All arts have traditionally been related to sense perception. But in a society of high-speed, excessive consumption, when the senses are constantly assaulted by ambient sounds and visual media, the human being can find it necessary to shut out all sensuous stimulation.
It's not so much that our senses have become blunted, though that is certainly true, but rather that we desire an end to all sensation. How can the arts respond to this crisis of the senses?
The exhibition, "QUIET" seeks to examine the antithesis of excess by focusing on the silent, the invisible and the overlooked. The gallery is very white and silent. The works are either visual or sound. And since the visual works are minimalist and the sounds accessed individually through headphones, the resulting experience can reach toward a sort of cleansing of the senses.
In her statement, the curator, Avantika Bawa, has suggested that one effect of the proliferation of sounds and imagery in our society is that it questions our ability to resist. What then is the relationship between this "emptying out" of sensuous stimulation and our capacity for resistance?
In 1961, when John Kennedy became President and the Berlin Wall was built, the world seemed on the point of nuclear war. In response to this crisis, the artist, Robert Morris, disassembled a large, plywood work, cut it up with a skill saw, and used some of it to assemble a large triangle, which he painted a uniform grey and set up in a corner of a New York gallery to form a pyramid surrounded by empty space. Such was the beginning of the minimalist art movement.
Somewhat before, the composer, John Cage, had demonstrated with his 'silent music' that silence, in fact, doesn't exist. When the expected music at his concert didn't materialize, the audience began to hear the usually ignored, ambient sounds instead.
It sometimes feels as if we are going around in circles, or constantly moving between two points in an endlessly repeated binary code, from the sensuous to the non-sensuous, from the aesthetic to the anti-aesthetic.
As an interesting illustration of this point, it can be noted that in 1981, Robert Morris responded to the Reagan threat of nuclear war by abandoning minimalism and embracing its opposite: decoration.
"The decorative," he said, "can now be seen as the ultimate response to a pervasive death anxiety."
Which all goes to show that we may believe we are thinking independently, but really we are just being manipulated by the cycles of fashion.
Brian Holcombe's two, identical, untitled works in this exhibition recall the minimalist strategy. Like the 1960's works, they are hollow monoliths, standing the height of a man.
Made of plywood and cardboard, they are not quite monochrome as they retain the variety of warm colors of natural wood and the addition of gold enamel. They stand at separate points in the gallery space, but somehow read as modules that, if placed together, would form a wall of aggression and defense.
They are too delicate, however, to be effective as either. In this they display a wry sense of humor that runs through many of the works in the show, and separates them from their 1960s predecessors. (No one would ever have accused Robert Morris of being humorous.)
There is a plexiglass neon arrow at the ceiling in the gallery, pointing towards the door. At first I took it to be a fixture, a rather unusual 'exit' sign. Then, I discovered it was Jeff Carter's "Azimuth (Mecca)".
This is a one-liner; an arrow pointing towards Mecca. You get the joke and move on.
The wit in Avantika Bawa's group of small, white collages collectively titled, "Semi" is more ambiguous since it works visually, and stems from the partial framing of the works by irregularly sized and arbitrarily placed white corner sections of frame. They remind us that contemporary art is a game which derives its meaning not from watching, but from playing it.
Humor is also transmitted by the placement of the work. In Bianca Hester's "Stretched," miniature shaped ink prints of architectural spaces are almost hidden, either high on the door jamb or down at floor level by the baseboards.
And Craig Drennan's twin paintings, "Dolby Stereo, Front and Back" have been hung like speakers, high left and right of the audio headsets for Matthew Mascotte's "It Feels Like."
Turning aside from all of these miniature, well-crafted works with their thread of irony, it is instructive to put on the head phones and listen to Mascotte's work. It quickly becomes clear that the disembodied voice is actually in sync with the moving mouth on the talking head on the monitor set in the wall across the room.
This work takes its power from its dislocated voice and image. Here we have the nightmare of a reality lived in extreme isolation. It is the voice from sensory deprivation; the mind still feels and the voice records those feelings: "It feels like nobody understands anybody. It feels like nobody wants to discuss. It feels like everybody has to go faster. It feels like too many people trust the President. It feels like nobody wants to stand up." And on, and on.
It is the suppressed voice of criticism and when it utters the words, "It feels like process is subordinate to presentation," it seems a good place to return to the handmade visual works.
Once the central tenet of 1960s minimalism was an emphasis on process. Process always took precedence over the finished object, at least in theory, so as to make art unmarketable.
But the market didn't go away. And now most artists have at least one foot in the market. Artists may earn their living in other ways than through art making, but they often retain a shrewd eye for possible sales, which depend on presentation.
The content on Jonathan Jones' works, "Antipode, 1B, 2B, 3B," is the process. Parallel, connected lines of thread have been carefully stitched on paper. The lines are perfectly straight, the stitches identical in size; the hand seems to reproduce the action of the sewing machine.
Is this seemingly mind-numbing, labor-intensive occupation a process to aid meditation, a visual mantra akin to the patterns created by Celtic monks or Islamic mystics?
Modern Western painting, however, has always been sensuous. Its processes work directly on the nervous system through line and color and the tactile nature of paint. Like poetry, it's not much in evidence these days.
It has become a rather marginalized activity because it requires a humility and suspension of ego, an acceptance of frequent failure and a disinterest in success. And, of course, time, which no one now dares to "waste" on it.
Although I tend to associate such work with a non-representation figuration, John Spurlock here comes closest to this tradition, even though his model is not an object or figure, but something immaterial ; human thought and speech and its imprecise translation into the written word.
His process of building up pencil scratches and oil paint washes creates a surface that takes us back and forth between clarification of thought and its obfuscation.
In the large triptych, "Flag," I seemed to detect the partially erased word, 'Spurlock' on each of the panels, as if he were effacing himself ; or then, again, trying to make himself visible.
"It feels like everybody wants to escape," says the disembodied voice. But as we know, the problems of the postmodern world are global. There is no place to go to.
Perhaps the "escape" mentioned is an escape from all feeling into death. Or it could be its antithesis: the desire to escape from all the numbness and to really feel again, which implies the pain of struggling against something.
If this latter is truly the collective desired wish, then the last words of the displaced voice offer us future hope: "It feels like nobody knows the battle has just begun."
'QUIET - Exploring subtlety now,' runs through April 30 at Aquaspace, 11 West York Lane.