There is a little-known and largely delightful science fiction classic by Walter M Miller Jr. called A Canticle for Leibowitz. Originally published in 1959, it chronicles the efforts of a brotherhood of monks who live in a dark, destroyed future where the church survives with only its most basic superstitions intact. The brothers are devoted to canonizing and paying homage to St. Leibowitz, a long-dead 20th century engineer.
The detritus of Leibowitz is suitable material for generating illuminated manuscripts, with anything that was in the saint’s hand—from shopping lists to diagrams—being worthy of the most profound consideration. The care with which the monks handle these artifacts and the faith that is poured into reproducing, cataloging and revering them is a touching and poignant part of the story; to consider order and disorder, form and structure, the meaning of shape and the intention behind a diagram is to find some access to inward consideration, to the ponderings of the soul and the machinations of the cosmos.
The spirit of fictional St. Leibowitz lingers in Silent Diagrams, a challenging and satisfying exhibition at Dwight Hackett Projects by the artist Barry Le Va.
Unlike some of the other giants of art who emerged on the West Coast in the 1970s, Le Va is not a household name. But there is much to be said for maintaining critical acclaim and avoiding idle idolatry. Le Va has consistently broken apart expected and conventional sculptural forms, and caused startling reassessments of space through form, sound and provocation. His project in Santa Fe is modest but resonant and demands a bit of time and as few viewing companions as possible to suck the maximum amount of nutrients from its strange and flavorful marrow.
The project begins with a series of 16 drawings, theoretical diagrams for sculptural assemblies of a few basic iterations of shape. A second suite of drawings begins to contemplate arrangements and groupings of the assemblies side by side or in other relationships to each other. A third suite extends into the main gallery space and proposes final arrangements for assemblies to be laid out in conversation with each other. Finally, the sculptural elements reflect the final entity of Le Va’s process.
The drawings, done with simple lines and blocks, in black and umber ink, bear signs of pencil skirmishes, Wite-Out corrections, finger smudges and quietly furious handwork. It’s clear that Le Va rotates the drawings as he works on them, turning them around, sucking a remarkable sense of volume from the two-dimensional plane and worrying his schematics with the alternating brusque and tender attentions of a familiar but skilled lover.
The works are as mysterious as anything a group of post-apocalyptic monks might futilely and feudally worship, and look vaguely like maps of chemical bonds, futuristic power sources, charts of undiscovered constellations. They also are a deliberate, ritualistic process, a craftsman’s practice of hording and dispatching and rearranging elements in search of a private determination of wholeness. It is a rigorous form of play, the artist’s hand challenging the creator’s intellect and the dreamer’s capacity to intuit dimensionality and mass.
The 3-D forms traipse in succession across a crooked spine of the gallery’s longest measure, hooking at the far end with surprising fluidity. Each assembly is based on the forms confined to one of the original diagrams, evolved in its arrangement and laid out within a 6-by-6-foot square. The forms—an unnatural triangle, two sizes of proportional trapezoidal boxes and dark, rectangular bars of various length—are, respectively, made from concrete, fiberglass resin and cuts from a stretch of machined aluminum. The total volume of each assembly is within a cubic meter.
The easiest entry into the works is to see the God’s-eye view of a series of architectural predicaments, overhead imagery of strange cities. The contrast between the three kinds of elements is not limited to shape and creates all manner of massing and color relationships. The imperfect monumentalism of the heavy concrete plays against the fibrous glare of the aluminum and the murky aubergine of the resin blocks, a color assessed by Le Va to be the most like no color at all. Space and negative space are found in height variations, reflections and painstakingly prescribed imperfections in placement. As still as they are, the pieces reconfigure and shift with each blink of the eye, each sidelong glance, as though they are fading in and out of permanence, of reliability. The volume, color and spatial tone of the entire gallery takes on the unstable purity emanating from Le Va’s shrine of bizarre blocks.
Just as the fictional monks dedicated to Leibowitz are confounded by their own interpretations of his diagrams, the manifestation of Le Va’s drawings and exercise is a koan-like puzzle. From color, emptiness. From expectation, surprise. From nothing, volume. Saint Le Va has already been canonized in art history, but his recent small miracle of perception in Santa Fe is still preternaturally satisfying.
Through July 26
Dwight Hackett Projects
2879 All Trades Road