A Stenographer of Wisdom, in Black and White

Interrupting Infinity Exclusive Commentary. © 2012 by David St.-Lascaux

Alice Attie’s Class Notes at the LeRoy Nieman Gallery at Columbia University
September 17 – October 12, 2012


Alice Attie, Hegel No. 4, 2011, left; detail, right.

IT MUST BE BECAUSE OF LIFE’S PERVERSITY that an attendee at the opening of Alice Attie’s Class Notes show of intricate word drawings at Columbia University told me that she mostly spends her time in silence, and that the room – and I – unleashed “a lot of words!” Silence, we know, is feared by many humans, being, as we are, communicating social animals. We have mixed feelings about sensory deprivation; we, and other animals, go so far as to make “contact calls” – acoustically assertive noises, such as humming, to insinuate our presence and stimulate response. We’ve even assigned a spectrum of colors to noises beyond the better-known white [noise] – including pink [noise], red, blue, purple, green, orange and black, the last being – you guessed it – the color of the sound of silence.

I didn’t go to Morningside to vide Attie’s goose quill glossolalia. My errand was to hear a performance of John Cage centennial pieces contrasted with those of Cage’s youthful correspondent Pierre Boulez, performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble and Steve Schick at the Miller Theater. But you know how everything connects. I had seen Schick at the Park Avenue Armory in a performance of Kurt Schwitters’s Ursonate, a seminal, asemic and poetic masterpiece with written analogs in Hugo Ball’s Karawane and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Zang Tumb Tumb, visually noisy textual innovations. Attie’s Class Notes at Columbia’s LeRoy Nieman Gallery (a reprise of an earlier show at the LES Foley Gallery) are of a kind with these.

Attie’s snippet lecture notes might be delicate Book of Kells knotworks, embroidered mental maps or elegiac daydreams.

The concept of silence extends intellectually beyond the literally obvious. It has been posited, if technically disproven, that the human mind is incapable of silence, Eastern sunyata notwithstanding. In true Western tradition, Attie’s mind is clearly revealed to be far from empty, instead in horror vacui. (Agnes Martins these are not.) Notes documents her contemporaneous scrivenings in audited classes in philosophy and physics, whose subject matter included Socrates, Georg Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, as well as Islamic philosophy (specifically, and appropriately for Attie – a poet, photographer and artist, the Andalusian polymath known as Averroes, actually Ibn Rushd).

Not having to worry about a grade – or retention, Attie took her doodle-form notes in various configurations, ranging from apparently random to patterned to pictorial. What many have in common is Marshall McLuhan’s “linear” textual flow, as Attie carries the lecturers’ elaborated yarns forward in oft-tangled tachygraphic threads, labyrinthine paths of propædeutic thought. Most favorably, these clipped snippets are delicate Book of Kells knotworks, embroidered mental maps, elegiac daydreams. Less so, they’re satanic PowerPoint bullets on thrown-down beaded necklaces, exam-cram nightmare rosaries, Anti-Sex League tattoos culled from ratemyink.com, or the cortical cosmogonies of a fastidious asylum inmate (or outsider artist Howard Finster, or Dispensational Truth-teller Clarence Larkin).

Formally, Attie impresses – and terrifies. Most “Class Notes” are penned in miniscule, neat letterforms reminiscent of those in Emily Brontë’s diary. While she says that these works were completed in a matter of hours, note well that Attie has also recorded Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy in its entirety, suggesting – on the plus side – that she has the prodigious and dedicated work ethic by which America’s Calvinistic culture defines merit and success, and on the other a psychological obsessive-compulsiveness by which America’s Calvinistic culture defines merit and success. Her earlier Molly Bloom stream-of-consciousness soliloquy from James Joyce’s Ulysses (in the Contemporary Erotic Drawing show at the Aldrich Gallery in 2005) is perhaps most metaphorically analogous, given that the interior dialog (the last, vanishing vestige of human privacy) is the brainspace in which note-taking and thinking – critical and creative – occur.

There are many examples of art containing words, and adherents to the practice (indeed, Attie was in Text Messages, a big-name group show at the Adam Baumgold Gallery in 2007). To connect a few dots beyond the many obvious (such as the similarity between Attie’s composition and decorative paraphs, pattern poems and lace), Attie’s whip-tail spermatozoa links resemble those of the late data artist Mark Lombardi, who similarly connected nefarious government gangsters, gun- and drug dealers, and banksters.

Attie’s work reveals how the process of creation feeds itself, and the power of the artistic subconscious. No doubt these works evolve as they unfold, as Attie accedes to the human urge for the representational – the visual analog to the writer’s narrative. So Hegel and Heidegger get profiled faces – of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s buried Ozymandias, of M.C. Escher’s floating ribbon möbius, of Man Ray’s Imaginary portrait of the Marquis de Sade, of an Aztec tlatoani (ruler; literally, “well-spoken”), a desiccated Egyptian mummy, or Milton Glaser’s (Marcel Duchamp shadow puppet self-portrait derived) Bob Dylan. Like Pablo Picasso’s flashlight drawings, these works are fluid, evoking the professors’ blackboard armsweeps. Others we may struggle to resolve: In Attie’s hands, the physics lectures yield microscope fields, strands of DNA, and a wireframe Eustachian tube, maybe, or the lecturers’ dance-step podium meanderings.


Islam No. 1, 2011, left; detail, right.

There are a few things these works don’t do that represent opportunities for Attie. Henri Matisse‘s sooty pochoir etchings are the equal (and opposite) of his positives; it’s given that Attie’s works will have impressive presence in negative. Paper’s planar surface also limits her expression: Attie’s two-dimensional flow charts beg the question of 3-D representation (while the unintended thesis that thought is linear no doubt has neurological implications). To contemplate reconstructing these in audible or film format is also intriguing. On the other hand, if Attie’s goal is to occupy her time, she’s already got her hands well full.

Reflections of an active mind, Attie’s intricate artworks are opposite the meditative states of alpha-theta relaxation.

As anyone who’s attempted Heidegger knows, the content of these works is daunting. A few are simpler, such as the show’s most arresting piece – a Socratic mandate, repeated in green (the U.S. Government-certified color of the “noise of the everyday world”), blue and black that one should “Take care of oneself.” Because it needn’t be read, one can focus on its form, and it exerts an active presence. And because its shape is irregular, it is, in the context of Attie’s patterned and pictorial work, more entropically sophisticated. Its message, however, is anathema to me: unlike Socrates’s admonition to “Know thyself,” this one, which boils down to the Western Civilization’s egotheistic motto, “Look out for Number One,” in its logical parsing, may be consigned to the Niccolò Machiavelli / Adam Smith / Ayn Rand rogue’s gallery. When one trades in words – which have meaning, even when used as pictorial elements, one must expect they will be read. Attie’s Islamic notes, indeed, include the lecturer’s conveyed wisdom that “G*d” – our favorite, ungoverned and so Ultimate Individual – “does what he wants,” if you didn’t already know that. (Attie didn’t record whether the lecturer was wry enough [aside] to dispute upon whether the Divinity also plays dice, since he apparently can.)

As bright and hard-working as she obviously is, Attie is probably not making any cynical editorial statements about the merit of lecture as a means of delivering information, of the ultimate futility of achieving comprehensive human understanding, or of information overload as an accelerating fact of life. Rather, she’s converting thoughts to pictures. Reflections of an active mind, these are opposite the meditative states of alpha-theta relaxation. For that, the black noise of Cage’s 4′33″ provided subsequent, if temporary, cosmic relief.

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