It seems as though I missed the closing of this show and I’m sorry. I hope you made it out to China Art Objects during the run of Mark Hagen’s exhibition?
What might it mean to capture or enclose a random distribution of particles within a defined shape? Like cutting slices out of a pie of entropy, Mark Hagen’s obsidian sculptures exist as referents to universe-scaled questions about time and matter.
It is true that obsidian is called by scientists an ‘amorphous solid’ because it lacks crystalline structure, a parenthetical statement might note that glasses such as obsidian are a special class of amorphous solids which become liquid under favorable circumstances. It helps me to think of this as matter existing in two states at once, liquid and solid. It also helps me to extend this notion backward and forward, to the moment in the Cretaceous Period when liquid obsidian cooled to a solid and also to a possible future when it may return to the liquid state.
As you see above, Hagen takes advantage of the natural iridescence of some obsidian. Gas bubbles formed during a lava flow then captured during cooling produce this effect, reminding me again of that moment of making. Rainbow Obsidian and Snowflake Obsidian (which feature captured crystals of a white mineral) are prized among those rock collectors who value beauty, and in ancient times these materials were used to make jewelry and objects of worship. The more mundane obsidians were used to make weapons – arrowheads and sometimes swords. Extremely fine blades, obsidian makes, with an edge that may be only molecules thick. I have blood on my notebook to give evidence of this, and I didn’t feel a thing!
“I’ve never seen a good mandala, except perhaps the sand one’s that monks make. Mostly, the symbols have been subsumed into New Age kitsch and now are produced for armchair tourists of ‘Eastern’ philosophies.”
Thus did Hagen introduce to me the subject of his “Directionless Field” photographs, he went on to talk about his desire to work with science as it exists today, and to locate an ideal or possible sublime within his materials. Hence, for his photos Hagen disassembles a camera (a sublime image-maker whose time is still passing), “To see how it works” and uses the lenses, refractors, shiny parts of metal, etc., to create still lifes of light and object. In fact, the refracted light in these photos present as having mass – which then takes my mind back to our friend obsidian, caught as it is between two states.
This project of Hagen’s also brings to my mind the work of Christopher Williams, whose photographs are ‘of’ the means of communication and production. (See Mark Wyse’s essay “Too Drunk to Fuck (On the Anxiety of Photography” in your copy of Words Without Pictures for a clearly stated precis of Williams’ art.)
(Oh! I find that a nice person who titles him or her self ‘A Photo Student,’ in a website titled ‘A Virtual MFA’ has cleverly uploaded a pdf of said essay. Awesome job my friend!!! Read Wyses’s wise words on A Photo Student here. This nice person is named James Pomerantz.)
The resulting images are mirrored and then mirrored again, making the directionless field of his title, their blackness also mirrors the obsidian sculptures and Hagen’s use of photography in this work curiously reflects the references to photography in his method of making paintings.
Starting with pieces of sun-tanned burlap, a natural material that still shows bits of plant fiber and leaf matter in its making, (Ok, I have to make a connection to surfing here, I just have to. Hagen resembles a handsome surfer, much of his obsidian material comes from a cache in Malibu, suntanning is de rigueur for beach combers, and if you’ve ever spent time listening to the a-crystalline poetic and philosophical musings of the tribe that hangs ten you will recognize some of the concerns of this work. Smithson, were he a Californian, would have surfed. He might have been less nihilistic than he was had he such a connection to cyclical renewal as one gets from the sea.)
Continuing, Hagen takes his sheets of burlap, lays them on tables weighted down with stones (I think I recall this), and he applies white house paint in layers. Thick, heavy layers that soak all the way through his twiney and rough ground. Hagen marks his burlap canvases into quarters and thirds and uses diagonals to connect these points. He works all the way through each of his formulas before he moves on or adds an iteration. The paintings are displayed ‘backwards,’ with the first layer of paint showing. The past is first, in other words, and the layer that was poured closest to the present moment is hidden behind the work. Time is again brought into the discussion, this time it is reversed. Sweet.
Do you know the work of Roman Opalka? I seem to think of him almost monthly since I saw his show at Selwyn’s when it was in Beverly Hills. Opalka paints time, you may see for yourself here.
In Opalka’s own words, his technique:
“The fundamental basis of my work, to which I have dedicated my life, manifests itself in a process of recording a progression that both documents time and also defines it. It began on a single date in 1965, the one on which I undertook my first “Detail”.”
“Each “Detail” is a part of a greater idea conceived on that date. My work records the progression to infinity, through the first and the last number painted on the canvas.”
“I inscribe the progression of numbers beginning with one, proceeding to infinity, on canvases of the same size, 77.17 x 53.15 in (196 x 135 cm), in white by hand with a paintbrush. Since 1972 I have been making each canvas’ background about 1% whiter each time. Thus the moment will arrive when I will paint white on white. Since 2008, I have painted in white on a white background, which I call “blanc mérité” (white well earned).”
“After each work session in my studio, I take a photograph of my face in front of the “Detail” that I have been working on. Each “Detail” is accompanied by a tape recording of my voice saying the numbers out loud as I write them.”
As Mr. Opalka told it to David at the October 2002 opening, on that date in 1965 he was waiting for his wife and friends in a cafe. Opalka’s artistic concern, and that of his friends, was time – and how to represent time in art. He had a pretty simple and hugely resonant idea in that cafe, and has spent his life pursuing this idea. By the way, Opalka’s last painting has already been sold, I suppose in the terms of today that would be ‘optioned’ to a museum in Germany. Pretty cool, to have an endpoint. His work, and time, will stop for Opalka. At that point the work will be complete as one piece, scattered around the earth. Cool and more cool.
This came to my mind in Mark Hagen’s studio because of his reservation of titling rights until some unstated future date. There are many implications embedded in this decision of Hagen’s, not least of which is the fun potential for wreaking havoc in galleryies, collections and libraries around the world who own Hagen’s work or catalogs of his work.
Additive Sculpture Screens are the first work I saw by Hagen, at China Art in Chinatown. They make me think of prehistoric structures, of walls meant as much for worship and objectification as for protection and the delimiting of space. Passing by them does wonderful things to your perception, objects slip and twitch past like an old fashioned film that is skipping.
The first gallery, pictured several times above, had me feeling the eerie sensation I get in places that feel ancient – like when I was a teenager climbing in the hills and found a chalk cliff at the end of a narrow canyon: the space had significance, and I was a fanciful person and made this into a place of reflection, a site for obeisances and shivers and respect. Hagen’s sculptures though, are part of the built environment. Perhaps if I’d been to Stonehenge – but no, that might be too literal.