Exactly a decade ago, I researched the work of Agnes Martin, the abstract painter, at Westminster Arts Reference Library. I remember the institution’s hushed peacefulness, the desk I had to myself. Carefully examining rare catalogues, I almost-saw Martin’s faintly gridded canvases. Failingly reproduced as small color plates, the paintings appeared as near blank, somewhat aggressive, double-denials of pictorial representation. An avowed classicist, Martin’s Platonic thought favored that which “we are aware of… in our minds.”
This memory resurfaced while viewing digital photographs, sketches, and mockups of works by artists Amelia Critchlow and Evy Jokhova made in preparation for their exhibition, Mimesis, on view at the same library. Critchlow specializes in cultural disruption and erasure on a hand-held scale. She scalpels images from art books, sticks formless folds over canonical portrait postcards, and vanishes sections of magazine pages by scratching out the ink, leaving textural ghosts. Jokhova’s tripartite “painting,” made by bleaching rectangles into lengths of raw linen, reiterates Critchlow’s cut voids. Drooping from a flagpole, this heraldry-of-lost-information speaks to the library as an ideologically-charged public institution.
Contemporary artists, amongst them Ellen Harvey, have played with a similar understanding of museums as halls of mirrors—public spaces that reflect sanctioned versions of selves and histories back to visitors–a mode of cultural-reproduction-as-imitation that began with Plato’s vision of an ideal city state. For Mirror, 2006, Harvey installed monumental etched looking-glasses in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, ruminating on its grandly oppressive gothic architecture and strangely pervasive Enlightenment-era ethos of artistic training through drawing exact copies.
Mimesis similarly manifests ambivalence towards the library: a valuable public resource, an art museum of sorts, and a site of cultural reproduction currently in crisis. (The artists’ experimental texts on the ethical and socio-political implications of mimesis appear in this book.) In the exhibition space, this is addressed through opacity–as a form of resistance–rather than reflection, deliberately obscuring the library’s functions. Jokhova’s curvy lobby furniture poses as a liminal reading room, yet frustrates the desire to read in a conventional sense: the table displays Critchlow’s erased pages. Like Martin’s works which I viewed copies of in this very library, these works quietly trouble contemporary and canonical modes of representation and reproduction, even referencing the fragility of the classical ideal in a video by Jokhova. They are not naively optimistic that we can simply push aside the cultural forces that have shaped us, but they do hold open a space to encounter the as yet unformed.