Paul Edmunds at Bank Gallery
by Brenton Maart
Without exception the seven artworks in 'Aggregate', Paul Edmunds' solo exhibition at Bank Gallery, are truly beautiful. This is not the contentious term 'beautiful' (the concept that argues for cultural variability, doubtful interpretation and the politics of colonialism); instead it is the universal acceptance based on line, angle and ratio. It is the allure of the bilateral, the perfection of the honeycomb, the fine and pleasing neatness of the edge-to-edge. This is the formula for what turns most species on.
If Edmunds' concern were just with the construction of a natural aesthetic, that would be sufficient. This is not to imply that beauty is sufficiently an end-point. Beauty, we know, elicits responses that have an impetus of their own, leading to further and wondrous activity. But the artist's intention seems to reach further: into the use of complex mathematics for the reading of his experience of the world.
The first time I saw his work was in his exhibition called 'Houding' (João Ferreira Gallery, Cape Town, 2001). Here, hundreds of polystyrene cups formed an installation called Reef. Each cup had been incised with tiny arrows in a repetitive, work-intensive, almost compulsive, manner. The arrows in each cup formed patterns that continued into adjacent cups. (The cups were balanced on top of each other - lip to lip, bottom to bottom, and butted up side-to-side.) In the installation, the cups formed a low, wending, three-dimensional wave. The height of the columns varied, allowing the work to appear like a meandering bar graph.
In its manifestation seven years later, as part of 'Aggregate', Edmunds suspended the columns of cups from the ceiling along a two-dimensional plane, and it is this variability and interplay between two- and three-dimensions that highlight the artist's concern with those three stalwarts of geometry, sculpture and design: length, breadth and depth.
Many of the other works at Bank Gallery - presented as a survey of the artist's outputs over the past eight years - demonstrate this pervasive concern with form related to dimension. The work titled Aggregate (2008, from which the exhibition takes its name) is composed of layers of camphor wood veneer reconstructed into panels of flattened honeycombs. Layered upon each other like a sheafs of paper, the work plays optically to confuse the second and third dimensions. The same op-art technique is used in Sift(2008), where polypropylene strips are woven into a two-dimensional panel suspended from the ceiling. Edmunds uses strips of different colours to draft a three-dimensional cubic pattern on the two-dimensional surface. An earlier work on exhibition, Sieve (2005), also demonstrates this interplay.
Thus far it's all simple mathematics, which Edmunds then develops into greater complexity by the introduction of the conundrum of the fourth dimension.
If we were to side-step the heavy trigonometry and logarithmics and hop over the headiness of the fact that humans cannot perceive in four dimensions, we get to the summary that, in order to use the only available tool - that of the visual - to even vaguely understand, let alone apply, the fourth dimension, models are needed. And this is what Edmunds makes.
Mathematician and artist Adrian Ocneanu (http://www.physorg.com/news7409.html) notes that four-dimensional models are useful for thinking about and finding new relationships and phenomena. Using the example of a map, Ocneanu outlines the conundrum: the way to add another dimension is to think in one dimension less. Thus, the way to represent the fourth dimension is to represent its three dimensions on a flat, two-dimensional plane. Edmunds does this in Sift where, by being able to view an object from a number of different angles simultaneously, he evokes a cubist methodology to demonstrate that, according to the words of Ocneanu, 'spatial concepts [are] not dependent upon three-dimensional perspective'. It is this mathematical possibility that gives rise to the sensation of the fourth dimension.
Not yet content, Edmunds then layers these flat models upon each other, like sheafs of paper. Because each two/three/four-dimensional plane is perforated, cut or woven, the viewer is able to see through successive layers. Whether or not this may lead us to the fifth dimension (popularly known as an alternate reality), Edmunds uses the exactitude of his method to introduce, into his work, the ephemeral and qualitative magic of light and time.
Notably used by Impressionist painters who understood the instantaneous perception of light from a two-dimensional plane, it is the quality of light, viewed as if being reflected by a two-dimensional plane, which offers viewers a glimpse of another world. But the light in Edmunds' work is not being reflected from a two-dimensional plane. It emerges in a three-dimensional world through the holes in Edmunds' work. Thus the viewer moves from looking onto a world, compelled to look through these 'windows' into another dimension. Magic is created by the fact that each movement by the viewer creates a myriad of new views.
In a paper titled 'Sculpture "Approaching the Speed of Light": The Use of Time as the Fourth Dimension' (Leonardo, Vol. 19, No. 2 (1986), pp. 117-121), Dan George links developments in modern physics with the perception of movement in his sculptures when he notes that 'such installations depend on movement by viewers and changes in light in order to be perceived', and reaches the conclusion that his sculptures make use of the dimension of time. This is the reaction the viewer may experience when looking through the Edmunds' sculptures.
Moving one's body, or eyes, light and shadow come into play. Increasing the permutation possibilities of the reading, this effect of light (when considering that light in three dimensions is a variable phenomenon) introduces the concept of time. The permutation possibilities increase logarithmically if we were to introduce the effect of the shadow play. The real magic - that epiphany some may feel when examining his sculpture - may come when reading the light and the shadow as part of the work. (Epiphany, in this case, means a sudden realisation, an intangible feeling, linked to the physical thing that is the sculpture. It's a small leap from here to an acceptance that objects have auras. It's another small leap from here to the recognition of the vestigial spirit, but that's another complicated saga.)
These views through the sculpture - with their accompanying plays of dimension, light and time - also interested German architect Mies van der Rohe. MoMA Highlights (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 121) discusses the 1921 design of his crystal Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper (code-named 'The Honeycomb'). The publication notes that 'It was based on the untried idea that a supporting steel skeleton would be able to free the exterior walls from their load-bearing function, allowing a building to have a surface that is more translucent than solid'. Anticipating the architect's later preference for steel and glass, the design also demonstrated evidence of a highly expressionistic character above 'any kind of rationalist intention'. Expressing himself in the material nature of 20th-century industrial society, the architect surpassed the initial criticism of his works' rigidity, coldness and anonymity. Matilda McQuaid, editor of Envisioning Architecture: Drawings from The Museum of Modern Art (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2002, p. 50) notes this transcendence when she writes that, while van der Rohe's design 'had a solid scientific and technological basis, his crystal-shaped plan reflected the more fantastic visions of Expressionist architects and artists, who were drawn to glass as a symbol of purity and renewal'.
The apertures in Edmunds' sculpture function in a manner similar to the translucent (and simultaneously reflective) glass and crystal of van der Rohe's buildings. Requiring focus, it is only when staring at the structure - uninterrupted, alone, for a while - that the viewer may approach the state of calm needed for interpretation. The peace that may arise through an action of, say, meditation, is the feeling in which the viewer may find comfort.
A further, and final, thought on the work rests with the artist's choice of materials. Polypropylene, polystyrene: plastics and derivatives - chosen for their archival nature - are materials that will outlast the last of our species. By vesting these vestiges of our age with an aura of transcendence, Edmunds' work may be an analysis of the insistence of the endurance of the human spirit.
The exhibition at Bank Gallery also served to launch Edmunds' new catalogue titled Paul Edmunds: Aggregate (Cape Town: Paul Edmunds in association with João Feirreira, 2008).
Opens: February 28
Closes: March 27
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