You are tromping around in a remote area of an urban park on a wan, wintry day. You come to a clearing among the trees and see a word made out of the branches some distance away. What’s up with that? Is part of a message? If so, where does it say?
In the background you might see more woods or the profile of some standardized six- or eight-story brick apartment buildings, the kind you see in Kansas City, Missouri, and Brooklyn, New York, and do not find not reassuring. You have trouble focusing on the message. How long have you been standing here?
A pinhole camera has recorded the passage of time. The view it reveals is bleak but panoramic, which seems about right for what you are looking at — a word that appears in the woods without explanation. The color is muted, as if washed out by winter. The rocky setting with patches of snow and a sun low in the sky furthers the melancholy of the scene.
I am remembering my initial impressions of the exhibit, Ben Morgan-Cleveland: Gallery with Words, at Kai Matsumiya (March 22–April 28, 2019). The words, which are often muted white against the dull brown surroundings, include “I,” “A,” “If,” “Let,” and “Way.” One of the photographs has two words — “You” and “Well” — that are sufficiently separated and framed by trees so that you can put them together as well as view them apart.
We see words everywhere these days — on the screens we carry around and stare at, on walls, on advertising, and running below the talking heads on the nightly news. They all have a context, which makes them easy to grasp: this word does this in this sentence, it does something else in another. Even when the sentences are meant to stir up feelings, such as when we hear an official say in staged earnestness, “Our hearts are with you,” we might as well be listening to flies shitting on the President’s forehead. This infernal buzzing is further complicated by the phrase “fake news.” What are we looking at? What are we reading? Is it all to be distrusted?
The relationship between the word and its surroundings in Morgan-Cleveland’s pinhole photographs is not clear. No comforting context has been supplied. “If” what? What are we supposed to “Let?” Did he decide on “A” because he had rejected “The” and all that it implies? It would seem so, wouldn’t it?
This is not something found in nature. Who knows how long the word-branches stand up and hold their shape? And what about the wintry light and urban setting? There is something challenging about the fact that Morgan-Cleveland made a temporary sculpture and documented it with a pinhole camera, and that he explains what he is up to without claiming some kind of relevant content or subject matter.
Are they sculptures, concrete poems, the results of a performance, a staged photograph, or all four? Although it is not the artist’s attention, the images take the self-satisfied literalism of Joseph Kosuth and Mel Bochner to task, as well as counteract the latter’s privileged complaining by retaining a deliberate muteness. They also elude all the familiar categories of art.
The washed-out colors, bland scenes, and the fact that the words are not immediately apparent are virtues in an age that prizes entertainment, displays of wealth, and prefers to be distracted rather than pay attention. I like seeing and reading words that do not sit in a comfy niche, where a reassuring meaning is apparent and expected.
Isn’t this the last thing we want to admit? That we are not sure what anything means or what we are supposed to do? And that it is so much easier to be a follower of something or another, where everything is laid out and independent thinking is not an option.
Ben Morgan-Cleveland: Gallery with Words continues at Kai Matsumiya (153 1/2 Stanton Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through April 28.