Review of ON AIR at RH Gallery

by Taney Roniger

by Soledad Arias

May 1 – June 22, 2012
RH Gallery
137 Duane St.

Soledad Arias772 phonetic neon [aha], 2011. White neon light, 2 x 40 in | 5 x 102 cm. Edition: 3 + 2AP

Air – that invisible, inaudible substance through which we move, speak, and enact our being, in whose absence life would be impossible – is an apt subject for Soledad Arias’s current exhibition. For this artist, whose text-based work explores the materiality of language-in-action and the complexities of its emotional resonances in the theater of human relations, air is both medium and metaphor.  As medium, air is the raw material that is shaped by human tongues and palates to make the acoustic matter we call human speech, an activity that predates writing by millennia and is thus the foundation of language. As metaphor, air conjures notions of emptiness, or the nothingness that gives shape to being – the ground against which figure becomes form – while also bearing allusions to broadcast media, where being “on air” refers to being “live,” to being recorded, transmitted, and attended to by others. In all these senses, air “matters,” and it is this largely overlooked materiality that informs all of Arias’s investigations.

Soledad Arias603 annotations [ ], 2011. Archival Digital Print on Hahnemuhle Paper, 22 x 17 in | 56 x 43 cm. Edition: 5 + 3 AP

At the center of Arias’s work – and occupying a central, if understated, location in the gallery – is a collection of video works the artist calls snippets, which consist solely of single lines of white text that fade slowly in and out of the deep black space of the video monitor. In these pieces, what is missing or absent strikes the viewer as immediately (and as palpably) as what is present – namely, visual images and sound. As the lines of text appear and recede, leaving behind intimations of small, seemingly insignificant situations experienced by unknown, anonymous characters, the viewer is drawn into a narrative whose visual and aural details she or he is impelled to weave together in the space of the imagination. As each piece cycles through to completion (each is, on average, one minute in duration), the rhythm of the appearing and receding text becomes as significant as what the text indexes linguistically; stilled by the work’s insistent quiet, the mind becomes attuned to biological unities of thought and feeling, of mind and body, that go unnoticed by ordinary consciousness. Experienced together, Arias’s snippets are like phenomenological keyholes through which we peer onto the spaces in between acknowledged actions and events: moments of everyday experience that go unwitnessed and untold, and yet that are, the artist reminds us, as real and of consequence as that which these gaps punctuate.

Soledad Arias682 in a childlike voice, 2012. Archival Digital Print on Hahnemuhle Paper, 22 x 18 in | 56 x 46 cm. Edition: 5 + 3AP

Generated by the narratives in the videos are several other series of various media, ranging from a large-scale wall installation, in which short phrases of vinyl text spread out over an expansive white wall, several wall-mounted white neon light works, and three series of archival digital prints, each representing a different graphical approach to the fictive scenes of Arias’s narratives. With each series the artist further explores and articulates a visual poetics of the unsaid – a poetics of the “discarded” aspects of human experience as expressed in, suppressed by, and filtered through the fragile medium of human speech. 

With acoustic wall #1, the work’s address to architectural space is made most clearly manifest. Situated at the back of the gallery and occupying its most expansive wall, acoustic wall #1 confronts the viewer with an array of phrases (“he murmurs to himself,” “quite loud as well,” “gasps for air,” “stops herself,” “laughs”), which hovers weightlessly in a diagonal grid that stretches across the entire twenty-seven feet of the wall.  As we become more acutely attuned to the somatic dimension of language – to the ways in which our bodies change internally in response to it – we are also made more aware of the shape of the space surrounding us and its effects on our felt experience.

Walking through the gallery, one is struck by the silence of the exhibition as a whole (and, not incidentally, by the subtle irony therein; rarely in our noisy culture does so much text generate such quiet). Each series is pared down to only what is essential, the result being a reduced palette of solid black, white, and red, and an understated formal elegance that belies the work’s emotional intensity. In the print series, the texts and other graphical marks – which range from diagrammatic notations for theatrical stage sets to representations of the cadence of the artist’s voice reciting phrases from her snippets – are enveloped by considerable expanses of framed space, again underscoring the role of emptiness in giving shape and meaning to form. A white neon work inspired by the legendary “silent composition” of John Cage gives radiant form to those four minutes and thirty-three seconds, translating each temporal unit into a segment of warm white light that emanates from the wall and illuminates the viewer’s space. Another neon work, one from the artist’s phonetic neons series, gives tangible form to a sound wave produced by an anonymous subject’s involuntary exhalation (“ha”), leaving the viewer to wonder what emotional current gave rise to the utterance (was it born of surprise? Of relief? Of excitation? Of exhaustion?). 

Much visual art that uses language as its primary medium is, at least on one level, an address to the perennial question of meaning: Where does meaning reside? Is meaning transcendent or immanent – i.e., objective or subjective – or, as semiotics would have it, is it a function of language itself, neither attached to referents in the “real world” nor inherent in our subjectivity? To these questions Arias offers not answers but a provocative additional question – namely, might we consider as one powerful locus of meaning the pauses, gaps, false starts, and involuntary utterances that punctuate our speech and actions? Perhaps it is in these spaces, she suggests, that we communicate most voluminously. But ultimately, ON AIR is not an exhibition that seeks to illustrate or even explore an idea; it is first and foremost a body of work that is, in its very material embodiment, a profound expression of the richness, depth, and complexity of human experience. 


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