CHRYSANNE STATHACOS: AS TO A READING OF THINGS
by G. Roger Denson, 1988
In the last two decades of the twentieth century, Chrysanne Stathacos found herself confronted with a materialist culture fastly becoming oversaturated by cynical critiques of the mercantile status of art. Significant artists and critics were for the first time in history producing art and commentary embroiled in the controversy of art’s own subsumption by market concerns and the capitalist orgy of consumerism. Sadly, the art dominating the critical discourse of the day became increasing attenuated in its capacity to function as a spiritual vehicle, if spirituality had any currency left in the leading American and European art markets.
It is to Chrysanne Stathacos’ credit that she responded to this plethora of materialism with a defiant quest to reassert the art object as a cosmological enterprise—which for Stathacos meant undertaking a holistic reading of things-in-the-world that she sees fundamentally informing the artist’s proclivity for image and object making. But rather than turn away from the critique of art-as-commodity, Stathacos counted commodities among the inventory of signs composing her cosmology. In fact, Stathacos began her inventory of object-prose by turning the most mundane commodities into auratic fetishes, through a process that consisted of no more than applying ink or paint directly onto both man-made and natural objects, then imprinting their traces onto fabric, paper, marble or mirrors. The resulting images functioned not only as signs, but as texts composing a prose of the world—a visual litany of physical patterns enmeshing and unifying all objects, natural and man made, while building a cosmology—a totality of things—becoming, being and ceasing. A rose, a tire, a fan belt, a leaf, a stone, a strand of hair, a condom: all are found by Stathacos to be equally worthy and capable of signing to us on a variety of levels. In this process, Stathacos came to heighten what she saw as the object’s subtle signage—its traces—and thereby drawing attention to the human proclivity to find meaning in form—in color, line, rhythm, repetition, extension, relation—all of which she saw building into a holistic alphabet and index of the life-world.
It is strategic that in Stathacos’ quest for meaning, rather than resorting to isolating, decontextualizing and exhibiting yet another found object—which would signify being, but not becoming or ceasing—Stathacos chose to print traces of objects left, as traces can only be left, by the objects themselves. By traces, I mean impressions left on a surface by an object after it has been inked or painted and then pressed wet against a surface with applied pressure. In this, Stathacos took both the found object of Marcel Duchamp and the body print of Yves Klein one step further by refunctioning found objects as the matrices or stamps perpetuating memory of their existence through the object’s own issue. The resulting inked impression is an evidence, something more essential to an object than a mere representation. Unlike the standard printing and photographic processes reliant on fixed plates or negatives, the printed impression of an object is rarely repeatable upon demand. This is especially true when the paint or ink used to make the impression is applied to fragile materials or folded cloth, which then vary with each printing. What matters is the resulting image has a greater claim to authenticity in the hierarchy representational genres than does the painting or sculpture, in that the imprint can actually verify an object’s patterns and textures, rather than merely represent them. By contrast, the realistic painting can only claim to be a stand-in, or a conduit, for the object—an indirect relation with perception and judgement mediating between the object and its representation. But the pressed image has no intermediary; it is made directly from the object—and as a trace it is still a part of the object, even if only survives as an inverse surface view and after effect. We do not suffer the naive delusion, as we do with photography and painted photorealism, that we are witness to an exact replica of the object. Instead, we are aware from the initial encounter with Stathacos’ paintings that we observe the object’s mark, not the object as it exists in the world—and yet we know we are in the presence of some essence of the object.
As for the world view these traces of objects participate in, Stathacos is not constructing a cosmological paradigm insomuch as she is composing a field of textures and patterns which metaphorically correlate to the mesh of the world fabric. Stathacos believes that when these textures and patterns are subjected to a hermeneutical reading, they yield visual information integral to the elaboration of a cosmological scheme. Stathacos does not propose a conclusive cosmology, nor does she claim to decipher the code of the universe in a manner consistent with either ancient religious systems or current scientific models. She simply claims to liberate and compare the hidden marks of objects found in plain sight, while searching for the continuity underlying all things that is knowable through a visual and conceptual synthesis of science, poetics and spirituality.
