Images of death are not exactly consistent with the mood of late summer frivolity. Perhaps I'm just having a hard time getting the news footage of the latest atrocity in Syria out of my head. Then there was school staffer Antoinette Tuff who, without a gun but armed with words, prevented yet another Sandy Hook from happening in Georgia the other day. There is never a shortage of news stories that serve to remind us that our participation in the world and our privilege to observe its events are both temporary and fragile. At least two of the shows we cover this week take us further into the territory of that necessarily sobering reflection, and both to good effect in ways that the daily paper, blog, or cable news story allows us to deflect and deny.
The title work of Isaac Layman's exhibition is striking because it combines the visual identity of a coffin, a frame, and a mirror as it seduces the eye to explore the hyper-detail of nothing more profound than the slight impressions left by who-knows-what at the bottom of a packing crate. The technique described by Richard Speer accounts for the seductive clarity of the image, but only hints at the emotional effect the empty volume of space, which can be read as shallow as a few inches, or too deep to climb out of. The artist's trick is to hold your attention over seemingly nothing in order to get you to go places you probably would not choose on your own.
Given that the history of such contemplation goes back about as far as human cognition, and that philosophy, myth and religion have provided a wealth of intellectual and visual models by which we imagine what it might be like once the inevitable occurs, art has evolved its own points of reference.
Layman's image readily calls up the early felt works of both Robert Morris and Joseph Beuys, not to mention Donald Judd's boxes. Suvan Geer draws Beatriz da Costa's video installation "Dying for the Other" into the orbit of Hannah Wilke's examination of her own deterioration, "Intra Venus." I'm resistant to over invest myself in the rhetoric of cancer, which distinguishes itself by the drama and tragedy of claiming younger victims before their time. John Coplans' long series of photographic self-images are both frank confrontations with the aging process, and an aesthetic search for formally interesting images with limited and highly subjective means. There is little energy wasted on self-pity by any of these artists, but it is difficult for our own empathy not to color our response to the two women's projects.
Coplans specifically sought to reject the idealism of the Greeks that has played such an enormous role in the West over centuries. While the body images that most people lavish attention on emphasize youth, athleticism and sexuality, Coplans directs our thoughts away from a yearning for a proximate ideal. It's the energy of engagement that counts. From the position of a drawing closer to death by virtue of the simple fact of aging, this is not only realistic but optimistic as well. The idea is hardly to imagine that images of the body's aging, deterioration and demise should enjoy its own version of "Playboy," it's that an awareness of the continuity and possibility of experience from birth to death offers important rewards at any age. Da Costa's interest in how both art and her condition relates to technology and ethics places her firmly in Coplans' tradition. These artists leave a high standard to aspire to and much to chew on creatively. That especially includes a path to a more powerful conversation across the generational divide.