Aldwyth work v. / work n.:
Collage and Assemblage 1991-2009

Ackland Art Museum
Through Sept. 13

From afar it’s a magnificent fantasy, a planet bejeweled with eyes that appear to pour from the heavens and spill across the surface and around the edges of the floating sphere.

The eyes dazzle and gleam, dripping in accumulated rivulets of ever-graduated scale, downward through empty space. Closer up, the eyes form a grid across the orb, each cross-section a window onto a reproduction of artwork from a galaxy of artists. The work, entitled “Casablanca (classic version)” (2003-2006), is the signature piece from Aldwyth: Work v./Work n. at the Ackland Art Museum.

Now in her 70s, the artist who goes only by the single name Aldwyth is introducing herself to the art world by holding a mirror up to it. Who she is and what’s she’s done previously remain a bit of a mystery. Similarly, the work itself also deflects attention from the artist and takes us into a world based almost solely upon the act of viewing art. There’s a Chuck Close self-portrait, a Picasso Minotaur drawing, Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty,” a Brice Marden gestural abstraction, a Cindy Sherman, a Man Ray, along with Judd, Richter, Rothenberg, Kentridge, Basquiat, Steir. Altogether, there are about 200 works of art represented in this single, densely packed compendium, which measures roughly 6 by 6 feet.

As with many of the works in the exhibition, the artist has created a detailed diagram that accompanies the piece, in this case, a legend identifies each artist represented. In this light, the work can be seen as a road map, an art-historical pictograph or a visual topography of a journey of looking at art. There’s a tension between its two subsets of images, the reproductions of artworks and the cutouts of eyes. It’s as if these two forces cohabit the world of the piece, vying for primacy, as if to ask, “Which is more important, the works of art or the eyes that see them?” “Casablanca (classic version)” is an unapologetically surreal piece, haunting, indelible. As with Aldwyth’s other collages, it feels like a complete world unto itselfa cosmology.

“Casablanca (classic version)” does something else that much of Aldwyth’s work manages to doit takes images of contemporary art and makes them appear both timeless and ancient. A Jasper Johns target painting is recast as an archetype. Cy Twombly’s scrawls scan as unearthed hermetic texts. Ant Farm’s “Cadillac Ranch” resonates with the ritual mysteries of Stonehenge (which, I discovered after making this association, is also represented in the piece).

Much of the artwork in Work v./Work n. incorporates found texts, such as “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.” This quote, from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, finds its way into the massive collage “Slip Sliding Away” (1995, 2007-09). That tension, between seeing and knowing, resonates throughout the exhibition, perhaps most poignantly in “The World According to Zell” (1997-2001), in which the entire body of illustrations from Zell’s Popular Encyclopedia of 1876 have been cut out and placed in the space of a single, prodigious collage. The work has the quality of an event, the site at which a bomb went off, the aftermath of an exploded container. Having liberated the pictures from the tyranny of their descriptions, “The World According to Zell” reconfigures the images to suit Aldwyth’s eye. With a whimsical glint that feels as much a nod to the Night at the Museum films as to fine art, Aldwyth reanimates the found illustrations, bringing them to life through the very act of transposing. Motley flotillas appear unmoored at sea, schools of mismatched fish swim en masse, historical figures congregate and fraternize, classical buildings huddle together to form ahistorical cities. Even graphic iconography seems to have acquired the free will to realign itself, to form new symbolic figurations. What’s remarkable about the composition of “Zell” is how correct it feels, as if the illustrations had languished within the confines of their encyclopedic prisons since 1876 and Aldwyth finally set them to rights. The level of accumulated visual detail is staggeringa magnifying glass is provided for ease of viewing.

Aldwyth goes out of her way to point out her contemporaries and predecessors, most frequently Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell. The assemblage piece “Tonic” (1998-2001) includes a typed letter to Joseph Cornell that begins, “Dear Joseph: We all recognise your single handed accomplishment of elevating the humble shadow box to an art form. In appreciation (with a nod to Duchamp), I dedicate this box to the more than 5 variations of Pharmacy. I do so to point out the differences in our work. […]”

My own art-historical associations to Work v./Work n. include Kurt Schwitters, whose early 20th-century collages remain some of the highest achievements in the medium, the collage and assemblage works of Bruce Conner and George Herms, the id-driven collage practice of Marnie Weber, and Taiyo Kimura’s magazine constructions riddled with cutouts of eyes. Yayoi Kusama’s obsessional “accumulation nets” designed to contain the universe come to mind, as do Michael Asher’s site-specific commentaries on the institutions that house and display art.

The exhibition’s title translates as “Work Verb/Work Noun.” This semantic doubling is central to Aldwyth’s project, drawing attention equally to the act of creation and to the resultant work of art. Aldwyth’s imagery tends toward the literal. Eyes and hands appear again and again, and they mean exactly what they appear to mean. These are works about the experience of seeing art by other artists and making work about seeing art by other artists. While many of the works appear strange and otherworldly, the diagrams and charts that accompany them clarify the impulse behind their creation and offer instruction as to how to view them. The artworks referenced in this exhibition are reproductions from newspapers, magazines, books or the Internet. It’s worth noting that this is how most culture is receivedat a remove. Most of us know works of art primarily through reproductions and art reviews, like the one you’re reading now. Aldwyth’s art world is a mediated one.

This show, curated by Mark Sloan of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston, is being billed as her first major retrospective. Exhibition materials tell us that Aldwyth “lives and works in an octagonal house on the edge of a salt marsh on one of South Carolina’s sea islands.” The artist’s early life and work are elided, and she is described as an outsider (albeit art-smart, art-schooled) who has worked in seclusion for most of her life. Aldwyth is certainly not the first artist around whom a kind of biographical mythology has been constructed: Joseph Beuys’ airplane crashes in the Kurdish desert, Georgia O’Keeffe retreats to the American Southwest, John Baldessari burns his paintings and moves to conceptual art. In the case of Aldwyth, it’s not clear if her mythology comes from her or from the institutions that are now bringing her to the public eye. I assume that the dropping of her first name is her own invention, associating her less with entertainment icons like Bono, Madonna or Cher, but rather with the way art-world insiders often abbreviate artist names in conversationStella, Koons, BourgeoisAldwyth.

The artist will lecture at the Ackland Art Museum on Tuesday, Sept. 8, at 5:30 p.m.

Note: Due to a technical error, a star rating was inadvertently assigned to this show in the initial online version of this review. The Indy currently only assigns star ratings to film and theater reviews. We have since removed the star rating and apologize for the error.