It may be argued that it’s not really fair to consider Thomas Ashcraft’s exhibition at the Center for Contemporary Arts until it’s over. Codices: Heliotown is in a constantly evolving state, touched and tweaked daily by Ashcraft, who tunes the small details as carefully as he adjusts the homebuilt radio telescopes that provide the basis and inspiration for much of the work.
Of course, opining on art is as much (and frequently more) of a moving target as making and displaying it. As the artist Mel Bochner said earlier this year about his own and Donald Judd’s time spent writing art criticism, one often changes one’s mind entirely by the time the review is published, but there it is, trapped in print. But Ashcraft’s elaborate and involved practice accomplishes nothing if not to prove the movement inside of what is perceived as stasis and the symphony that may be cultivated from apparent static.
The underlying themes and insinuations that have infused Ashcraft’s work for decades include allusions to science fiction, magical realism, medicinal drugs, botany, biology and astronomy. Ashcraft pulls these influences (and doubtless many others) together into an ongoing personal mythology that asserts itself in the visual and material form of log books, vitrine, bell jar displays, experiments, money and a kind of wondrous re-use of common, collected materials into situations that suggest an organic laboratory minded by scientists who might be intuitionists and nuance-ologists.
Appropriately, the exhibition is entered through a sort of air lock, or decompression hallway. The huge expanse of south-facing glazing on the gallery’s front has been blacked out and, when one enters the small doorway in the far corner accompanied by the sound of howling wind, pressure noticeably shifts. A curtain at the end of a dim hallway is sucked upward, beckoning the visitor forward.
At the end of the hallway and the entrance to the exhibition, one is likely to find notes left by Ashcraft, suggesting progress or evolutions within the exhibition and, possibly, flowers, a chair to sit in, a log book for anyone to use and other things that have not yet occurred even to Ashcraft.
Inside the cavernous and intentionally and elegantly dim exhibition space, the sounds captured by the artist’s experiments in radio astronomy fill the air. Ashcraft has placed a rectangle of flat adobes, 21-by-22 bricks in size, in the center of the room. It evokes, immediately, an expanse in demand of exploration, a quivira of sorts. The small figure atop its surface implies something along the lines of a small, Martian lander, a NASA robot searching for samples and reporting back to its eager masters huddled in a beep- and light-filled control room—except the object is not a tool of men, but a sculptural model of what is quite likely the most numerous organism on earth, the phage virus that infects and grows inside of bacteria.
Coming to this understanding, whether through recognition or clues laid in the numerous notes and journals that hide in the corners and crannies of the exhibition, flips the perception: What expanse is being explored and what is the meaning of scale, of time? This inversion of perception continues throughout the experience and exploration of Codices.
The field of adobe is surrounded by five large, human-scale boxes or rooms, the interiors of which may be viewed through slits of varying heights. Inside each box is a micro-system that relates to the greater whole. Sometimes it is a display of elemental objects, sometimes it’s like looking into an endless galactic expansion or staring into the center of an atom.
Punctuating the space between these boxes, and their lively visual riddles, are bunches of flowers and small displays, maquettes for philosophical and spatial dilemmas that are quiet and riveting sculptural situations. In one such display, a man inside a large room looks inside of a box through slits in its side—just as the viewer has been doing. On the one hand, it makes one wish all the maquettes were larger situations, but, on the other hand, it effectively bookends Ashcraft’s manipulation of perception and scale.
One small difficulty of the exhibition is the way in which a video viewing room at the back of the gallery feels like a throwaway space. But on the whole, Ashcraft has created—and continues to evolve—an experiment of arresting beauty, a contradiction in which a peaceful, bodily stillness is abetted with a cacophony of induced thoughts.
Ashcraft works a great deal and exhibits very rarely. As he has done in the past at CCA, SITE Santa Fe and other locations, he creates one of the must-see, or rather, must-experience exhibitions of the decade. Unlike much of the contemporary art one is likely to suffer in a lifetime—self-referential egoisms generated to capitalize on style, design, fad and academic pretension—Ashcraft is laying out his personal ethos and inviting viewers to seek something alongside him.
The result is the most fantastical space many people are likely to wander into. It also is among the most real.
Through Aug. 24
Center for Contemporary Arts
1050 Old Pecos Trail