Sculpting New Language : The Work of Claire Jeanine Satin
Submitted by: Susan Hensel Gallery
(OPENPRESS) June 2, 2009 -- Using the book, not only as her medium, but also as a powerful cultural icon, Claire Jeanine Satin produces artworks that go beyond the conventions of what we understand to be a book. Beyond text. Beyond image. Beyond the juxtaposition of the two, printed on paper and bound together; Satin's narrative and sculptural works seek to tell us stories in formats that have not yet been invented.
With a spirit that is vested in tradition, and a stylistic approach that defies that tradition, Satin, over the course of her career, has managed to keep one foot planted in the past while keeping the other firmly facing forward. A scholar in many ways, but more specifically in the field of linguisitics, Satin's works are never shy of a rich sense of history and a vast knowledge.
This is never more apparent than when looking at her ongoing series of more than 100 book-like objects, entitled, "Pentimento". Exploring the experimental avenues of language, Satin zeroes in on the contrast of the flexibility of meaning opposite the concreteness of the physical world.
Using unconventional (even odd at times) materials such as acetate pages, monofilament, metal wire and even the occasional mat from the kitchen sink, Satin addresses ideas of transparency, of transformation, and above all, the ways in which we interpret our experiences. The Pentimento series is an interrogative body of work that asks us a basic but important question:
"How do we read?
"How do we discern the good from the bad? The light from the dark? The useful from the unusable?
"We (the viewers) would like to think that we make these discriminations on our own (with autonomous and critical thinking). However, upon closer examination, Satin's manipulation of language in "Pentimento" makes it clear to us that we rely on conventions of reading, and that our interaction with books is all too often an automatic behavior."
This is where the true value of Satin's work exists; in the way that she reveals to us our dependency on what she deems 'fixed relationships' in order to make sense of the complex and highly-stimulating world around us. When it comes to language, this network of fixed relationships is definition and syntax. Without a set meaning, and an order in which to place it, a word is nothing but putty—apt to be reshaped, rearranged for a completely new use. Satin's work confronts us with these new uses; the endless possibilities that occur when the rules of language vanish, and we are left to wade in a sea of 'linguistic play'. She achieves this through abstract processes such as automatic writing, which yields "non-sequential, disconnected words...[that] create a bewildering dimension of unpredictability", says Krystyna Wasserman of the Library and Research Center at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
A large part of this approach is owed to Satin's association with the late artist/composer John Cage, whom she met in 1974 while she was teaching at Broward Community College in Florida. Cage came to the school to participate in workshop with the students, which included his performances. In Satin's own words, "He was charismatic, charming, attentive and accessible, with his infectious arpeggio laugh and stimulating intriguing philosophy...with his approach to sound. My attraction to his approach was immediate. I became a groupie. During our one to one talks it was one of the rare times that a fully realized work came into my consciousness."
Inspired by Cage's continuous emphasis on the process of making the work over the finished product, Satin felt that she had at last had found a contemporary and new outlook on making art. The two remained in correspondence for many years after their initial meeting, and Satin even once paid him a visit at his apartment in New York City. As she entered, she came to realize that there was no furniture; only wide open space. There was, however, a plethora of plants, and, oddly, various kitchen utensils hanging from the ceiling. As she stayed and conversed with Cage he began to show her some of his process and shared plans with her about his upcoming body of work. Satin was touched by this gesture, and soon after delved into a scrupulous study of his philosophies. Eventually, she came upon Cage's theory of 'chance operations', a process of assigning a new system of arbitrary values (i.e. colors, shapes, numbers etc.) to a known sequence such as the alphabet, or a musical scale. The result of this is an original language.
By incorporating this theory into the production of the "Pentimento" series, Satin has been able to generate hundreds of linguistic scenarios that not only rearrange words within a singular language, but in multiple languages as well. Well studied in Hebrew, Japanese and Arabic, amongst others, Satin often mixes individual symbols and letters from these languages, highlighting their differences and their sometimes shocking similarities. Across transparent pages, a web of layered and mismatched letterforms prompts one to think utopian thoughts; a single voice speaking with all the cultural richness and diversity that exists in the world. This is why Satin's work is so valuable to any viewer; no matter one's background. "Pentimento" provides an opportunity to learn, or rather, to un-learn, our reading habits and begin seeing the process of interpretation as powerful subject matter.
Selections from the "Pentimento" series will be on display at Susan Hensel Gallery in Minneapolis this Summer in an exhibition entitled, "The Pentimento Books & Indeterminacy". The exhibition opens Friday July 10 with a reception in the gallery from 5-9 p.m. The artist will be present to discuss her work. Ms. Satin will also give a lecture on the subject of the "Pentimento" series at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts (1011 Washington Ave S), Saturday, July 11; 3:30pm. Exhibition runs through August 28th.