Learning How to Read – On STrAY by Suzanne McClelland



STrAY Installation by Suzanne McClelland, 2013

Suzanne McClelland asks a lot of her audience. Her exhibition STrAY: Found Poems from a Lost Time, currently at the Fralin Museum of Art, is dense, complicated and poetic. For a casual viewer it may appear obtuse and contemporary in the worst possible way. For another viewer willing to invest time into closely exploring and examining the work, it opens windows to the grinding mechanisms of history and language.


The exhibition is comprised of three rooms, containing very different but related works. The first room has several video pieces and a pinned together dark blue curtain titled “Soft Partition.” The room is lit only by the video monitors and one wall which exhibits a projected slideshow of contour drawings. The title of one of the video works is “Learning to Read.”


The second room contains prints, etchings and photographs selected from the Fralin’s collection. Many of the etchings are beautiful 10th and 11th state prints, revealing a great deal of wear and history. The works range in time from a Durer engraving originating in 1503, to a Sally Mann print created in 2000. This room displays a broad stroke of images interpreting and documenting war and death.


The third room is an installation, a landscape of images and text pinned and painted on the wall in pages/columns which reach to the ceiling. These columns are dense constructions of text, reproductions of that same text, frames pulled from videos in the first room, as well as a wide variety of images and forms related to George Garrett‘s life and poetry. In the center of the room is a white wooden crate, upon which lie thirteen portfolios tied together into a codex. Each portfolio corresponds to one column of the installation, which in turn corresponds to one of Garrets poems.


The work is meant to be experienced and offers less in terms of accessibility to those who are unwilling to spend time with it. It is like a novel or poem in that sense. McClelland even describes her work as a “traveling unbound book.” You can look at and understand each individual artifact, but the installation as a whole also creates a context and subject which informs those artifacts. The relationships in this large installation are fluid and the meaning that can be gleaned from viewing it changes depending on what you focus on.


A great example of this is the video A Minimal Pair – Cousins, which depicts two children playing with instruments. The video is upbeat, sped up and funny. The children seem endlessly entertained, blowing the horns in each other faces or pushing their hands into the instruments’ openings. Then, imagine walking into a separate room where you see harrowing prints by Kollwitz, or snippet’s of Garrett’s poems and this causes you to think back on the childish video from earlier in the exhibit. Now you find that the grave images which could be construed as heavy or inaccessible have a kind of memory or nostalgia associated with them. In contrast, the innocence of the video of children enjoying their game seems more violent. The horn is an instrument of war and childhood a sort of battle field.


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Still from “A Minimal Pair – Cousins,” a video piece by Suzanne McClelland

This is only one example of the visual and intellectual connections that McClelland has enabled us to make in our own minds. Each moment in the exhibit builds connections which then change how we read STrAY. As the first video suggests, we first have to learn to read before we can immerse ourselves in the installation.

Once we begin to draw these connections we see what McClelland is really exploring. Ultimately, her artistic vision has less to do with war or poetry or George Garrett and has more to do with the difficulty of using language to communicate history. The three rooms have distinct and different voices and each offers a different pace which requires the viewer to adapt when moving between them. This is jarring and confusing and disruptive. It is as if you are watching a film which ends halfway through and are then handed a novel which contains the rest of the story. The show is purposefully constructed this way. The poetry and words are purposefully obscured. We see that the visual representation of blocked-out text holds equal weight on the wall as the actual words themselves. Sentences are repeated on the wall, up and down columns, extended through time. It is unclear whether they are losing or gaining meaning as they are reproduced, we only have the feeling that some kernel of truth, some concrete fact or historical context is hidden in and referred to by them. In true postmodern fashion, this feeling is undercut as often as it is reinforced.

Finally, our attention is drawn to the installation itself, the objects that are its makeup and the history contained within those objects. We are invited to realize that history is ongoing, there is no one truth or interpretation, and as viewers of art we like to have stories woven for our benefit. For STrAY is just another story, told by another person. The papers pinned to the walls of the third room were created somewhere else, assembled in the codex sitting in the middle of the room and then shipped to the museum for display. The prints in the second room are drawn from the collection of the Fralin itself. And in the first room sits the container for Soft Partition, a labeled gun case; an object of violence, bought for the sake of making art, but bought with ease in an easily accessible place of business nonetheless. Displaying these objects alongside the artwork was deliberate. In doing so, the exhibition itself becomes a part of the narrative, a narrative of the history of violence, war and Garrett’s poetic interpretations of war. It is also a narrative that we are now a part of.

The entire show is like an immense Jasper Johns print, heavily layered upon itself. Language, images and symbols melt together. The exhibition is thoughtful and philosophical and provides an experience which is poetic and enjoyable. Although the show appears dense and obtuse, these qualities also respect the viewer. McClelland’s show begs us to wonder about the artifacts which build history around us. Books, photographs, videos and poetry contribute to our “history.” McClelland uses the extraordinarily malleable medium of language as a way to help us think about how we perceive history. Language, after all, is what is most often used to construct, interpret and reinterpret those artifacts which make up our past. Having taught us how to read in a new way through STrAY, she crosses the threshold into helping us think more carefully about who we really are.

STrAY: Found Poems from a Lost Time by Suzanne McClelland was on display at the Fralin Museum of Art from January through May of 2013. She also shows in Chicago and New York.


-A.I.Miller and Rose Guterbock