MEANING IN ART: Embedding Experience

Wayne Stokes, studio view
Find a way to turn things back
What never happened seems to last

Mission of Burma, Dead Pool
from Vs. (1982)

At some level, an art object contains the documentation of its creation stored as replayable data.  This is what happens when we are confronted with a work of art and consider how it was made.  For example, when we're listening to a music album we're hearing the actions that have created the replayable data, but we're not hearing the original live music.  We're, in essence, listening to the documentation of a performance (that we weren't present for), which then becomes an album embedded with its own creation story that we play again and again.  Likewise, a painting or drawing is built out of its actions, which create the object we see; then we're witness, not just to the actions that created the work of art, but the object itself, which replays this history to us if we look closely enough.  In the contradictory nature of ‘live albums’ and process-based paintings and drawings (particularly those that attempt to conceal their process) we see a pattern where the original experience of creating the object is part-and-parcel with the finished object.

The Horrible Truth about Burma,
Mission of Burma, 1985
Let's do a case-study: In the late 70’s and early 80’s, Mission of Burma (MoB) was a punk group operating out of Boston. Famous for their live shows, when MoB recorded their first and only full studio album of the 1980’s, Vs, (1982) the recorded experience was jarringly different than their live performances. The sequel to Vs. was MoB’s first live album, The Horrible Truth about Burma, (1985) which captured an equally intricate but less filtered sound. A record of their final tour in 1983, its tongue-in-cheek title evokes the raw and unpolished ‘truth’ that fans look forward to hearing in a live recording.

MoB delivered music to a wide range of fans; with songs like This is not a photograph and Max Ernst, they captured the attention of visual artists and the pursuit of representing reality. This is not a photograph on their debut EP Signals, Calls and Marches (1981) captures the impossibility of honestly representing an experience and how we begin to pay attention to the way something is portrayed, not just what it attempts to portray.  The title references the Belgian Surrealist Rene Magritte’s painting The Treachery of Images, a painting of a pipe with the words "Ceci n'est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe) painted below it.  Magritte’s painting calls attention to itself as a representation of a pipe, as opposed to an actual pipe, and consequently we see Magritte's choices as a painter rather than what he is portraying.  In a similar way, MoB’s song is not the original performance, but rather a recording of it in replayable format, which acknowledges its contradiction through its title, This is not a photograph.

This is just a perpendicular line to the grain
(This is not a photograph)
This wants to be outside the cage of the age
(This is not a photograph)

This is not a photograph
from Signals, Calls and Marches (1981)

Ian Jeffrey and Wayne Stokes
Courtesy of Anthony Greaney Gallery
Another case study: I walk into Wayne Stokes’ studio in South Boston and he and I sit down and have a beer (this matters - I'll explain later).  On the walls are a series of purple and black constellations on canvas.  His upcoming show with Ian Jeffrey at Boston's Anthony Greaney Gallery is called The Horrible Truth.  My chat with Wayne brings up two themes: the impossibility of packaging an experience and how, consequently, feedback becomes a message in itself.

Wayne Stoke’s paintings are a deep hybrid: a painting of both its subject matter and its documentation.  After layering iridescent purple vinyl on canvas and gel medium, Stokes scrapes down to the canvas.  The result is a shiny lawn of purple wrinkles that Stokes then photographs with a heavy flash. The resulting photograph with its glare of flash is then painted onto another canvas, a painting of both the subject matter and its documentation.

Ian Jeffrey arrives and he too sits down.  From a box he pulls out what look like doodles of paramecia in plastic sleeves.  I begin sorting through the works and I believe I’m looking at negatives of photographs from microscope slides, but he keeps referring to them as drawings.  I don’t believe him and I keep trying to correct him.

Ian Jeffrey

Ian assures me that they are indeed drawings; that they are actually the redrawn lines of a reversed graphite rubbing of a tracing of doodles in the margin of a drawing loosely based on a MoB album cover.  Each step in Ian’s process removes the trace of each previous step, until there is no evidence of the original source material.  His subject matter is the residual noise from the previous subject matter, looped and reestablished as its foremost content. We're no longer even looking at the original creative act - now we're looking at the creative response. Further and further away we go from the original actions of the artist. This is no longer a drawing: it's a drawing of a photograph of a drawing of a photograph of a drawing... and so on.

Sitting in the studio looking at Stoke’s and Jeffrey’s works, I begin seeing the actions that lead to their current states. Whether I can see them or not the actions are tied up inside the works, begging to be discovered.  Some actions are louder and more discernible than others, some are completely drowned out by the noise of the next action.  Only the artist was there for each step of the process. The completed object offers all of these histories (if only I could see them all). 

The Horrible Truth (installation view), Ian Jeffries and Wayne Stokes
Anthony Greaney Gallery, Boston MA
Final case study: If the experience of ‘being there’ at a punk concert can be likened to a studio visit in Boston, then I guess I was there.  I was there in 2011, I drank a beer with the artists (told you that'd come around) and saw the works before they were finished; but I would argue that one needn’t be there for any particular part of the life cycle of any work, visual, audio or otherwise.  These works were formed as replayable data, to be seen in a multitude of different venues by a multitude of eyes, across time. Only the work is truly ‘there’; we come to it so that we may experience it, for the first time or be reminded of it, in whatever format it holds at that particular moment.


Remember this when you finish reading: This is not just a text. It's a live album too. It's a record with embedded experience.