On a purely visual level, the basic structure of the universe, or what we might call Stathacos’ “life-world”, is manifested in patterns throughout the universe. Humans have intuitively responded to nature’s patterns for millennia, not knowing quite how to evaluate or make practical use of them. Empirical observations and inductive theory in twentieth-century physics, biology, chemistry, astronomy and the like, have confirmed the existence of a unified pattern within the disciplines per se, if not in the material composition of the physical world itself. Stathacos considers it just another leap of inference that this unification may encompass all phenomena, on all scales—the microscopic as well as the macroscopic. Furthermore, she claims patterns to be observable even within objects which are man-made, no matter how glossy or commercial they appear.
Stathacos had first become attuned to the patterns and textures of the world by noticing them in plants, and cites an untitled poem by William Carlos Williams to approximate her first epiphany of the cosmological scheme found in a leaf.
Upon each leaf it is
a pattern more
of logic than a purpose
links each pattern to the rest
devices, as of pure thought—
the edge tying by
convergent, crazy rays
with the center—
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Such are the leaves
freakish, of the air
as thought is, of roots
dark, complex from
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The logic to which Williams alludes is one well documented over a span of centuries, and in recent decades found its most eloquent representation in Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things. Foucault has reviewed not just the natural and recurring pattern in the world, but the ancient belief that the object of nature and human creation alike are wholly readable, as if it were a text. By their underlying patterning, objects were thought by the ancients to be the prose of the world, in that they held the secret of the world’s composition, variety and meaning. With this world reading in mind, Stathacos undertook a printing process that in effect classifies object-patterns according to a system of resemblances. As she became more aware of the patterns found ubiquitously throughout nature and civilization, she noted they all seemed bound by similarity. “Resemblance,” says Foucault, “was the invisible form of that which, from the depths of the world, made things visible; but in order that this form may be brought out into the light, in its turn there must be a visible figure that will draw it out from its profound invisibility. This is why the face of the world is covered with blazons, with characters, with ciphers and obscure words.”2
Stathacos realized that she had accidentally stumbled upon an ancient and lost system for coming to know the world while only experiencing the tiniest fragment of it. Through a process of extrapolating the signage of an object from the object, she could recombine her object prints on a surface in ways she could never combine the unwieldly objects in space. In this way she became aware that the signage which resulted in printing the object could be combined and recombined like letters or words in a simple depiction of patterns that conveyed information about the world that the objects themselves could never have conveyed. This led Stathacos to become concerned with more than mere surface evaluations as she came to explore her own personal system of hermeneutics even before discovering that a reading of signs in the life-world was rigorously practiced as a tradition by ancient and medieval masters. This ancient method was rife with metaphysical and mystical intent. The system preferred by Stathacos, by contrast, combines the metaphysical and mystical with the empirical, the scientific and technological knowledge of the twentieth century. In this respect, Stathacos’ hermeneutics is basically formal and interpretive, a poetic, yet no-less ontological reconstruction and comparative study in the hidden signs revealed only by direct impressions and their meanings to us personally.
As in any highly-developed system of hermeneutics, Stathacos taps skills that humans evolved over the millennia to find and then interpret the hidden and still messages conveyed by objects. This is different from semiology, which is the discipline devoted to the location and interpretation of highly developed signs within advanced civilizations and the subsequent determination of cultural and cognitive laws that define and govern the constitution and meaning of signs in a culture at large. Yet, despite her heightened subjectivity, Stathacos’s search for submerged significations and patterns in natural and cultural objects is not unlike the geologist’s uncovering and reading of rock stratifications as the marking recording and conveying the historical changes in given terrains and climates. After all, the hermeneutic quest motivates the anthropological linguist in the study of ancient inscriptions as much as it does the chiromancer’s reading of the lines on a hand to procure knowledge of personality; the physicist who reads the subatomic trails of neutrons and electrons; the microbiologist who sees in the genome the global route of ancestry; and the astrologer who interprets the geometric aspects formed by the planets revolving around the sun.
