The best contemporary art isn’t about finding answers; it’s about raising questions. The most skilled artists act both as salesmen and provocateurs, intriguing our senses just long enough for the situations, ideas, and juxtapositions presented in their work to seep in and jump-start our lazy brains into getting some much-needed exercise. Dallas artists Kathy Lovas’ and Karen Simpson’s collaborative installation piece “Photographs and Papers” currently on view at the Old Jail Art Center in the remote West Texas town of Albany, provides just this kind of an intellectual workout.
Lovas and Simpson chose to install “Photographs and papers” in a historically-preserved section of the Art Center which originally served as jail-cell space for frontier transgressors as far back as the 1870’s. It’s not a large space – maybe not even 15 by 15 feet. The walls are stone. The stairway and doors you pass through to reach it are iron-barred, as are its small windows. In other words, spirits of the place’s past still loom large in its atmosphere. The artists have totally obscured the cell’s floor with mounds of shredded documents that have been laid in like hay in a barn. Twelve 20 x 16 inch black and white photographic portraits line the perimeter of the room. They sit directly on the floor and lean three to a wall, evenly spaced. The portraits appear to be of school-age children, but the images have been blown-up and pixilated almost beyond recognition. Along one edge of each image is a series of letters and numbers have been scrawled, seemingly as a means of identification. They resemble giant versions of the missing children ads commonly seen on milk cartons.
Mounted on the walls in the space between the tops of the framed photos and the bottom of the barred jailhouse windows are two neatly placed rows of 9 x 12-inch plastic sleeves of the kind used to protect evidentiary documents in a court proceeding. Each of the 200 or so sleeves contains a page or two of paper – ranging in age from very old to fairly new, and in content from bleakly official to deeply personal. A government-issue tag attached to it by a string identifies each document. The tags assign each of the documents, which are referred to as “Evidentiary Fragments”, a hand-written ID number. They also provide us with a terse and disinterested description and history of the document. For example: “Evidentiary Fragment No. 0061. Son’s letter to mother during WW II. Found: Canton, Texas, 1994. Originated: Baltimore, Maryland, 1942.” Documents range from official items such as Baptismal records, Visa requests, patent applications, summons notifications and the like, to more personal bits of business – including an emotional note from an absent father to his estranged family; a letter written by a young mother for her three-year old daughter to read upon reaching adulthood; and a disciplinary note from an elementary school teacher to the parent of a spirited young boy whose contribution to the class’s Christmas project was to write “We are Santa’s elves, eating Santa’s butt”.
The thoughtfulness and care with which Lovas and Simpson have selected and arranged the elements in the installation all but force your brain to start wiggling. Of course your first reaction might very well be: “What the hell is all this supposed to mean?” Luckily, Lovas and Simpson are savvy enough artists not to mollify you with easy answers or overt statements. As you plow through the jungle of information the exhibit provides, you will find more than enough food for thought. Questions will arise:
How do our perceptions of our own society change when we view its records spread out before us with the archeological distance usually reserved for the study of cultures apart from our own? In such a context, is a governmental document any more or less informative about the society, which created it than a hand-written love-note? Even though we persist in our belief that the individual is unique, aren’t we complicit in reducing each other to easily categorized anonymity? Could our lives be as easily documented, numbered, categorized, packaged and used for the amusement of others as the ones Lovas and Simpson present us in “Photographs and Papers”? Are we really special – or is that only wishful thinking?