When I walked into Emily Roysdon’s latest exhibition, If Only a Wave, at Participant Inc., I initially felt like I might not be able to decipher the work. The cerebral abstractions and schematics through which I’ve come to know Roysdon’s art can feel intimidating and inaccessible at first. But there are a number of things that keep me coming back and trusting that my shaky footing is part of why I continue to appreciate Roysdon’s work.
One of the first things you encounter in Participant’s raw gallery space is a series of clocks, each with a thin white hour hand and a minute hand of tiny blue cresting waves. The face of each clock is an indigo ceramic triangle, inverted, with another undulating series of waves along the top edge. A handful of the clocks scattered around the space sit atop rolling steel stands painted red, while one entire wall displays a single work, “5. Beyond the will to measure” (2014), comprised of around 30 of these clocks hanging next to each other in perfectly synchronized — if largely inscrutable — movement.
Roysdon has always forwarded feminist and queer cultures in her work, so the triangle is a particularly potent symbol in her hands. The shape’s association with queer cultures originated in Nazi concentration camps in the 1930s and ’40s, when pink triangles were affixed to the clothing of gay men and black triangles to those deemed “antisocial,” including many women, some of whom were likely marked as such for their sexual practices or other deviances from violently imposed Nazi ideologies. Later, in the 1970s, the pink triangle was subverted and reclaimed as a marker for gay men and gay liberation; some lesbians and lesbian feminists similarly reappropriated the black triangle around the same time. In more recent visual culture, the most prominent use of the triangle as a queer symbol comes from the posters created by the Silence = Death Project, a collective that was part of ACT UP. The same iconography was famously rendered in neon by artists who became part of the ACT UP collective Gran Fury and displayed in the Broadway window of the New Museum for the 1987 exhibition Let the Record Show.
The waves moving across the top of Roysdon’s triangle and the literal passage of time counted out by the hands of the clocks seem to evoke the shifting and ever-evolving movements of queer cultures and politics, along with the waves of feminism rolling into and through one another. At the same time, in those swelling curves I also see the silhouettes of ass cheeks, infusing a subtle humor and sexuality into objects that might otherwise feel removed from the interplay and rendering of bodies that permeate queer cultures.
Carrying so many meanings and potentials within what appear to be relatively simple geometric constructions speaks to one of the things I like best about Roysdon: I read her as a serious intellectual exploring world views and philosophies through abstraction, or attempting to articulate the tracings of them in her work. I admire her rigor; it doesn’t feel aloof to me, but rather intriguing and provocative. She seems to invite speculation, a stepping back to see the outlines and engage with imagination — a process that stands in contrast to the highly personal narratives saturating the culture right now.
There is a text that accompanies the exhibit (available for free in a corner just past the entryway). Titled “Uncounted” (2015), it’s printed on thick folded paper with an image of one of Roysdon’s photograms on the back, and it offer brief thoughts, conversations, and suggestions surrounding the creation of the work on display. Roysdon’s writings have also always served my interest in her work, a poetic accompaniment to her objects and imagery.
18. … When I build something – a project, phrase, collaboration – there are little holes everywhere. I encourage the space between 0—0 Little gaps of intention that life fills up with conditions, with proximities. Little holes everywhere 0—0 little holes. Permission. Not to be the thing itself. It’s also a way of saying ‘with’ 0—0 entanglement and alignment. Honoring a margin from a movement. Not to be the thing itself is a transition that is not a solution. Is this the queer form?
A tiny slice of the above text, from “Uncounted,” becomes the title for a work in neon, “18. Not to be the thing itself,” which spreads across part of three of the gallery walls. Many of the neon constructions make direct use of Roysdon’s symbolic articulation of the ideas in the excerpt, depicting the “0—0” from “Uncounted” but expanding on it playfully, creating triads, single dashes, swapping colors — like a notation for her evolving thinking or a series of suggestions for more literal shifts, relations between bodies, dance, sex, conversation. Numerous framed silver gelatin photograms also litter the walls and the space, moving past the bounds of the gallery into the bathroom, a window sill in the office — insisting on occupying both formal and informal spaces, public and private. Another excerpt from “Uncounted,” point 11: “Aliveness trespasses. It doesn’t know it’s marginal.”
As with the other work I’ve seen by Roysdon, this show engages across many media at once; performance has been part of it as well. Seeing the static exhibition alongside both the text and live performance feels like appreciating Roysdon in her natural habitat, or at least one of them. Because she has worked for many years with and through collaborative modes, I think of her work itself as a collective, each different medium articulating concepts in a slightly different way, but all constantly in conversation with each other. While each text or object or performance can stand on its own, the richness comes in their interplay.
Emily Roysdon, If Only a Wave continues at Participant Inc. (253 E Houston St, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through February 22. A performance will take place on the closing night at 7:30pm.