Ruth Laxson at Marcia Wood Gallery, Atlanta (catalogue essay) (2008)

Glenn Harper
artdesigncafé - art | 12 October 2011
This essay was previously published in a catalogue for the exhibition Life is a Page: Ruth Laxson at Marcia Wood Gallery, 29 May - 5 July 2008.

1. Artists’ books are a hybrid medium in terms of process (hand-made, letterpress, or offset press; the artist operating the press or regarding it as a print job for others to produce) and in terms of the aesthetic object (the book-as-object, the sequence of pages, the binding, the content). And the book artist often takes a particular route into the medium (printmakers, conceptual artists, painters, and sculptors each have particular points of view and expectations of the book-as-form). Ruth Laxson is a book artist in a more specific sense. Her visual books are neither addenda to work in another medium nor illuminations of texts of her own or from other writers. She is fully invested in the book in itself as a medium for art. Her restless mind is in constant confrontation with paper, type, the press, and with the circumstances of the individual in the world. She brings together on the flatbed of the press a panoply of human mark-making and sign production and aesthetic form, from musical and scientific notation to handwritten and typeset language.

Ruth Laxson shares with Gertrude Stein a seemingly childlike yet serious play with words and with the page as a concept and as a world of its own. And she shares with Nancy Spero a use of the two-dimensional surface as a zone of inquiry into the realities and the myths of our culture. She mixes her personal voice with the shared language, quoted texts, and symbology that she manipulates. She ruminates on war, sex, death, and the state of the universe, always in terms of a personal, individual confrontation with all of the above.

Ruth Laxson also makes single-page objects (prints, paintings) and sculptures that relate to the books in iconography, type style, and inventiveness. The sculptures and drawings are tantalizing alternatives to her bookworks, but when her work is seen as a whole, the books themselves embody most fully the whole range of her thinking and her craft. Laxson’s technical proficiency and conceptual maturity are evident in all her media, but the books provide an expansive zone in which to bring her intelligence to bear on the whole range of human expression and experience.

2. Ruth Laxson’s new book Ideas of God includes some clues about her work as a whole, not just in terms of the book form (one page announces that “Reading is production not consumption” and “The play of the word is seeding”) but also her broader concerns as an artist. Laxson has frequently returned to spiritual themes in her works, but in Ideas of God these themes are not merely references or hints but a full-blown philosophy (articulated visually rather than argumentatively). Hans Blumenthal proposed many years ago that all myth is apotropaic: people living in a frightening world seek ways of organizing their experience to make it less frightening, more understandable. Peter Berger extended the argument to organized religion, coining the phrase “sacred canopies” to describe the function of religion as a cure or amelioration of the agoraphobia we experience when confronting, without the protection of religion, culture, or language, the raw open sky from which very real monsters may emerge at any moment. Laxson sees the comforts, the threats, and the tautologies of the spiritual: on a page that begins “God and self master & slave”, in cut-and-paste letters like a ransom note, there is also the phrase “consciousness of god is self-consciousness”, along with a dove, Arabic script written crudely (as if left-handed) and a disturbing figure, arms and legs flailing, body covered with what appears to be a scrap of torn, very black paper, and a head sprouting with random lines, numbers, and parentheses. Other references range from playful to argumentative, along with much text, imagery, and language shooting off in many other directions.

The key that all this provides about Ruth Laxson’s work is not a focus on religion itself, but a willingness precisely to suspend the filtering of reality that religion, language, culture, and the page commonly provide for us— to escape even the primary categories through which we organize and understand the world, such as time and space. The final words of the book are spoken by Mael, a shoeshine boy with a Blakean name who emerges from the desert at the beginning and returns to it in the end. After his journey, he says, “We need such gumption— to escape time and its bondage…: to construct our own willful clarity & beauty.” Laxson suspends all her material and her concerns in a loose web, not privileging any point of view or ideology and not seeking a final form: her pages and their sequency are open, phenomenological inquiries into the physical, physiological, and psychological universe in which, but for the anchors of gravity and cultural forms, we are floating freely. Laxson is willing to give rein to that free flow, with just enough conceptual and formal arrangement of the material to give a narrative to her journey and ours.

Her earlier Muse Measures gives another view of her distinctive style of phenomenological research, in her use of translucent overlays and the very characteristic use of deep black paper, text, and visual forms. At the beginning of the book, she states, “We dwell in a matrix of boundaries” but her exploration of genetics, physics, mysticism, language, and life throughout the book seeks to, as one page says, “Get Get Beyond”, literally in this book beyond or through the page. The text here and elsewhere in her work frequently appears to be in the process of being edited, with crossouts, handwritten interpolations, and vector-lines crossing between segments. Her work is suspended, rather than completed, always in process. Much is hidden in those black surfaces or the fragments of language and symbols. What holds her work elegantly together is the “anxious artist” mentioned explicity in Muse Measures, the aesthetic spirit who is the inquirer, the searcher, the researcher, the mystic.

E.H. Gombrich, the art historian, proposed that the realism of Western art history progressed through a process of making and matching, through which artists learned to embody the world as they could see it in their art. In a world of multiplicities of image and meaning, without an apotropaic sacred canopy, Ruth Laxson is making, not to match the surface of what she sees but to bring the tentative order of art to the chaos of life: tentative because she seeks not to impose order itself, but to point simultaneously to the whole disordered world and to the human process of ordering it.