A light white, a disgrace

Work by Roxana Alger Geffen
Curated by Eames Armstrong

DCAC’s nano gallery
September —December 2018


Eames Armstrong | Curatorial Statement

While the little works in A light white, a disgrace are handmade with intention, their arrival is dependent on chance, coincidence, and intuition. To be clear, I don’t describe the works as “little” to downplay their impact; they are just literally teeny. Hand-sized. I’m going to trace through some the chance encounters that got us here.

The name of the exhibition comes from a line in Gertrude Stein’s 1914 wonderful ode to seemingly ordinary things, Tender Buttons. The text is comprised of three sections: Objects, Food, and Rooms. The full line is a description of a petticoat in Objects: “A light white, a disgrace, an ink spot, a rosy charm.” This simple line pivots from the objects original state, to judgement, to a perhaps unfortunate event, to a sympathetic outcome. In these artworks, I see use and time, a plurality of possible histories, and re-assemblage into autonomous objects.

In 1964, the opportunity to buy a button store in Manhattan passed before Diana Epstein, and she took it. She had an arts background, and early on hosted art events and Happenings with Jasper Johns, Ray Johnson, and Lenore Tawney at her spontaneously acquired spot. Button clientele kept showing up, and Tender Buttons exists to this day on East 62nd Street.

Roxana has known Tender Buttons, the store, for a long time. It comes to her mind first before Stein’s book after which the store is named. Experiences shape memory, our knowledge of reality is elastic.

Over the years, Epstein and her partner Millicent Safro became great experts of buttons. In the foreword to their 1991 book called, unsurprisingly, Buttons, the artist Jim Dine aligns buttons with the ordinary objects that he, Jasper Johns and other pop artists took as their preferred subject matter. These familiar objects, he says, are things the mind already knows, they precede recognition.

Rather than depicting these familiar objects, things we know and touch and keep nearby, Roxana takes them as the actual material of her artworks. Bits of old hardware, twine, lace, wire, a handkerchief, a rag, a scrap of glove leather. It’s clear that each of these materials have histories, have had sometimes multiple lives, but the details are lost, and new narratives appear.

I’ve long been interested in Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs’s “Cut-Up Technique,” in which text, audio tape, drawing, anything—is sliced apart and reassembled. For them, this is much more than a randomization strategy for generating new content, it’s basically an act of magic in which the truth of the thing that’s being cut up can actually surface. “Let’s cut is up and see what it really says. “ Burroughs would drawl. While this isn’t a strategy that Roxana employs with those guys in mind, I feel that she’s working alongside that tradition.

Through cutting, tying, combining, stitching, and assembling, Roxana invokes and invents new stories for her found and collected materials. These artworks are scrap poems, visual and tactile ruminations on familial inheritance and the daily bits of family life.

DC Arts Center’s nano gallery was created to show small works in a gallery context. I’m reminded of a line in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “And though she be but little, she is fierce.” Of course, this line is Helena deriding Hermia, but I’ve been giddy to see it lifted and subverted from that context as a compliment, an activist motto in the last few years. Some of our most powerful words and phrases originate from ill will, and it’s our duty and pleasure as artists to twist the junk that’s thrown at us into the forms that we want to see.