemeral “drawing in time.” The transient nature of these ‘video marks’ suggest the perpetual fragility of the artist’s gesture. Only ever realized momentarily, before fading away or mutating into something else, they highlight both the desire and the impossibility of merging the present with the past. Witnessing these video events unfold, the consciousness of the viewer is forcibly thrust into an ‘eternal now.’ In effect, and as was always the case, Marsia Alexander-Clarke is not just marking time; she is making it as well.
The accompanying exhibition catalog includes essays by Cerritos College Art Gallery director/curator James MacDevitt, Cal State Northridge Art History professor Dr. Betty Ann Brown, and Dr. Shane Shukis, former assistant director of the UC Riverside Sweeney Art Gallery, with an additional forward by Jay Belloli, freelance curator and former director of the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena.