An exhibition that calls itself Encyclopaedia: A Compendium of Modernity/Fauna/Transcendence is already somewhere between tongue in cheek and just plain cheeky.
The notion that encyclopedias are never “encyclopedic” is a commonplace; we know that the world doesn’t divide up into neat topics, and a compendium of anything, much less of modernity, fauna, or transcendence, is noted these days more for what it leaves out than for what it includes. So this is necessarily a post-postmodern nose-tweaking of the notion of completeness, and in that respect it does not disappoint.
Jason Kofke (who seems to style himself “Kofke Jason Kofke” these days) has chosen 1979, the year of his birth, as the hinge point for his Encyclopaedia of Modernity, at Kai Lin Art through March 22, and his choice is even more comprehensively accurate than he seems to be aware. 1979 was the year when the results of the Iranian revolution and the Russian occupation of Afghanistan stirred up currents of history that have never settled down; it was also the year when rap music and graffiti emerged from street culture into commercially viable forms of art, and the year when nearly a decade of popular chafing at gasoline and electricity shortages set up the conditions for the next year’s election upheaval, a shift that had consequences for everything from the role of labor unions to the prospects for alternative energy.
None of this appears in Kofke’s particular compendium. His etchings, photopolymer prints, and other forms of reproduction (plus a few one-of-a-kind drawings) render original versions of images from news photographs that Kofke sees as metaphors for vast historic processes. Lesser tragedies, from a train wreck (Age of Machine Reliance) to the peacetime crash of a fighter jet (viewed by the driver of a farm tractor in Age of Mechanized Agriculture), serve as shorthand for the continuing misfortunes that accompany technological optimism. An image of the cluttered, crowded interior of the International Space Station (Everything Will Be OK, 1998) is an ironic reply to the expectations of persistent sleekness exemplified by the science fiction of the mid-20th century.
No image, as far as I can tell, represents an event of 1979. No two of them taken together represent more than a fraction of the elucidation of the course of society and technology promised by Kofke’s generally ironic titles, such as Age of Labor Compartmentalization (a female typist adjacent to an enormous computer being tended by a business-suited man), Age of International Economy (the launching of an early-20th-century ocean liner), and the series titled Everything Will Be OK (1966, 1998, 2001 twice, and 2008, all of them images of computers or space exploration).
Kofke sees numerous connective stories in these prints and drawings, even though these narratives are seldom immediately visible. In a way, these works might be thought of as the idiosyncratic illustrations for an absent encyclopedia article about the past century, one in which the decades of manned spaceflight become visual metaphors for less graphically exciting developments.
Joe Elias Tsambiras’ Encyclopaedia of Transcendence is even less encyclopedic in its ambitions, as is appropriate for a topic that bypasses mere material accomplishments to encompass humanity’s imaginative grasp of the whole cosmos and of invisible strands binding humanity to other realms of being. Two of Tsambiras’ most spectacular combinations of etching and aquatint are homages to writers whose work gives shape to a postreligious vision of human mysteries: the network of buildings-in-a-checkerboard in City (for Italo Calvino) is as labyrinthine as the garden of forking paths of Labyrinth (for Jorge Luis Borges). Both works show off Tsambiras’ impressive technical skills.
Other works hide their allusions in a visual literalism that gives no clue as to the meaning of their mystico-psychological sources; the title of Conference of the Birds refers to a Persian allegory involving the shared quest of 30 very diverse birds, but there are not 30 birds in Tsambiras’ print, nor much else that would lead us to think of the search that Attar’s poetic discourse embodies.
On the other hand, the sword-wielding arm emerging from the water of one of the Toilets of Avalon is such an adroit subversion of the myth of King Arthur that it evokes both delight and outright laughter. It‘s hard to decide whether the quotation of romantic 19th-century illustrations of nature makes the print feel less or more cynical than its blatant parody of Arthurian imagery suggests.
Something of Kofke’s and Tsambiras’ hypercontemporary distancing from older dreams of technological perfection and mythic completeness might be read into Greg Noblin’s resin-coated photographs of animals against digitally created atmospheric backgrounds in his Encyclopaedia of Fauna, but the comparison would be forced.
The literalism of the animal portraits and the state of dreaminess induced by the overall composition could conceivably be pushed in the direction of environmental critique, but there is not much about these pictures of pandas, meerkats, elephants, lions, polar bears, horses, cows, sheep and goats (plus a few other commonplace and exotic species) to make us think about, say, the condition of their habitats, or very much about their habits within them. These are like encyclopedia entries of the old-fashioned kind: “Here’s one thing. Here’s something else.”
In the overall exhibition, as is so often the case with art shows of this type in Atlanta, there is a sense of larger ideas straining to get out of the confines of vaguely stated definitions.
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