Intersecting at familiar angles that recall the pages of a book left open, the walls of the upstairs gallery of the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts act as meticulous displays for the intermedia exhibition Painting Between the Lines. Reading these spaces the way we would read a book—from top to bottom, left to right—viewers encounter, first, the names of authors and the foundational texts that they penned, including Marcel Proust and Swann’s Way, Milan Kundera and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Albert Camus and Exile and the Kingdom, and Sylvia Plath and The Bell Jar. Beneath the text, worn copies (mostly first editions) of the novels sit beneath small plexi vitrines; to the right of these rarified objects, one excerpt taken from the books’ pages. These (sometimes lengthy) quotations all call to mind some visual image, and it is from there that the exhibition takes its cues. Commissioning works of art based on these segmented portions of famous texts, Painting Between the Lines fills in the visual information that is left out of the organization of black-and-white letters on each literary page.
Painting Between the Lines extends Wattis curator Jens Hoffmann’s exploration of literature, which began with his trilogy of exhibitions on the classic American novels The Wizard of Oz, Moby Dick, and Huckleberry Finn. In these previous exhibitions, the novels provided a thematic frame, and Hoffmann used the parameter of the novel to pull together a grab bag of contemporary works, historical documents, and artifacts into one topical melange. For Painting Between the Lines, however, the approach is slightly different; rather than providing a broad sweeping idea that speaks (sometimes in ways that seem tangential or essentializing) to the works present, literature is dissected, here, into micro-moments. These short passages relate specifically—even if abstractly, in some cases—to the visuals provided by artists including Jordan Kantor, Fred Tomaselli, Clare Rojas, and Raqib Shaw.
Though the apparent reason for the exhibition, the paintings seem somewhat secondary to the texts in the exhibition. Despite that, some of the paintings commissioned for the exhibition are quite lovely, though I hold the suspision that the ones I was drawn to would end up as favorites even if they were hung in a white-walled space sans the yellowed books and lengthy quotes beside them. Clare Rojas’ interpretation of a seascape described in Proust’s Swann’s Way is simple, minimal, elegant; Maaike Schoorel’s work, a reinterpreted vision of a portrait described in Daphne de Maurier’s Rebecca is barely present, ghostly. On the other end of the spectrum, we find Raqib Shaw’s carefully wrought embodiement of a winter scene described in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Here, a rich palette of glittering blues reminds us that we aren’t seeing a painting that Dostoevsky would have recognized, rather, a re-envisioning cast with a contemporary sheen.
Painting Between the Lines enacts a visual game of telephone: the original quote as the anchor, the painting as the second step, and the written descriptions of the paintings of the quotes serving as a final (and perhaps unintentional) element in the loop. Though, in the end, I might prefer my own imagined visions to many of the paintings present in Painting Between the Line, the exhibition asks interesting questions—how do we visualize what we read, and in turn, how do we verbalize what we see?
(Images: Fred Tomaselli, Study for Night Music for Raptors, 2010, Collage and resin on panel, Courtesy the artist and James Cohan Gallery New York/Shanghai;Marcel Dzama, The Rebel Waltz, 2007, Acrylic on panel, Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner Gallery, New York)