printed with permission of Susan Kandel
“I have destroyed the ring of the horizon and got out of the circle of objects…” —Kasimir Malevich, 1915
To spin fast, then faster out of the known. To dive, eyes open, into the mystic. To reach the other side where one is not bound by matter. To become speed and flight and conquest of the air!—to obliterate the past. To be in pursuit not of the forms of nature, but of weight, velocity and the direction of movement.
In the second decade of our century, on the eve of Petrograd’s Last Futurist Exhibition 0.10, this was Suprematist Kasimir Malevich’s dream. If the Futurists had failed to escape the objective (they rendered the dynamics of things, but they rendered things, nonetheless), then Malevich would destroy it, smash it along the accelerating path to the zero-point of form: abstraction, the language uttered by the whirring, pumping, spinning machine translated into the language of art; abstraction, unloosened from representation, freed of history, the language of a future here now.
In the last decade of our century, Malevich’s dream has proven quixotic, Abstraction has generated a troubled history of its own. The technology that promised to deliver us has failed us. We move forward with trepidation, backward with irony and forward again with sadness. We are far from Utopia, caught in an intermediary zone haunted by melancholy. It is in this zone that one must site the luminous work of Susan Rankaitis.
(A pyramidal form materializes once, twice, three times out of the half light: the wing of an airplane—repeated, varied, hidden, revealed. A fractured plane glimpsed between fractured panes slicing across a lambent surface. Is it falling out of the sky?)
Rankaitis softly treads the edge of the circles of objects. The wing of an airplane, a swirling galaxy, a page from a science text, a Roman ruin: these are her barely articulated forms, all but concealed behind a dense scaffolding of light and shadow. Sometimes, the works appear entirely abstract—dark-toned odes to Cubism or Futurism. Vortices eddy out of control. Diagonally slashed planes balance atop one another. Fine crescents of white skim across dusky surfaces. But then, something strangely familiar comes into view. In Versalite, it is a tiny projection; and as that projection crystallizes into the nose cone of a rocket, it becomes the key to the image, the key to Rankaitis’s stilling evocation of the missteps and the failures that have compromised our (still-passionate) hopes for technology and science, for art and for history.
If the works are neither wholly abstract nor wholly representational, they are also strictly neither photographs nor paintings. Rankaitis creates “combined-media” images, beginning with large sheets of photographic paper whose structure she alters through a variety of chemical and nonchemical processes. Photographic negatives, brushed-on emulsions, photograms inspired by those of Lazso Moholy Nagy, acrylic and industrial paints and automobile pin-striping all conspire to produce surfaces that deny just such a cataloging of materials and technique. For these surfaces are so seamlessly composed and constructed that at times they seem all but immaterial.
(The battered aluminum cone, bathed in cool silver and hazy gold, is emphatically material. Straining skyward, struggling against the too-mighty pull of gravity, it remains rooted to the ground.)
With a nose cone at one end of the engine shaft and stabilizing tailfins at the other, the rocket is projected into the air. At the push of a button it soars, propelled by the rearward discharge of gases liberated by combustion. The rocket: an emblem of technology so advanced and a military-industrial complex so powerful that both extend beyond the confines of the earth and into the outer reaches of space.
With the nine-foot rocket nose cone she displays as part of the latest body of work, Rankaitis draws us into the (government-approved) fantasy. We are doubly-seduced: first, by the proximity to such a remarkable piece of history and of technology; and second (we are in an art gallery, after all) by the elegant curves, by a form as sleek and spare as a sculpture by Brancusi. But we are drawn into the fantasy only to reject it—to reject our romanticization of a technology that showed us how to manufacture our own destruction, and an abstraction that fell short of the transcendental to become one among many stylistic choices. For Rankaitis’s nose cone is the anti-emblem; unearthed at a military junkyard in Texas, it is an empty, landlocked shell—a monument to fin-de-siecle inertia.
Text and anti-text wage a quiet war on the surface of the rocket’s nose cone. Identificatory phrases stenciled and spraypainted by the factory are echoed and transformed by quasi-anagrammatic phrases inscribed beneath them by Rankaitis. So that “762 MILLIMETER ROCKET: MIA2” becomes “AND MISBELIEVE ROCKET: LURE;” “PART NO. 8026175” becomes “PASS GO, CUNNING;” and “EMPTY WEIGHT 134 LBS/ TOTAL WIGHT” becomes “EMPTY VESSEL ARE NOT/ TRUSTWORTHY.” The piled phrases are less a poem than a cautionary tale. Again, the warning: Beware the seduction.
This is the first time that Rankaitis has shown work that incorporates language. And wordplay appears not just in the transliterations on the mottled surfaces of the nose cone; it is essential to the titles of several of the larger images. Rankaitis conceived of these images while in residency as the Djerassi and La Napoule Foundations, where she spent much of her time pouring over French science jounrals. In one, she discovered a lexicographical chart which provided her with titles such as Formattage, Utilisateur Final and Versalite, amalgamations of French and American computer jargon (Formattage derives from “formatage” + “formatting;” Utilisateur Final, from “utilisateur” + “end user;” and Versalite, from “souplesse” + “versatility”). The military-industrial complex, once again; but this time instead of ballistics, we have cybernetics. And once again, the hybrid; but instead of the cross between cultures, a discordant clash of languages.
Science once dreamed of escaping the discordance by creating a universal language somehow outside language. The “Lexique Franco-Americano Jargomatique (Non Exhaustif)” shows us the impossibility of the dream. Malevich once dreamed of escaping history by finding a way outside of the “ring of the horizon.” But Susan Rankaitis shows us the power of working inside that horizon and with the material objects of history.