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Shana Beth Mason
Lively debate regarding the nature of craftsmanship and physical mastery of ancient principles of line, gradient and texture remain within the discourses of contemporary art. It seems all too convenient to dismiss present-day practitioners as young MFA students angrily throwing together scattered objects reminiscent of the ‘postmodern gloom’ or seasoned artists too comfortable in their creative spheres to reduce aesthetic objects to the bare minimum (even at their viewers’ expense). A clear antithesis to this anxious condition is perceivable in the work of Argentinean artist Pablo Lehmann. Alongside artists such as Paul Noble, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Sara Sze and Ai Weiwei, Lehmann exhibits an exhaustive level of physical labor in producing objects and concepts that illuminate how even the smallest conglomeration of objects continuously overwhelm us; in the same way as biology at the nanoscopic level baffles us as much as the reaches of the cosmos, Lehmann envelops his viewers in his fragile, intricately hand-cut environments. His newest work, The Scribe’s House, is a staggering example of his unusual method of presenting text and letters as ubiquitous as molecules of air or water.
Lehmann’s work is anchored around the act of cutting out letters from a solid material (primarily paper, textiles or plastics) revealing multiple lines and planes of poetic letters. He also constructs scenarios and installations where the texts behave as background or foundational elements on which other props are erected. On the average, a project where Lehmann builds a highly complex ‘room’ of letters, photographs the finished set and then destroys the original handiwork takes four to five months. An intense planning period is taken in order to visualize and render the hypothetical environments (in this case, various rooms inside and outside the artist’s house), then moves into a phase of on-set photography, and finally enters the finished phase where the image is digitally polished to create a fully-enveloped space filled with (and made from) literature.
The Scribe’s House was in development for two years and evolved from the architecture of Lehmann’s own home in Buenos Aires as well as a growing interest in photographs as folded objects. Individial leaves of paper drape over every surface, thus becoming the surface: a detail of ‘La Biblioteca’ (the ‘library’) shows the less-than-ironic gesture of coveted texts inverted and displayed as endless cascades of paper. Another element in the installation, ‘El Escritorio’ (the ‘desk’), displays both aged printed paper and newspaper as both content and base material. Within the swathes of words, a mask emerges: a human form buried in its own creation. Lehmann’s work is littered with little ironies and reminders of the conflicted nature of how and why we communicate.
The usage of texts and letters as a simultaneous base medium and conceptual hook is a well-documented facet of contemporary art within the last four decades. The so-called Art & Language group (loosely founded between 1967-68 by British artists Terry Atkinson, David Bainbridge, Michael Baldwin and Harol Hurrell) had laid the initial groundwork in synthesizing printed words within and as an object of consideration. From that origin, current practitioners including Lawrence Weiner, Doug Aitken, Robert Indiana and Martin Creed have incorporated letters as a means of manifesting verbal communication in three-dimensional space (or word-as-sculpture), but also constructing a literal bridge from the abstract to the tangible. Lehmann operates within this sector, as if the word transubstantiates into walls, chairs, beds and even writing tools, themselves.
The Scribe’s House successfully adds new elements of photography and scale-models to a solidly recognizable oeuvre for Lehmann. Not so ironically, it is a poetic gesture (both in content and concept) to the euphoric, sometimes maddening, inundation of knowledge and text the artist experiences in their work. Whether the weapon of choice is a paintbrush, pen, chisel, musical instrument or digital pixel, Lehmann manifests the agony and ecstasy of the aesthetic process in real time and space. Buried in its inevitability, the project exists in the present only as a printed document. An image, but within another set of words, nonetheless.
by Shana Beth Mason