From the example of such readings, we might mistakenly assume that Stathacos learned to read the signs hidden in nature and civilization, when really she had learned to project meaning onto the objects she defined as signs. Logicians call this a difference between deduction (reading) and induction (projecting), But then such an inversion itself suggests either process may yield knowledge. We can understand the balance of exchange in reading and projecting (or in texts, the exchange in reading and writing) by understanding that they are bound by a unity in the exchange. We see this when we come to understand what Plato had meant when he claimed there to be a unity and a continuity in the cosmos. This continuity informs both the scientist (who reads the universe) and the mystic prognosticator (who projects onto the universe), in that continuity makes it possible to read the holistic markings of all things in specific things. One could, Plato thought, look upon the texture and markings of a stone and with the proper attitude, attunement and expertise, glean information from it concerning the entire world. The heavens, the fields, the forests, the mountains, the seas, the planets: all divest inexhaustible information while secreting it away, and as assuredly as we remain ready for discovering these secrets by reading some single undulating cloud, wind-bent blade of grass, tumbling leaf, naked escarpment, shore-swept sea shell—any and all objects seized upon by worthy interpreters who choose to cast their sights and wits upon a thing, anything, issuing the pleasures of a phenomenological text.
Stathacos likes to remind us that this was not an hermeneutic literacy unique to Plato, but one which predated him by the Eastern mystery religions. Stathacos’s own knowledge of Eastern traditions has proven a source of inspiration, particularly with regard to the Tantric doctrines and her appreciation of mandalas. Stathacos in fact borrows from the mandala’s Tantric structure to elevate the status of the commodities she prints on canvas—the process by which she determines how to transforms the object’s state from that of the vulgar to that of the aesthetic. For Stathacos, the Tantric mandala has great value for illuminating the prose of the world. As a spiraling vortex perpetually turning in upon itself, it recalls an interwoven fabric of energy that ascends and descends among various planes of being. In this the mandala embodies the turning earth that shelters the recipients of a scientific understanding of meaning progressing from experiences of abstract forms that throb with signification. In Science, as in Tantra, the physical object and its meaning do not exist independently or in conflict, but are unified. Stathacos thus sees Tantra as a method for expanding the perimeter of human consciousness by beginning and departing from mundane objects and affairs. “Tantra” (from the Sanskrit root “tan”, to “expand”) is a knowledge of systems and methods enabling individuals to enlarge the scope of their sensory and intellectual faculties, empowering a person with greater spirituality. On the visual plane, Stathacos takes the scheme of ascending orders of reality—beginning with the tangible and ending with the Whole—and adapts it to a scheme of logical progression leading from knowledge of a particular object to the formulation of universal ideas.
Despite the prolific and ancient readings of the world, from the beginning of the Enlightenment in the early 17th Century, on through the mid-20th Century, Western consensus had denied a place among the sciences to cosmology, hermeneutics and semiology, due largely to their speculative natures and unfortunate associations with superstition. As Foucault has argued, to make practical use of signs (the modern obsession), one has to take into account that the sign’s resemblances are interconnected over an infinitely vast network. The entire universe would therefore need to be “explored if even the slightest of analogies is to be justified and finally take on the appearance of certainty. It is therefore a knowledge that can and must proceed by the infinite accumulation of confirmations, all dependent on one another. And for this, from its very foundations will be a thing of sand.” This form of reflecting knowledge has therefore “condemned itself to never knowing anything but the same thing.”3 If Foucault fails to point out that this knowledge can be extended with the aid of inference, it is because in the period prior to the Enlightenment, the use of inference had been restricted primarily to systems unacceptable to the canons of science—astrology, chiromancy, numerology—for being characterized by intuition and error.
