Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Candy Kuhl: Assemblage & Artist’s Books

Assemblage and Artist’s Books

Former US conservator Candy Kuhl uses rhyme and puzzle as key elements in the creation of bizarre assemblages and books that intrigue the mind and delight the eye. The late Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges famously concocted a fictitious system of cataloguing animals as follows: “(a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken the flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.”

The list encompasses the bizarre and the humorous, offering the reader tenuous links which evaporate when traced too determinedly. Similarly, American artist Candy Kuhl’s artist books and assemblages present a desire to reorder and reorganise convention. But while Borges’ system of cataloguing ultimately escapes reason, Kuhl’s does not. Instead she applies a steady, if at times quirky, logic that never allows the bizarre to stray too far from the familiar.

An endless process of toying, editing and swapping is evidenced in the central role that words, both as shapes and sounds, play in these works. The double entendre is at the core of much of this word-play, possibly encouraged by the transatlantic life the artist has led over the past 25 years, as much of this interest in word-play and puzzles stems from the shifting meanings she has noticed between British and American English. Pieces of linguistic puzzles are winkled free and offered to the viewer for reassembly. But while on a mental level their role is to intrigue, on a physical level their purpose is to delight. It may sound like a superfluous observation, but the pieces actually work. They hold up and respond to the interaction which they invite. Possibly a poor compliment, but it’s surprisingly rare to encounter conceptual works such as these that function on a material level in the manner intended.

It comes as little surprise to hear Kuhl comment: “I don’t like accidental work, unintentional meaning or sloppy workmanship.” The lengths that she willingly endures in order to avoid the above and obtain the desired results point not simply to an admirable command of her chosen materials, but also a certain deliberation in her working process. For example, she says of the text typed and placed in the drawer of Saturday’s Child: “Inside is a page from an old book, typed on a manual machine with two carbon copies. It was hard typing on the machine, which tended to jam if it went too fast. I ended up typing with one hand behind my back and taping all but my forefingers together, forcing me to adopt a slow, steady, one-key-at-a-time approach.” Similarly, the paint used to cover the box in the same colour as an old typewriter would have been is a substance called “milk paint”. Blended from milk protein, quicklime and natural pigments, it was popular before commercial paints became readily available. Its low toxicity, history and unique texture were important elements and considerations for the artist.

Text plays a central role to Kuhl’s assemblages. In many cases a puzzle is presented to the viewer with movable parts which offer clues as well as endless combinations of conclusions. For example, Collected Letters was inspired by the artist’s interest in British crossword puzzles, which she found to be much more complex and oblique than those she has encountered in the US. Employing the International Phonetic Alphabet (alpha, bravo, charlie…), Khul paired each letter with an object and a card containing a written clue and an image. The associations are entirely personal to that artist and therefore impossible for the public to unravel but, echoing Borges’ system for classifying animals, the rules of the game stipulate that it’s impossible to lose, allowing each player to work through the puzzle with their own method of reasoning. When unopened I Confuse Those Two, Too looks like a normal book with pages, binding and cover. Only when opened does the static narrative of the text and page fall to shreds in the reader’s hands. Pages from an encyclopaedia containing abutting entries for Italy and Iowa were unstitched from the original text, clamped and slit into ribbons. A new text was inserted to contain the dubious information with a cover depicting a reworked map which unites the two incongruous neighbours. As Kuhl notes, tongue-in-cheek, the passport stamp that decorates the cover is an unnecessary formality for travel to such imaginary destinations.

Elsewhere puzzle and rhyme are used as a commentary on domestic bliss. Betty Crocker’s Revenge could easily be subtitled Martha Stewart’s Disaster. Based on an interest in creating a book containing moving parts, the work is set in a baking tray. Each indentation contains a simulacrum of baked goods labelled with four words. Depending on your luck, the menu could either intrigue or turn your stomach with options like BBQ beer and banana infusion. Her subtle use of humour negates too political a reading of the work. Nonetheless, the options proffered by the likes of Martha Stewart and Betty Crocker for the eager housewife are threatened by the prospect of Kuhl’s recipes ever making it to the dinner table.

Saturday’s Child derives its title from the children’s rhyme that lays out a person’s lot in life based on the day of the week on which one was born. The rhyme deems that “Saturday’s child works hard for her living.” Allusions to the agonies of typing lessons are represented in the fabric typewriter ribbon stating “There must be an easier way”, and teach-yourself typing manual, complete with the Quick Brown Fox exercise. Kuhl explains that the eraser/brush projecting from the heel of the shoe last alludes to the chore of “cleaning up after mistakes, which is what I do a lot of in this work.” Also pointing towards luck and fate is Just a Suggestion. Fashioned from a ring-sizer and turntable of brass and wood, the work would be right at home in a surreal house of fun. Suggestions cover the gamut of humour, but with none too outrageous for the player to be able to decline. Fido is part psychoanalytic catharsis and part sensible substitute, representing the artist’s denied pet and a mechanical wonder. The rotating wheel/foot and lead on a swivel allow the wooden body to move in utmost obedience. Similarly, The Newest Thing adds a whole new meaning to the threat of writer’s block. It is a machine that allows ideas to simply float off into thin air. According to the artist, “the device produces grammatical text instantaneously, just by touching keys, without the aid of a computer or printer.”

Kuhl’s background in conservation has much to do with the seamless execution of her concepts. Ten years as chief conservator of Oxford Conservation, preceded by post-graduate studies at Ruskin School of Fine Art and Drawing (University of Oxford), have afforded her a solid material as well as conceptual base from which to construct her oddities. Their formal execution and precision is nothing less than seductive. I, for one, can picture the late Jorge Luis Borges quite at home with the prospect of typing his next work of fiction on The Newest Thing.

Craft Arts International, No. 61, 2004: 115-116.