The Primates Notebook: Work by Craig Dongoski at Whitespace and Just Past the Peripheral: Work by Charlie Watts in the adjacent Whitespec project space (both through June 21) are such opposite yet complementary artistic meditations on the human condition that they deserve an essay based on philosophical anthropology. But it is more important to encounter them first as stunningly beautiful, aesthetically engaging exhibitions.
Dongoski describes his drawings as collaborations with the recently deceased Panzee, a chimpanzee at Georgia State University’s Language Research Center, but that is both an accurate and a deeply misleading way of putting it. Dongoski observed Panzee making straight lines of marks in a Moleskine notebook, gave her graph paper and musical-score paper as well, selected her most thought-provokingly gestural or ideogramlike markings, enlarged them and printed them on panels with heated lemon juice, and then produced his own ballpoint-pen drawings adjacent to them.
On some works, he added “lexigrams” or arbitrary symbols — not pictures — created by researchers that correspond to objects or actions. With these, Panzee communicated her wishes for specific types of food, but also made combinations that connoted complex perceptions. Panzee’s juxtaposition of systematic and distinctly gestural mark-making with her unusually extensive ability to make use of abstract symbols suggests much more than an art review can handle. These multiple implications figure into Dongoski’s philosophy of artistic composition, and this makes his oeuvre difficult to summarize.
The works at Whitespace are characterized by an extremely attractive juxtaposition of Panzee’s calligraphic marks with Dongoski’s drawings, suggesting charts of topography or of sound — and Dongoski is actually concerned with the relationship between vocal sounds and drawing as precursor to writing. This visual vocabulary expands in other works to include the pure geometry of squares and triangles. Each added element represents another aspect of a body of research that yields more questions than answers, but the questions are genuine and articulate ones — and their implications may violate some of the presuppositions of primate research thus far.
Exploring the possible meaning of his investigations, Dongoski has engaged in correspondence with Desmond Morris, the primatologist and surrealist painter whose theories on the nonhuman primate parallels to human behavior first came to world attention with Morris’ 1967 book The Naked Ape. Confronted with Dongoski’s insistence that Panzee’s range of abilities contradicted some of Morris’ assumptions based on work with a male chimpanzee, Morris retorted, “Females do things differently than males.” We’ll leave that observation hanging in the air as we move to the Whitespec exhibition, in which Charlie Watts’ photographs indeed explore the question of whether females might respond differently than males.
Just Past the Peripheral is a photographic approach to the farther reaches of human perception. If Dongoski is plumbing the depths of the origins of language in sound making and (ultimately) of ideogram-based and alphabet-based writing, Watts is searching for the depths of the imaginative identity of herself and others, depths that frequently lead out of language and into the type of wordlessly vivid, semihallucinatory imagery that haunts our dreams.
Watts is investigating feminine identity most specifically, and doing so with a digital collage technique in which lyrically realistic but vaguely disquieting scenarios set in nature are composed from up to thirty different photographs. The trees, rocks, water and female figures form a natural-looking visual unity, but one that is not possible outside of a digitally assembled landscape. This is not surrealism; it’s realism with a different angle of vision.
Early in this sequence of 11 photographs, flesh of pain presents the naked back of a woman who serves as a living candelabrum, with lit candles spilling hot wax down her shoulders. The theme recurs in christine, in which a fully clothed young woman faces the camera with a similar set of candles attached to her blouse. This visual metaphor could lead in many different associative directions: Is our only source of light also the source of our pain, and is that light a separate but intimate companion, if not the Inner Light that the mystics say is a part of us? This is not necessarily Watts’ meaning, but it’s one possible interpretation. Again, these photographs ask more questions than they answer.
The remaining photographs include an Ophelia-like gowned young woman floating in a stream; a naked woman leaning against a ruined chimney in a forest; a woman whose nakedness is covered by large pieces of birch bark that match the surfaces of the surrounding birch trees; and various other naked young women who huddle in isolation in forest or stream settings or stretch out languorously in the midst of natural splendor.
These are all visual themes with long histories in photography and painting, and it would be difficult to follow the many directions in which these precedents lead. However, Watts acknowledges yet refuses these art-historical precedents as models except insofar as they mesh with her own inner agenda. These photographs do not represent art history — they represent real experiences. As if to remind us of the immediacy of these experiences, Watts has made nature spill over into the gallery, with actual green moss exuding onto the gallery’s brick floor from every corner and wall orifice. Watts’ photographs suggest, among many other possibilities, that pain, revelation, sensuousness, delight, curiosity and ultimate mystery can coexist.
The human condition has more complexity and depth than any reductionism would suggest. If we are natural beings, then “nature” is more than what we think nature is — what happens in our deepest imagination and in the mystery of the margins of human existence is as much a part of nature as the primate-originated genetic inheritance on which Dongoski insists so emphatically. Watts has used digital technology to open our eyes to what is always present just beyond the obscuring blinders of our ordinary way of seeing. Dongoski has used primate research to make us consider where our most fundamentally human gifts of language, drawing, and writing might have their origins. These are fundamentally different modes of perceiving the world, but whether what they reveal might be opposite sides of a single human reality is a question well worth pondering. While we ponder this immense and fundamentally engaging topic, Dongoski and Watts have given us a great deal of mesmerizing art to look at.