But we are concerned here with art, not science, though Stathacos believes that her strategy is indebted to science as much as to poetics. Considering that scientific induction (the use of logic to infer how the specific instance of a phenomena implies the general law of its existence) is as fraught with uncertainty as any art work, we can find it feasible to agree with her. In combining the science of semiotics with the subjectivity of its hermeneutical interpretation and application in our lives, Stathacos hopes that a knowledge of marks and markings will be of use to an individual’s construction of a personal cosmology. The trace of a single rose, for example, reveals its patterns to be in common with the patterns of a folded cloth. The trace of cloth, in turn, may resemble a one-celled organism, which bears resemblance to the topography of a map, and so on, ad infinitum.
In using a printer’s press, Stathacos metaphorically reaches back in time, conceptually linking the contemporary era with the Renaissance. But the fact remains that the introduction of the printing press in Europe coincides with the decline of cosmology in the West. Only in the latter part of the 20th Century had widespread professional interest in cosmology, hermeneutics and semiology renewed, though largely in forms which are empirically or mathematically based. Advances made in evolution studies, the special and general theories of relativity and quantum mechanics, superstring theory, neurophysiological continuity, the manipulation of DNA, RNA, and the deciphering of the genetic code—all taken together—embody a return to the cosmological overview. As with Stathacos’ visual chain, this new cosmology is based on resemblances weaving throughout all scientific paradigms. I don’t mean to imply that Stathacos follows developments within these fields, but as with most modern citizens of the world, her world view is thoroughly shaped the scientific and technological advances of the day. And Stathacos takes to heart the extent to which these advances signify a new attitude toward the discovery and reading of the unified patterns underlying the universe. In her eyes, the assimilation of non-Western cultures and spiritual systems into Western cultural discourse offers us—in the spirit of the cultural nomadism we’ve adopted in the last few decades—the opportunity to reexamine the many traditions of hermeneutics lost to the modern sciences, yet which unite these specialized if speculative knowledges with science in an overarching cosmology.
In empirically demonstrating the markings of objects, Stathacos is skimming the periphery of the sciences, glossing the similarities and contrasts in patterns. By tracing the organic and inorganic and displaying the patterns common to each, she democratizes a model for the genesis of life, displaying the junctures and progressions from the living to the nonliving, interfacing consciousness with the environment and mimicking the ways in which the patterns of the life-world became impressed upon the languages of humans. Perhaps Stathacos’ most unique contribution to the contemporary artistic evolution of hermeneutics is found in her application of the traditional principle of reading the organic to a reading of the synthetic and technological objects that both propel the modern civilization forward, and when finished and discarded, are found strewn across the landscape.
Stathacos finds no humiliation in her capacity for scavenging castoffs. In fact, she enjoys a kind of cybernetic sensation extended through her initial acquaintance with metals, fabrics, plastics, woods, and chemical substances encountered on any given day in the open air and lugged back to the printing press. The patterns on her canvases have been imprinted with objects found on the streets—refuse rescued from the obscurity of mundane existence and transmuted into the gold of communication—or at the very least, of evocation. A bicycle tire, a piece of felt, a fan belt, leather scraps, ragged stencils, condoms, strands of hair—all prove useful in the fabrication of a techno-scientific mythos, an archaeological and eco-sociological inventory of commodity forms friendly to exposition. In a sense, Stathacos is proactively visualizing the fossilization awaiting commodity and nature, replete with their inevitable mingling in burial, decomposition and petrification. Even the prose of the world must submit to the equalizing processes which exalt entropy over matter and energy, if only for renewal.
Renewal, after all, is the humane moral found in cosmology, and Stathacos’s contribution to this moral considers the genesis of the organic into the synthetic as her unique brand of alchemy. The synthetic mark is examined as an aspect of organic genesis, though one which has been severed from the ecosystem, if only for our brief age. In this new cosmology, Stathacos demonstrates the continuity between the natural and the artificial in mixing organa such as leaves, leather, stalks, grains, wood and branches with synthetic refuse, drawing attention to the visible patterns shared between the two classes of objects. In this respect, Stathacos’ impressions are reminiscent of Max Ernst’s experiments with frottage. She, in fact, fondly points out that Ernst often imprinted leaves with their exposed veins within compositions that also include ragged edges of linen and thread unwound from a spool.
