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Dropping names for the sake of art

Wednesday, Nov 29 2006
Anyone who has doodled in the margins of a high school notebook and admired the results — the rich mix of text, formulas, yellow highlighter, graffiti, cartoon portraits, and mazes — will appreciate Charles Gute's current work. His eight wry diagrammatic drawings, created on the computer and exhibited as archival prints in "Revisions and Queries" at Catharine Clark Gallery, are done in the same spirit. The work follows in the footsteps of Andy Warhol and modernist composer John Cage, champion of "chance operations." The inadvertent gifts of a technology failure, these images combine fragments of language and line in an indeterminate space, which is not quite a page and not quite a picture. More than anything, they resemble the visual rhythms of innovative sheet music.

Gute (rhymes with "lute") makes his living as an art book editor. He uses Adobe Acrobat's palette for his editorial marks — leaving a trail of circles, lines with flourishes, boxes, and highlights — to make the raw prose intelligible to the reader. During an interview at a San Francisco cafe, he explains: "One day, while transcribing a series of interviews between Hans Ulrich Obrist [a high-profile curator] and notable contemporary artists, my computer's hard drive crashed. Trying to retrieve my files, I noticed that the original text was completely erased. All that remained was the most recent layer of my editing marks. I liked the way it looked, and that gave me the idea for this work. My personal art practice and the content of my day job began to merge."

Using these same interviews, Gute erased the speakers' text from each one. He then layered his editorial markups on top of each other, changing nothing. In Rem Koolhaas Interview, the picture space is filled with bubbles and eggs — a curious coincidence, as the architect's most recent building is an egglike pavilion for London's Serpentine Gallery, its roof a helium-supported translucent dome. In Lawrence Weiner Interview, a stack of long rectangular boxes creates a platform in the center of the page. Sparse floating commas and a question ("'Practice' or 'praxis'?") become an elliptical portrait of the father of modern conceptual art, whose works are self-reflexive questions on gallery walls. Other interviews feature the same graphic language — curlicues, sharp diagonals, solo letters in circles, commas, and periods in ovals. Gute, the artist/editor, is a quiet presence, his queries a subtle counterpoint to the invisible dialogue. In this era of branding, he has chosen his subjects for their name-dropping value.

Diagrams as drawings abound in the history of contemporary art. In the early 1900s, the French poet Apollinaire created visual poetry, arranging his words and letters into images. A close friend of Cubists Picasso and Braque, he was trying to do in language what they attempted in painting. Kurt Schwitters, the father of modern collage, made text pictures. Andy Warhol's Dance Diagram (Foxtrot, Man Turns and Woman Turns) 1962 is one of a series lifted from dance manuals. More recently, Sol Lewitt, Julie Mehretu, and Mark Lombardi have extended the scale and range of what is possible in diagram art. And now the computer offers us a universe of possibilities for creative accidents and the means to turn text into pictures. Anyone who has ended an e-mail with a smiley face plays with the possibilities.

It may help to know that Charles Gute is a conservatory-trained violist, who once gave a solo concert in an upstairs university bathroom chosen for its good acoustics. He is intimately acquainted with the language of music and interested in the concepts behind notation in general. He says he had a life-changing experience when he saw John Cage's score for "Water Music," pages of hand-lettered instruction: "Turn on the radio. Tune the dial to [88.5] FM; Pour water back and forth between glasses." He had another when he saw Laurie Anderson's performance of USA, which mixes original music, wild sound, political commentary, and history with video in a marathon rock concert setting. He sensed a kinship with Nam June Paik, the pioneer video artist (also a classically trained musician), who hacked an upright piano to pieces in a Fluxus performance in the 1960s.

Gute switched from music to art, earning his MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1988. As a conceptual artist, he continues to draw freely and whimsically on his musical background. In his Beethoven Corpus, he has created a long series of the composer's quotes in needlepoint, and another of the composer's hair patterns from historical portraits. In his installation Duct Tape Funeral March, he perched 13 rolls of duct tape (the number of parts in a symphonic score) on a gallery wall. They slowly unwound, revealing the miniaturized score of Beethoven's march from the Eroica Symphony.

Also included in the exhibition are The HUO Drawings, hand-lettered versions of all the misspellings Gute encountered (and invented) when he was editing the above-mentioned interviews. Obrist, born in Switzerland, has a name with a musical beat that people often misspell. Gute riffs on the theme of "Hans Ulrich Obrist" like a teenager obsessively inking band names on the cover of his high school notebook. Playing with typefaces, he gives us Han-Solo Richobrist, Hans Ulrich Obreast, Hansel Ulrich Obrist, and others. As Warhol did with his Brillo boxes and his photos of Marilyn Monroe, Gute has lifted Obrist's name out of context and repeated it with variations. A smart guy with a healthy sense of humor, Gute both honors and pokes fun at his heroes.

About The Author

Lea Feinstein


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