AN ARTIST WHO CREATES LANGUAGE TO MAKE ART
A few months ago I discussed the possibility of accessioning a monumental piece by an artist composed of thousands of strings hanging from a ceiling. Unfortunately my institution would not be able to store this piece, so we talked about accessioning instructions for making the piece … as the piece itself (a la Sol Lewitt I suppose). I recently visited this artist’s studio to find that much of his work is rooted in constructing a language to create pieces — so much so that the creation of language becomes part of the art-making act.
Brooklyn artist R. Justin Stewart’s studio is dominated by a grid of framed, wordless drawings that appear to be pages ripped from an instruction manual, but which give no obvious image of what the end product might be. Some of these drawings include circles and other shapes, linked together by small symbols akin to nautical flags, themselves “linked” via red tape lines on the wall, with other drawings present neatly organized shapes and rows of varying-sized circles. Initially, they struck me as simple, easy to follow instructions for not much of anything, which were meant collectively as a jab at the seemingly simple but occasionally dumbfounding directions for Ikea furniture.
Then Stewart presented a sculpture that looked like an enlarged undersea creature, a spiky bioflorescent organism that lives miles under the sea. It was a structure composed of plastic o-rings held together with hundreds of zip ties. This piece, systems of knowing 03, which included the sculpture and the drawings, revolve around the question of how to communicate instructions for constructing a structure.
Suddenly Stewart’s language became clear. The drawings were step-by-step guides to building the sculpture. The colorful symbols represented actions and material elements, and they appeared on drawings that illustrate how to compile different segments. Other drawings showed finished segments and sub-segments, all leading to the final sculpture. Where, moments earlier, I thought I was looking at images and symbols that were purposely meaningless, I could only see a rational syntax for construction.
I like Stewart’s work aesthetically and conceptually. He presents large quantities of data in coherent, playful, and seemingly circuitous forms. However, for me, their greatest impact is that moment when they become clear, when they yield that wonderful moment of epiphany. And that moment emerges not only — and perhaps not primarily — from the encounter with the physical piece, but from a sudden and surprising clarification in the language of the piece. It’s like suddenly finding yourself able to understand a language that seconds earlier sounded like gibberish.