Full Review: Vade Mecum

A partial review of Vade Mecum was published as a blog post for The Pitch.

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Hungarian Holy Bible. Photo credit Kiosk Gallery

Back from a seven week residency in Hungary, Emily Connell displays porcelain slip castings of texts like Bibles, dictionaries, and encyclopedias that were cast in her studio overseas. The front room of Kiosk Gallery is transformed into a library of fossils, bearing a variety of pedestal pieces and wall works ranging from weighty blocks of open books to the abstract narratives of cross-sectioned pages. Black, feathered pages embedded in white Hungarian porcelain balance the lightness of the folio with the historical and literal weight of Connell’s chosen materials. Multiple pieces in Vade Mecum are not afraid to live out their existence as “open books.” Connell interprets the phrase to show us even open books retain some inaccessible mystery to their viewers. Words are gone, formerly in our language or in languages we can’t read, but the skeletal remains of the information tell us something about the character of each text.

Among the splayed Hungarian Holy Bible’s is Hungarian Chemistry Pocket Book, different, in its completely circular containment, from the spread-eagled religious texts that share the pedestal. Edges of the bibles glint with gold, a sensitive narrative bearing a precious metal, but the chemistry book is self-contained, independent as an idea and a movement. Hungarian Chemistry Pocket Book isn’t so precious as to endure the same ornamental burden the bibles bear, but such is science to religion. Discriminating decisions like this allow us a glimpse into Connell’s thought process while she makes each casting. Her Catholic upbringing finds a way into her adult life, serving as a jumping off point that inspires Connell to swim deeper into the inner struggle between sacrilege and the construction of art. Rigid adherence to historical and religious texts are reinterpreted during the inventive process—a clever slant on the problems of bibliolatry.

Connell acts as a translator for English, Italian, and Hungarian bibles. But her translation of religious material is understood beyond the written word. The movement of turned pages is captured in each sculpture, even as the book spills open to expose the private construction materials close to the spine. Books are not entirely deconstructed, maybe out of a lingering respect for their history and personal impact on Connell, but the original material changes enough. In fact, the book itself has not completely disappeared, its ashes encased between the fibrous porcelain sheets. By firing the old familiar stories into and expensive physical material, Connell contradicts the humility of the bound book and the teachings between the pages. Wall pieces like Webster’s New World Handy Pocket Dictionary & Webster’s New World Pocket Thesaurus present the pages in four discs, exhibiting the black and white wingspans of two books chopped up to quadriptych. Inner layers appear to flake and degrade as they are viewed, crumbling after being sawed into pieces. It is like viewing the rings of a tree—each page represents the passing of a certain amount of time.

Such a cohesive show does not happen overnight. The process of creating these ethereal sculptures is nothing short of labor intensive and has been explored by Connell year after year. In her studio, Connell coats individual leaves in slip. Page one. Page ten. Page three-hundred. All the way till the end of the volume, Connell’s patience is steady. Post-kiln, some sculptures are displayed and others are sawed into pieces. Book destruction is synonymous with fear and control, but here it is to preserve. Concurrent themes of book burning and preserving find perfect balance in the chosen medium. Is there more heresy in burning a bible than in burning a science text? Is it appropriate to preserve a text purely as a beautiful object when the guiding information has been completely erased? The burning of one book is associated with the rejection of dogmatic principles. And the other—maybe with laboratory carelessness. Pocket sized anything suggests a reduced value, so to coat a miniature bible in mud and bake until it has been reduced to ash might be a lesser strain on the artist’s eternal soul. Let us pray.

Too many iterations of the same basic process can be monotonous in any art. However, Connell is pursuing an arc and she’s taking her time. Working through her own personal upbringing, her Catholic rearing and artistic inclinations, might take a long time. If she can be patient, so can we. For now, the works in Vade Mecum give us a lot to consider.

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