Annette Lawrence brought slides of her work from the past 20 years, as well as digital photos of her recent trip to Scotland. Carl Phillips, in a talk he gave in June, talked about the need to understand and measure an artist's work not by the individual elements themselves, but by the scope and range of their work over a period of time. This could not be a more apt statement. Annette's work ranges from the minute to the grandiose, encompassing circles made out of carefully written dates from her menstrual cycle over a period of nine years as well as large string installations covering an entire 39 x 24 foot space in between floors at the Glassell School (Houston, TX).
What remains constant in her work is an inquiry into language and time, and sometimes an inquiry into time as language. What is also constant is a fascination not with the object, but with the experience of creation itself - a desire to capture in physical form the ever shifting present.
Annette's earlier work actually used letters as a way to visually evoke sound. In particular, her pieces, such as "They Must Dont Know Who We Are" leads us to question our relationship to space, language in space and memory. This piece was done in response to the Rodney King verdict and the artist used lava and limestone rocks to form the sculpture and the words within the sculpture. Another piece, "John 3:16", in which Annette drew out the verse from John 3:16 in alphabets other than the Latin Alphabet, asks us to consider our relationship to language - and its underlying symbolism. One of the participants asked what audiences' reactions have been to "John 3:16" and Annette specifically noted that fear - and/or a sense of complicity - have been common reactions, depending on the religious and political orientation of the viewer.
"Drawing Blood" in which she created circles by writing the dates from her menstrual cycle, generate a spiral effect present in both our lived experiences and in our physical world. It is with these pieces that language begins to take on the form of numbers, which she then explored in drawings themselves as well as in sculptural installations. And following this exploration, Annette began the series "Ellipses", which took music written and studied during her childhood, and transformed the notes into abstract language on the page that is simultaneously representative and sculptural.
At this juncture, Annette then began to look at sound itself, and out of this came the diptych inspired by John Coltrane's "Alabama", in which she used sound waves to create patterns on the page. And it is at this moment that there seems to be a split in how the artist approaches both her work and space. From text representing sound to text related to sound to sound as text itself.
Through all of this, Annette has been installing string sculptures in spaces as a way to explore our relationships to space, mathematical concepts and our very own humanity. Pieces such as "Theory" - an inquiry into time and material suspended in space, in which perspective impacts our understanding of truth. And an installation from the African American Museum in Dallas, in which the artist reflects on our relationship to the 20th century (the pieces on the wall were made in South Africa in patterns of nineteen using brown, black and white colors).
What I found most fascinating about Annette's work is the alchemical element underlying her use of numbers, patterns, and incredibly simple materials. Her use of repetition generates a space in which the now is suspended, even as she makes her own artistic inquiries into that very concept. We enter work that is incredibly specific because of its materials and references (for example, the dates in her "Drawing Blood" pieces), but that expands beyond the specific into a universal pulse measured primarily through our non-verbal responses to the images and installations themselves.
Currently Annette is working on pieces where she creates "Edges" out of piles of junkmail collected from November 2005 - November 2006. She is again interrogating time, but through the creation of objects that become fixed in space that are themselves a representation of time. It is almost as if she is entering her artistic cycle again, but with a shift in her inquiry - it is no longer about the text itself, but about time as text - time as a marker of her moments of "now".
The discussion that followed Annette's presentation was rich and spanned a wide range of questions, including questions about her materials, use of colors, her relationship to the number nine (9), her artistic ancestors, her artistic process, her choice of languages (she stated that right now, she's figuring out what language she is working in, but that she's working with objects again for the first time in almost 20 years), her choice of iconography and her thoughts on aging as an artist. We discussed her use of lists, not just as her nature, but as material for her work, where the lists function as "a journal" of her life, and a mirror of her artistic process, and her interrogation of different forms of time ("generational time" and "cyclical time" to name a couple of examples).
Annette listed her influences from a wide range of artistic genres, including writers Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Angela Davis; musicians Cassandra Wilson, Sarah Vaughn, Diane Reeves, Betty Carter ("all female [jazz] vocalists, really"), John Coltrane as well as other great jazz musicians; visual artists Constantin Brancusi, Mark Rothko, David Hammons, Adrian Piper, Ana Mendieta, Janine Antoni, Agnes Martin; to all manner of films ("I'm a film buff." she said).
I'm sure that today she's influences at least all of the people who were in that room.