A Piece of the Puzzle
The Art Seen by S. P. Kerce
Do you remember those plastic sliding piece puzzles? I had one that was black, with white sliders that had black letters on them. I spent hours putting together words that I “recognized” in a kind of Scrabble solitaire. I've never seen another one like that, I guess since most of these puzzles have images on them where the idea is to scramble the pieces as much as possible and then try to reassemble the image. Of course, it’s probably more fun if you don’t know what the image is.
These puzzles are what I think of when I look at Gary Simpson's extraordinary new piece on display at the Joseph Wise Gallery in Laguna Beach.
This 4’x 4’piece is constructed in two layers, one to be reconfigured playfully like a puzzle, and one to be discovered as part of the game. The first layer is composed of fifteen 12”x12” panels assembled like the sliding pieces of a puzzle. This construction is the latest development of Simpson’s penchant for assemblages of multiple pieces, ranging from diptychs and triptychs to his monumental work-in-progress CommonGround191, a polyptych with 196 pieces. (See “It’s a Ptych of His” [m1] .)
This is also Gary’s first interactive piece, although any of his abstract ptych-pieces could be considered potentially interactive, since they can be disposed in any arrangement that is pleasing. In this new work, each piece is fitted with a knob, a kind of joystick, that invites the viewer to move the pieces around. However, unlike the free-hanging pieces of a triptych that can be arranged on the wall any which way, this piece is a ptych in a cage and the possible positions are fixed.
Just as this piece is not quite like Gary’s other ptychs, it is also unlike the typical toy puzzle where there is only one way to reassemble the image. In this case, there is no “correct” arrangement of the pieces that can be disturbed to initiate the game or put back together to end it. In fact, there are 16 factorial possible configurations, and that is over 20 trillion! One can play with the arrangement of these pieces to find different pleasing compositions, but one will never view them all.
This first layer, then, certainly could stand alone as an engaging work of art. However, it is mounted over another 4'x 4' cement fresco that presumably is like those typically presented by Gary as a single coherent composition. Except that this composition can hardly be seen, since all but one square foot of it is concealed at any one time by the layer on top of it.
In fact, this second work of art will never be “seen” again, except in the mind of its eventual owner. And that, I believe, is the point of the whole (or the whole point): that a “work of art” is ultimately constituted in the mind or perception of the viewer. The construction creates a tension between one composition that is completely visible but almost infinitely reconfigurable and another composition that is coherent and fixed, but invisible except as it is revealed one square at a time to the mind’s eye.
This situation inverts the puzzle characteristics of the moving pieces. In the toy puzzles, the pieces themselves are the puzzle to be solved and there is no background image, that is, nothing more behind it. In Gary’s work, the sliding pieces represent no puzzle at all, but become the puzzle viewer, with the missing square functioning as a lens through which to explore what is underneath it. It is more likely that the re-arrangement of the sliders will be driven by the exploration of the underlying unified and coherent image, and that the discovery of a particularly pleasing juxtaposition of pieces will be serendipitous.
The two layers form a folded diptych [m2] , concealing what is inside, and “inside” there is yet another “layer” to this puzzle, for inscribed in the fresco cement of the concealed layer are seven letters disposed so that no letter is completely visible in the opening of the puzzle viewer. In themselves, the straight lines, curves, and angles that might be seen at any one time under the lens are reminiscent of visual elements common to Simpson’s frescos that often suggest mysterious but potentially meaningful signs.
Interrupted by the edges of the sliding pieces, the scratches and streaks in the puzzle are never visible as whole letters. In time, the letters may be assembled in the mind by moving the pieces around, but they are not arranged in a sequence or on a line according to the reading conventions of right to left and top down as in a text. With more time, perhaps, the letters can be gathered in memory and construed as words. But what words? How many words? The seven tokens of five types of letters, must they all be used at once? May each be used only once? What sequence should they follow?
Ultimately, when the letters have been lodged in memory, one, two, or three words will emerge because the mind cannot resist extracting them or creating them, just as a child I could not stop rearranging my alphabet puzzle into new spellings. But did I “see” those words or just imagine them? What those words will signify, individually or in their interplay, or what that hidden image “is”, and what the puzzle solves, will be in the mind of the who has the patience to curiosity to discover it.
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