Over the course of her long, fecund career, Ruth Laxson has honed a unique language rooted in her fascination with forms of communication. Letters, words, hieroglyphics, mathematical symbols, equations, Braille, computer acronyms, typefaces, handwriting, pictures: the Atlanta artist uses these elements as abstract shapes, allusive imagery — and content.
Text is as important as image, be it straightforward sentences and phrases or wordplay: the puns, anagrams and lists through which she gets at more elusive meanings than linear language allows.
The parameters of her subject matter and worldview are, you might say, microcosmic.* Laxson’s take on enduring themes — love, sex, power and their manifestation in relationships, feminism, war, politics and philosophy — all are nested in perception of matter, space and time shaped by the teachings of Georgia Tech physics professor David Finkelstein and her own ruminations about God.
Her works are more streams of consciousness than tracts. They bespeak a mind in which ideas and observations shoot around like pinballs, hitting up against one another with a ping or a flashing light. Thus she travels from “itching” to “I Ching” or makes associations through anagrams such as “sacred” and “scared.” She aspires to a state of “mindful mindlessness,” but not before absorbing the ideas of the art of her time and of history. Intimations of John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg and Fluxus suffuse “Hip Young Owl,” her first museum retrospective, at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, as do allusions to medieval manuscripts and ancient stelae.
Laxson explores her ideas in a multitude of media. The exhibition, curated by Joanne Paschall and Marcia Wood, her dealer, includes paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, mail art and artist’s books.
The books are Laxson’s highest achievement and the source of her international reputation. The form permits extended meditations, and it has clearly fired her creativity. Since she took up the medium in 1980, the artist has applied her imagination to every conceivable element — size, shape, binding, materials — and she deploys a phalanx of media, including collage, etching, typesetting, stitching, rubber stamps and her spidery handwriting, in composing the pages.
They are so wonderfully enticing that it’s all one can do not to take these books off their pedestals and thumb through them. Fortunately, Paschall, who curated the book art, displays one book page by page on the wall, and she has provided a table with books and Laxson’s private notebooks for visitors to peruse.
Wood had the more complicated task, not only to bring together works spanning more than 50 years and multiple media but to do so in a challenging space. While wonderful for big, ambitious installations, MOCA GA’s large gallery does not serve work of this scale well. Smaller, more intimate spaces might have given this part of the exhibition the sense of order it lacks. The works are sometimes grouped chronologically, sometimes by medium, sometimes by series. It’s hard to get a handle on the evolution of the work, which one expects from a retrospective, and it is generally confusing. In addition, the impulse to fill the center ends up privileging Laxson’s sculptures, which are charming but minor relative to the two-dimensional work.
One can, however, discern some patterns: the pendulum swing between figuration and abstraction, ultimately merging in the middle; the superiority of her prints, drawings and books, art emphasizing line, over painting; the salutary impact of her books on her drawings, as in the wonderful “God Doll” series at the far end of the gallery.
Looking around the big room, one can see that Laxson disciplines her multifarious markings by anchoring compositions with a flat, often black, shape and (except for paintings) sticking to a minimal palette: white, gray and black.
There’s a childlike quality to her stickish figure drawings, and in the lifelike animals, who exude personalities one might expect in children’s stories. But don’t be fooled: Laxson is no innocent. Her work is often angry and filled with adult uncertainty. It is her gift to pull contradictions and polarities into an oeuvre that is distinctly and winningly her own.
The show runs through March 30. Laxson will discuss her work at 7 p.m. February 20. Free. Michael Goodman will give a bookmaking lecture and demonstration at 2 p.m. March 9. Free with admission.
*It is fitting, given Laxson’s delight in wordplay, that this “microcosmic,” which helps to sum up an un-sum-uppable career, was a typo in another review. (Thank you, Jason Francisco.)