Floating Signifiers: holmes+riordan (collaborations) at Clay Street Press

April 30th, 2019  |  Published in *, April 2019

Visual artist Diana Duncan Holmes and poet Timothy Riordan sustained a creative partnership across three decades, reaching from the late twentieth into the early twenty-first century. In his many years of service to Xavier University, and hers to Northern Kentucky University, they produced a range of multimedia artifacts that disclose the poetry of images, the shape and physicality of words, and the affective potential of image-text convergences. The intersection exhibit at Clay Street Press gallery catalogs those achievements. The artists have presented in such diverse places as Covington, New York, Tucson, Barcelona, Prague, and Reykjavik, though Cincinnati regularly affords the basis for their compositions and the audience for their accumulated works. Those works feature triptych poems, unconventional layering and scattering of book pages, crumbled printouts of digital abstractions, and the repurposing of everyday objects into multilingual puzzles. They also include transfigured newspapers, maps converted into prose-poem travelogues, as well as vinyl-lettered haikus that once hung at forty different sites across Cincinnati. Holmes and Riordan approach the everyday materials of literacy as resources for flat and three-dimensional arguments alike, finding meaning even in negative spaces that fill the histories of alphabetic text and artistic form.

Figure 1: “8,000 miles” (1990)

Letters and objects reproduce and bend each other’s meanings across the space of the gallery. That interplay is nowhere more apparent than in 8,000 miles, which matches a travel journal with two photos of coiled, dirty rope. Composed in Portland in September 1990, the writing captures the monotony of near-constant movement, the rhythmic patterns of driving punctuated by stays in melancholic motels. Despite the tedium, visual surprise keeps the artists engrossed in the journey, producing encounters with people and places that would be unattainable by more efficient means. By the end of the entry the voice is almost ecstatic, as homesick wandering gives way to delight in first-hand witness. The typed prose sits atop two photos of cable on the deck of Bremerton Ferry, objects at once commonplace and intricately textured. Although it is at first unclear how the photos and writing address each other, they gradually reveal themselves to be transmodal mirrors, one medium catching the sense of the other using distinct material resources. The earthen hues connote the subdued and habitual character of the trip; blasts of cream and silver express its moments of wonder and surprise. The loops signal routine, the dappled surfaces its pleasurable disruption.

Figure 2: “the way the words get in” (2011)

But however confidently we voice these meanings, Holmes and Riordan nudge viewers toward circumspection, indicating contrary possibilities while noting the insecurity of linguistic and visual convention. The 2011 piece the way the words get in registers that insecurity in particularly forceful ways. The sculptural wall hanging resembles a huddled body from one angle, a beating heart from another, and sliced fruit from yet another, though the gallery notes tell us that it represents an “enlargement of the ear entryway.” It thus turns the space of an opening into something solid, refashioning negative space as an imposing object. At the same time, the piece appears to flow, the dynamics of light and shadow conferring a liquid quality on the figure as smooth surfaces change to ridges and ripples. The optical complexity finds affirmation in the evocation of sound, with all its uncertainty and openness to varied readings. To underscore that variety, the artists plaster “thewaythewordsgetin” in repeating, wildly oriented text-strips on the foremost extension of the sculpture. They also affix those strips to the rear of the object where they almost entirely elude the eye. The helter-skelter positioning of the text suggests the unpredictable character of hearing as well as listening: what gets in depends in part on what we listen for, while some things enter unbidden and without regard for our defenses.

Those things often command our attention in ways that are simultaneously urgent and imprecise, embodying what Claude Lévi-Strauss calls “floating signifiers.” Holmes addresses this dynamic in the 2018 piece at a loss for words, where neither the content nor the form of communication proves reliable. Stretching nearly seven feet in height and width, the work looks like an unfolded journal filled with incessant handwriting, at least until the viewer closes in on the image, only to find fitful loops, humps, squiggles, and doodles of animals and insects. The impression of ordered lines and sustained thought succumbs to disarray; the nearer we get to the marks the more frenzied they seem. Among the more recent entries in the Clay Street retrospective, it confronts the distress of the so-called post-truth moment, which accuses us of trusting our senses too readily, of failing to question our perceptions when they signal prodigious misconduct among authority figures. Crude eyes appear at varied spots in the image to indicate the return gaze, hinting that we cause the confusion ourselves, that we impose a naïve worldview by expecting the scribble to mean anything at all.

Figure 3: “200 lips (in memoriam September 11)”
(2002)

The show at once revels in ambiguity and renounces cynics who would use it for political gain. 200 lips (in memoriam September 11) conveys both attitudes at almost the same moment. The assembly of mouths pucker, purse, smile, sneer, grimace, and even hide, as if trying to escape the frame. We see tongues poking and licking and we sense, without actually hearing, a chorus of everyday talk. The immediate impression is comical, though when we focus on a subset of snapshots or a single picture, we can draw out vastly different moods. For all the piece’s internal diversity, the subtitle gives it an explicit direction, as do the gallery notes, which explain that the lips represent “only a small fraction of those who died on that day and will never do these taken-for-granteds again.” Humor thus succumbs to grief as the eye moves from distinct polaroids to the magnitude of the whole and back again, all of which constitutes the smallest sliver of an event whose effects have only begun to be felt. 200 lips implies that the communal and familial losses of 9-11 are also singular and exact, almost microscopic.

Figure 4: “shot to hell” (1994)

Holmes and Riordan generally infuse such poignant moments with comic self-consciousness. The 1994 work shot to hell, for example, displays a promotion dossier in an aging briefcase, the pages punctured by three bullets that rest in bloody puddles alongside the document. Riordan’s case for promotion, it seems, did not go well. The inside cover of the briefcase holds a time-lapse photomontage of the artist attacking the dossier at a firing range. Hilariously on-the-nose, the title describes not just the state of the papers but also the sense of self after institutional reproach, the feeling of wasted effort that demands an excessive, cathartic response. Whereas some of the show’s comedy comes from staged reactions to professional rejection, other instances come from the artists becoming weary of their own projects and turning against them in extravagant style. screw freud and snort freud captures one such turning, as Holmes and Riordan impale the core of an abandoned project called The Freud Papers with an eight-inch screw. That core hovers above a medicine jar filled with dust and shavings from the repurposing process. In light of the irreverent title, the piece suggests that when disenchantment comes, it is not enough to use Freud’s psychosexual preoccupations against him. The point is rather to enjoy the act of destruction fully and without shame, to become intoxicated by its residues.

Playful acts of disassembly and reconstruction occupy every wall of the gallery, as the artists offer their media to each other only to transform the gift into something that defies categories. Bound texts and informal writings factor heavily into those remediation processes, enacting deconstruction not just as a challenge to Western metaphysics but as a tactile, somatic experience. As though endlessly amused by the idea of the floating signifier, Holmes and Riordan gather nine books by Gabriel García Márquez, take them apart, mix them up, and remake them as a shingled wall hanging. More whimsically still, they tear pages from the Bible and The Origin of Species, mold them into a ball, and refer to the whole as “an intelligent design for creationists and evolutionists to toss back and forth.” That quip works yet another variation on the idea of tangible literacies, and weighs in against the sort of self-seriousness that obstructs dialogue or prevents play. The show is an argument for and through play, navigating artistic and ideological intersections in a spirit of lightness and humility. More than three years after Riordan’s death, the exhibit attests to his liveliness and inexhaustible passion for language. No less crucial, intersection makes plain the intricate and durable mingling of two distinct perspectives, two evolving forms of consciousness. It thereby reminds us what art is after.

–Christopher Carter

Works Cited

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss. 1950. Routledge, 2016.

Leave a Response