BIRMINGHAM, Mich. — We may think of the scroll as an archaic form, borne of necessity or designed with anachronistic reverence for the relatively precious ink-and-paper technology of the preceding centuries. But to dismiss the scroll as merely aesthetic or functional fails to consider the conceptual significance of the scroll as a uniquely temporal object — one that requires the reader to move through a narrative in a subjective and physical manner, as it literally unrolls. In truth, the scroll has proven to be one of the most enduring forms, as each and every reader of this article is currently utilizing a virtual scroll.
Artist Anne Gilman seems to keenly appreciate the scroll as both a physical and temporal experience; her solo show, Up close / in the distance / now at the Birmingham Bloomfield Arts Center is comprised almost exclusively of super-sized scroll-like works on paper. These hang on walls — or in one case from the ceiling, dividing the space like a legend between her complementary fields of orange and blue — or lay out on a plinth-top or the floor, in one case punctuated by a pair of crystal balls.
Most pieces read like a diary page with faint ruled lines, handwriting made ambiguous by colorful redaction marks (more legible versions of the texts are presented on wall labels adjacent to the works). The works also feel like hand-drawn maps, perhaps charting a journey through a metaphysical region. Gilman variously layers pencil, ink, graphite, matte medium, BIC ballpoint pen, as well as tape and other media elements, evoking a sense of passage, navigation, documentation, and landscape.
The show’s title, also the name of the two-sided free-hanging work that can be viewed in-the-round, “Up close / in the distance / now” (2018), underscores the plurality of these pieces, which chart both physical and temporal locations. Some other titles hint at locales or geologic features, many of which could also be interpreted as internal states: “Fault line” (2016), “The place of possibility” (2016), “The dividing line” (2017), and small works like “Chasm” (2017) and “rugged terrain” (2017). Others bear more time-centric titles: “Out of the blue” (2016), “You might wait forever” (2018), and “Sundowning” (2018). Still others represent ambiguous places of connection, tension, and change: “Conflict of interest” (2018), “Synapse” (2016), and a five-piece series of works in orange, collectively titled “Boiling point” (2018). Just like a boiling point, Gilman’s pieces seem determined to pinpoint those ephemeral places where time meets internal and external conditions to produce a palpable change.
Perhaps, as an artist-writer, I am acutely receptive to work of this nature, but all of these factors seem instantly discernible in Gilman’s work without necessarily diving into the content of her extemporaneous texts. When one does, there is confirmation of her themes around time and place, but also error, perfection, and anxiety. Somehow, one doesn’t need to know the exact words to infer musing and doing-over in the visual language of Gilman’s instinctively constructed and carefully redacted works. Just as the non-text sections of her images are built up through a layering of materials, the text portions undergo a similar process of elucidation and complication. This dualism is powerfully effective in creating a sense of struggle to orient oneself amid an internal landscape. These instructions are instantly discernible, but remain unclear, and give one the sense of having found maps to nowhere and everywhere.