Upon considering all this, one might ask, why not study the object itself, rather than the mark that it leaves behind? The answer is relatively simple and not at all arbitrary. We study the mark because it is recognized by all humans as the basis of the written or painted sign, the symbol, the word—the basis of conveying meaning at the cusp where the human will meets the absurd world indifferent to it. It is only through human language that we arrive at the concept of the Whole, of cosmology. Nature by itself doesn’t imply either. Only nature depicted, written out, mathematized, reduced to signs—as Stathacos reduces objects to signs—give rise to a cosmological reading of the world. In this respect, Stathacos’ conversion of the object’s trace into a sign of its own existence, transience and decay makes the object a symbol of cosmology. Stathacos’ object-imprints complete a circle that language by itself—that is language removed from the objects in the world—do not complete.
As for her attachment to cosmology, Stathacos in this fashion conducts our awareness of things between the levels of the microcosm and the macrocosm. Like the philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, she implies that nature conceptualized in the mind takes on a succession of higher and higher forms of organization, partaking in a hierarchy of increasing complexity leading from sub-atomic particles, through atoms, molecules, proteins, cells, organisms, humans, and ultimately, if you like, to God. In a like manner, we may think of Stathacos’ layered imprints as a similarly-interlocking hierarchy of codes, phasing continually from organic to inorganic compositions of molecules and back. Many of the impressions made on the canvas by the synthetic objects are those which most successfully mimic life structures at their most basic and minimal levels—perhaps mimicking the genetic code, were we capable of seeing it in the nucleus of a cell.
Stathacos is hereby using the synthetic and the organic to embody the telescoping cosmological structure itself, particularly those facets of structure which come into play in the construction of thought. The structure of the thinking organism is inherited, and as the organism develops, it forms particles and waves of synchronicity with the altogether separate structures of objects surrounding the organism itself. We call this synchronicity “comprehension” or “knowledge”, and it is composed by the intellect and intuition. Stathacos’ forms imply this synchronicity between the intellect/intuition and the environment of objects. The intellect and intuition are hunters of the object which at some point in our analysis becomes the object of the hunt. Stathacos in this case takes on the role of the hunter, intellectually and intuitively searching out and selecting objects that conform to specific shapes. Inked in the traditional hues of alchemy—purple, black, ivory, rose, alabaster and gold—these object-shapes are printed on fields of transparent glazes. As poised symbols in an alchemy of relations, each shape, color and rhythm cryptically alludes to the marks which link up to compose the Whole, or as the ancients thought, which contain within them the seeds of the divine.
In this resect, Stathacos agrees with the Renaissance philosopher, Girodano Bruno, citing his comparison of the divine and human comprehension…
“…purple, alabaster and gold, meaning the purple of the divine power, the gold of divine wisdom, the alabaster of divine beauty, in contemplation of which the Pythagoreans, Chaldeans, Platonists and others attempt to rise as best they can. The great hunter sees; he has understood as much as he can, and he himself becomes they prey; that is to say, this hunter set out for the prey and became himself the prey through the operation of his intellect, whereby he converted the apprehended objects into himself … and he becomes the prey by the operation of the will whose act converts him into the object.”4
The hunter transforms into the hunted; the lover into the loved; the artist becomes the art; the art becomes the act, the object, the thought. The human evolves into the divine. As comprehension is formed by the organism and the environment, so are the languages of humankind formed by all. The language of marks is what announces the environment, the organism and comprehension itself. The Whole becomes the object; the object becomes comprehension; comprehension becomes the comprehender; the comprehender becomes the language; the language becomes the Whole. This is the cyclic transformation that Stathacos calls the ouroborous—the motif of the snake eating its own tail. This is the continuum of life, the golden wheel, the cosmological scheme. All becomes the knowing, the being, the object, the mark. All becomes the reading of things.
1 . William Carlos Williams, Collected Earlier Poems of William Carlos Williams (New York: New Directions, 1951).
2 . Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Vintage Books, 1970), p. 26.
3 . Ibid., p. 30.