“…even in his catatonic or anorexic state, Bartleby is not the patient, but the doctor of a sick America.”
—Gilles Deleuze, “Bartleby; or, the Formula”
HOUSTON — As our 45th president’s chief white house strategist tells the media to “keep their mouth shut,” as the newly appointed press secretary chastises everyone for unfairly misrepresenting the 2017 inauguration crowds, and as Kellyanne Conway transmutes alternative facts into reality, one wonders what kind of refusal might counter refusal itself. Given a political machine working overtime to silence any competing versions of the truth, how does one counterattack a far right-extremism that touts falsehoods as “telling it like it is”? Like Tom Huhn, chair of Visual and Critical Studies at the School for Visual Arts in New York, put it in a recent piece in the New Yorker, “Part of what makes Trump attractive to many is that he practices a kind of great refusal himself, saying no to just about everything, and thereby appearing to be on the side of human beings liberating themselves from restrictions and hierarchies.” As we enter a global political climate where the alt-right is on the rise and a large constituency is convinced that it’s being “liberated” by a particular form of refusal, how does one form a refusal of another kind, one that resists and retrieves difference?
One avenue might be something akin to Herman Melville’s infamous “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.” In it, a Wall Street lawyer hires a new clerk who, after an intense period of impressive work, simply refuses to make another copy or do any of the other office tasks expected of him. Whenever the lawyer asks Bartleby to do something, Bartleby quietly utters, “I would prefer not to.” The phrase beguiles the lawyer: It’s not exactly a bold-faced rebuttal, nor is it walk-out, a workers’ strike on the streets. While the lawyer continues to press Bartleby to do various tasks, the scrivener instead does less and less. Bartleby eventually starts living in the office as he maintains his staunch and paralyzing “I would prefer not to.”
I thought about Bartleby while viewing Blake Rayne: Cabin of the Accused at the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston. Rayne’s first midcareer survey is full of linguistic disruptions and quiet repetitions, bringing to mind the scrivener’s disarming resistance. Wall Street doesn’t know the act of “preferring not to” — the simple statement has so much power not just because it interrupts but because it also creates a lingering silence in its lack of alternatives. For me, Rayne’s oeuvre and exhibition embody a similar act in the various refusals.
Take the series “A Line (Cover Letter)” (2011–16), in which felt letter “a”s spill gently off of five large canvases and onto the floor. The way the huge monochrome vowel exceeds the frame does more than simply break the rectangular format; it forces speech into the exhibition space. But it’s a particular kind of speech act: the five canvases in a row become almost like a kind of stutter. As the letter “a” shifts from purple to tan, then to olive green, a deep red, and finally a kind of royal blue across the wall of canvases, it loses its singularity as a letter in the alphabet, becoming instead a sound, an interruption, a shape.
Part of what makes Rayne’s work so interesting is this lingering between things — this neither/nor. One of my favorite moments in the exhibition occurs in the second room, on the back of the long wall that slices the room in half. Rounding the corner, one finds a lone piece propped against the wall, “Self Addressed Stamped Envelop” (2010), which consists of a seven-foot-tall aluminum rod wrapped with two sections of cotton painted in red and yellow acrylic. The bright primary-colored cotton has the texture of washcloths. Casually leaning there, the piece feels as though it is waiting to be activated. But, given the title, is it a reminder to the artist to do something? Or a confirmation that something was already done?
For me, “Self Addressed Stamped Envelop” exemplifies the power of Bartleby the scrivener. It seems itself to be saying, “I would prefer not to” — prefer not to be a painting, prefer not to let you in on its secret, prefer not to let you know whether it has been used or is about to be. And it serves as an invitation to consider the before and after, the silence around the object. Rayne’s work and curatorial fellow Javier Sánchez Martínez’s skillful arrangement has created an environment that curates silence and silent refusal into a whole organism.
In his powerfully lyrical essay on Bartleby, philosopher Gilles Deleuze writes of the way in which the phrase of refusal creates a “music in its stuttering language” and nearly “carves out a kind of foreign language within language.” While Rayne’s more painterly 2008–09 “Untitled” works can at first appear a bit decorative, if you stay in them a little longer, the spray-painted patterns on gessoed linen start to look like pre-linguistic hunks or ruins of a forgotten typeface. Patterns, yes, but in the context of the show as a whole, they are broken alphabets, paused screensavers looping endlessly between letters appearing and disappearing. Suspended in different pre-linguistic states, Rayne’s paintings start to feel like this “foreign language within language.”
At times like this, one wonders what the future holds for painting. What can painting do? In a moment where versions of reality that don’t line up exactly with that of the current US administration are being silenced; in a moment where Donald Trump’s tweets and bullying remarks toward a handicapped reporter get remixed with Snapchat face-swaps and cat videos, maybe painting can “prefer not to.” This is not to say that painting production should ignore the unending mashups, resting aloof and outside of a culture that, day by day, appears to be increasingly like an episode of Black Mirror. Rather, it’s to say that painting can still enact a haunting a neither/nor, a silence that bewilders and pauses us in the vein of Rayne and Bartleby the scrivener.
Blake Rayne: Cabin of the Accused continues at the Blaffer Art Museum (120 Fine Arts Building, Houston) through March 18.