Back to the Future

Artists at Etherton evoke past and present in their works of “visual language”

Detail of Story Board by unknown New Guinea artist, wood, charcoal and lime, not dated.
Detail of Story Board by unknown New Guinea artist, wood, charcoal and lime, not dated.

In the intricate show A Patterned Language at Etherton, three sets of artists grapple with of what the gallery calls "visual language."

Matt Magee's paintings riff on the most recent human writing: computer codes.

Albert Chamillard's drawings in pen and ink—slanted markings on paper—conjure up the world's oldest writing, the wedge-shaped cuneiform, developed in Mesopotamia around 3500 B.C.

And, in a way, the unnamed artists of New Guinea, whose carvings chronicle daily life, hearken back to the time before writing, when pictographs in Mesopotamia and cave paintings in Spain and elsewhere began to tell the stories of human life.

Art, you could say, was really the first writing.

The New Guinea Story Boards, as they're called, are a marvel, a kind of rough-hewn tapestry of life in the lush and steamy South Pacific. Carved out of the dangling roots of banyan trees, they picture everything from little kids frolicking at their parents' knees to crocodile hunts to a funeral procession and burial. (The dead man smiles peacefully in his grave.)

These carvings are a relatively new art form in New Guinea. Gallery notes tell us that the practice began in the 1960s.

A trio of brothers, Zacharias, Ignas and Paulas Waybenang, lived in Kambot on the Keram River in the eastern part of the massive island. They were already carvers, but they started making Story Boards after seeing the flat bark paintings used in ceremonial houses.

Eventually, villagers all along the Keram began carving the story boards. The above-ground roots on the banyan apparently hadn't had much use before; now, milled into flat wood panels and then carved and sold to tourists and collectors, they could provide a living to the maker. The pieces in the Etherton show were collected by Tucson dealer Ron Perry from the mid-1960s through the 1990s.

Twenty-nine of the low-relief wall pieces are on view, along with three carved benches on the floor, one with a delightful life-sized carved crocodile head, complete with dozens of sharp white teeth. The wood the artists use is mostly a rich reddish brown, but they sometimes darken parts of the work with charcoal, and they push white lime into the crevices to add light to that darkness.

The most spectacular work is a wall piece that stretches eight feet across. It's a world unto itself. It features the funeral procession mentioned above, but the story it tells is womb to tomb.

The village it re-creates is teeming with life. A row of tiny houses nestles under palm trees. A river teems with turtles and fish and scary-looking giant snake, and crocodile has a woman pinned in its jaws.

Safe on land, a pig snorts in the grass and women tend small children. One woman grinds sago flour, derived from the palms, and another carries a water jug on her head. Young men play—or battle—with sticks. And in the midst of all these quotidian scenes, a throng of funeral mourners accompany the corpse to the graveyard. Life and death here are one.

Tucson artist Chamillard makes whole worlds with paper and pen. He creates his drawings with layer upon layer of those cuneiform-like short strokes, delivered in various colors of ink. Sometimes drawn in 3-D, sometimes made to look flat, they're primarily abstract geometries—squares, circles, triangles—but they contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman might have said. (By the way, happy 200th birthday, Walt.)

In a recent video produced by Andrew Brown and aired on Arizona Spotlight, Chamillard said that while he draws, his mind reels with thoughts, and the works embody his "fears, worry and happiness. Everything in my life is in these drawings."

And their titles push viewers to imagine assorted narratives. "Happiness Is an Empty Box" is a blue 3-dimensional square. We can see inside this empty box, and start thinking about an empty being better than a full one, and why do we have so many possessions anyway? "Fornication," in two shades of red, pictures a big 3-D X, with its two sides held tightly together like a pair of inseparable lovers. "White Flower" doesn't strive to be anything but a flower. Its whites are stretched of paper left blank, shaped by a background of heavily cross-hatched black lines.

Contemporary as these minimalist works are, they connect to the past.

The many cross-hatchings—diagonal lines going one way are topped by diagonal lines going the other way—are inspired by the printers who pioneered the technique centuries ago. The lined ledger book paper the artists uses dates to the 1920s; the papers' printed lines, once guideposts for bookkeepers and accountants, become part of his composition.

He likes the ledgers in part because they make an association between drawing and writing, and crosshatching is mark-making that's similar to writing.

Phoenix artist Magee's works frequently chart the loss of human mark-making—strokes made by hand—in a digital world. "Information Science" is in a traditional medium, paint on panel, but it pictures an up-to-the minute computer code in black and white that for all anyone knows was created by a robot. A jazzy red oil on panel is called "Red Poem for Dublin," but instead of tidy Times New Roman print the words are written in an unreadable parade of symbols.

But working in a cheerful kaleidoscope of media—found objects, steel, iron, oil paint—and bright colors, Magee also finds parallels between the language and writing of today and yesterday.

"Sounding Board," an oil painting of green and yellow dots and black rectangles, was "based on an electronics panel in the control room of an offshore oil rig," the artist tells us. But its imagery suggests antiquity, he says, evoking "glyphic kind of language."

"Map 1632 2" mimics a computer grid charting Phoenix traffic patterns, but this one also connects to the ancient world, bringing us back to the south seas.

The grid's green lines and red circles, he tells us, are reminiscent of nautical stick maps that long-age Polynesians used to travel around the Pacific.