Not having any problem with the columns in the gallery at Bemis Center, Elisabeth Kley imagines a pavilion: a venue for performance or ritual, open to the elements and to people, a social space for public life.
The columns have their own story, feeling. They inflect whatever is added and precipitate meaning. Givens or prepossessing conditions in an exhibition space is something Kley is interested in. They begin a thought that is coextensive with her sculptures and fabrics about how to transform shape and surface without modifying what is there already.
Pattern has similar amplitude. It too does something to a space to do with inherence and invention. Kley has a feeling for history and is unafraid to improvise. She is a researcher and admirer of many intersecting traditions of performance and decorative arts. Kley is serious about pattern as a method. What do I mean? She sees how a single gesture can be its own smallest unit and the set of transformational rules that determine the structure of its appearance over time—an absurd atomism and also wallpaper.
What I want to say is how complicated pattern is. How is it made? Through the winding and unwinding of form and time. On the outskirts of taxonomy. Through a negotiation of value or some desire to keep going. In Minutes of Sand, pattern is wayfinding—wellspring—scenography—score. It keeps track of time in formal relationships and figures things out about variation and repetition. It also… comes loose a little. Pours out of its forms. Is tuned to the imaginative activity of appearance as well as the meaning: a logic that defies logic through its intricacy.
These sculptures and fabrics are pattern’s objects, meaning pattern is their source. Yardage in particular can’t be rushed out of the mind: beginning with a large volume of drawings, Kley divided her chosen patterns into elements by color then painted each on a film to silkscreen these pieces with the help of two technicians at the Fabric Workshop and Museum. The “and, and, and” of it, also the doubling back of fabric required to start the next layer, makes me think of pattern as being built up from the inside, as a recursive sort of blooming as much as an accretion of influence—
Did silkscreening make you think differently about pattern, I say, and Kley says, not really, but maybe it should—
Kley draws a lot to arrive at patterns, scaling from shape to room, so I guess I meant the part about the silkscreen process beginning with one that’s finished. But pattern tells that teleology does nothing to diminish the beguiling experience of what pattern is. History is a formal and emotional problem for Kley and her works come to be on the way to imaginary solutions. Visual inference and citation, working with what is there already, are ways she makes clear that what she shares with the legendary set designers and artisans she references is a desire for the explosion of affect in a time-limited world.
Carlo Bugatti; the Bloomsbury Group; Assyrian antiquity; Jean Cocteau; Léon Bakst and Natalia Goncharova; chinoiserie; Weiner Werkstätte; frescos from Nebamun’s tomb—Kley collects formal residue. Not all of these are in Kley’s lexicon but her intense engagement with aesthetics allows that everything is inessential, nothing is superfluous. And anyway form offers only a halo of containment: influence for Kley is a moving thing.
A sculpture with four gridded legs and what looks like a ceremonial gate painted on its top is only like a table. The yardage is a river. For Alfred Jarry, the Symbolist writer who Minutes of Sand is named for, memory’s transference was memory’s truest object.
The Morgan Library calls the gold insignia on the cover of Jarry’s Les minutes de sable mémorial “heraldic”, making me think of angels and messages and faith and/or waiting. Is pattern language? Pattern is more code than message, and code is the social part of language (Lacan says). I’m trying to sort out what is shared and what is personal in pattern’s appearance because pattern doesn’t just appear; it is conjured up, passed down, inhabited, transferred. Pattern is environmental. Pattern is a habit (like some monks wear). A form of faith (and/or waiting) where the garment is an import from collective to self.
See: the ballet dancer. See: the priest. The outermost layer does something to appearance (meaning affective reality) to do with belief. The vestment or costume is how the priest transcends individuality in the eyes of the faithful and how—Paul P. wrote this about Kley’s work—Nijinsky was the faun. A fulcrum between identity and identification, performer and role—investing in this activity of the outfit, Kley calls the way her terracotta sculptures come to be patterned “dressing”: once a shape is first fired, she sticks pieces of paper painted with patterns on its body to determine what to paint and glaze.
Funny to think of terracotta as a paper doll or fit model, making clay’s commitment to the part seem agnostic. This is interesting in relation to Kley’s test tiles, rehearsals of her signature black and white patterning, which I have on hand. Each slab specifies a single element or motif, lending pattern figural presence that Kley actively undermines through the physical interaction of paint and glaze. Wateriness at the edges of a black flower or blueish speckles in a ground of white or feathering where color dissipates in transparent clots all convey an attitude. Everything is available; nothing is promised. The goal stays to collude with ambiguity. Not to signify, to transform.
Kley’s flowers alone infer complicated histories of design’s attempts to re-entangle nature and culture and ritual’s evidence that they were never separate to begin with. This is a lot for a flower to do and of course flowers are always doing this. Motif in Kley’s work opens the door to conflicted imaginaries, to economy as well as decadence. Even stripes or waves or arches, even formal givens like flowers or columns show themselves to be capable of weirdness, imprecision, antagonism and beauty—of being wagers. Of resisting standardization above all.
Tell me about William Morris, a friend says, and I say, OK: he wanted to spread pattern over everything. But cultivation is more important to Kley than infinity. For her 2019 show with Tabboo! at Gordon Robichaux, she made planters and a fountain complete with coins out of box shapes and arches. The show was called Garden; the gallery looked wet and fecund. Inside and outside, already eccentric, became only relatively true. Is pattern propaganda, the friend says, or just a different way of describing the real thing?
Can pattern be trusted? What does it want? To create a shifting context for reality, maybe. Kley is always fighting with the desire to make a stage set, which she does in Minutes of Sand, but differently. Here, the ability to be and not be oneself that pattern stands for has to do with a sense of futurity or faith in the inexhaustible within the apparently self-disclosing. Kley believes in continuity as well as subterfuge. The curtain goes up and the audience improvises.