review -

Cargo Concrète

Swimming with Dolphin by Tony Allard
The New Times, April 22, 1993, New Mirror Publishing, Kansas City, MO

John O’Brien of the Dolphin gallery has installed a challenge in the gallery space.  Gwen Widmer’s show of recent work, Cargo Concrète, was the latest among a number of top-end shows there.  The sensitively conceived presentation of Widmer’s work in the space is an instance of the gallery and the artists collaborating successfully in the artist-dealer relationship.

The show consisted of two large works, one from 1977 entitled Topo of the Trip and the other from 1993, entitled Cargo Concrète.  These large collage works share a conceptual similarity, but differ in their visual forms.  Both works are concerned with maps, map-making strategies and other traces of a nomadic wandering through the dense field of information that comprises life on the planet.

Topo of the Trip is a verbal travelogue that doubles as a topographical map of sites Widmer encountered on a road trip in 1977 from San Francisco to New York.  This work consists of several framed segments hung together.  It resembles an unfolded map.  Wordplay on each locale’s history is meshed with drawings done in a semi-cartoon style.  The many figures of speech and colored images are layered over close-range photos taken of the ground.

Cargo Concrète continues the concerns found in Topo of the Trip, but the new work complicates the field of information through mapping techniques similar to the ones used in fractal geometry, which is the measurement of natural forms with mathematical models.  The title, Cargo Concrète, makes reference to concrete poetry and to musique concrète, which is taped collages of found sound.  The piece consists of a sequence of 13 unframed paper collages that, from a distance, resemble satellite “footprints” of earth’s surface.  Each section is mounted on the wall and covered by a sheet of glass.  This rests on a shelf that runs the entire length of the sequence.  As a result, the gallery is transformed into an archival map room.  

In both of these densely encrypted maps, the viewer becomes the archaeologist-performer, visually excavating the field, or cone of vision Widmer has created.  The history of each map and how it was created is embedded within the layers of information, much like the way geologic history is embedded in layers of sedimentation.  Widmer creates intrigue by confounding any hope of retrieving a complete narrative from the rubble of time periods strewn throughout the information field.  Widmer puts the viewer in the position of being an archaeologist excavating a site.  The collages can be seen from the point of view of a satellite camera that can zoom in on a micro level or zoom out to global view.  Widmer has deftly combined several perspectives and layers of history within the two-dimensional space of the paper.  By walking up close to the maps, viewers get information that is not discernable far away.  The viewer becomes a performer of the work by movement up to or away from the maps, mimicking the technical abilities of today’s satellite.

The first layer on each of the 13 segments of Cargo Concrète resembles a Rorschach inkblot test, delicately stained from indigenous plant material.  The mirrored image of the inkblot functions as a psychological probe into the unconscious of the viewer, while at the same time the blots appear to be a cross section sliced through the two hemispheres of a human brain, or a cross-section cut out of a contemporary garbage dump.  The viewer can experience a sensation of simultaneity:  being up close and far away, back in time and in the present, inside the mind and outside on the map.  Widmer creates on a two-dimensional surface the mental equivalent of being hooked into the electronic surveillance network that blankets the globe.  

Widmer creates this multi-dimensional reality by pushing the traditional strategies of collage into contemporary forms of mediated perception.  Widmer presents a view of what life on earth is like on the cusp of the twenty-first century.  She also creates two more artifacts that will enter the stream of time in which modern nomads might chance upon these beautifully made artifacts.