In the 1980s, Holt Quentel was noted for turning fresh canvas into faux-distressed tarpaulins emblazoned with iconic letters and numbers, and for appropriating mass-produced Eames chairs for display. Klaus Ottman, in a catalog, said, “She escapes the fatality of simulation by overwinding it an extra turn that puts her at the beginning of time.” Roberta Smith didn’t buy it. Ms. Quentel, in any case, so far as the art world knows, disappeared.
But gallerist Kathleen Cullen was recently presented with an archive of her letters, poetic, impassioned and strange. Ms. Cullen introduced the letters to sculptor Elaine Cameron-Weir. Ms. Cameron-Weir, in “collaboration” with these relics of Ms. Quentel, put together a show called “Correspondence.”
The show begins outside the gallery door on a steel butcher’s table, next to the guest book and a little bin of fuchsia Chelsea Art maps. Framed inside a 10-inch-high paper rectangle in a 12-inch-high brass-colored found frame is a squashed and empty red pack of German Roth-Händle brand cigarettes, found among Ms. Quentel’s letters. One long crack, like a lone authorial stroke, splits the glass down the middle before veering to the side. Cigarettes is, like nearly all the other pieces, so carefully composed as to be almost overwhelming, but it’s the thinking that’s really vertiginous: A mass-produced package, beautifully designed by some now dead individual, used up and left behind by one artist, chosen and framed by another, and displayed both as a piece and as an advertisement for the show that includes the piece. (This, at least, must count as an extra turn.) Both artists’ names are attached.
Also found with the cigarettes was a dessicated, brown little double-barreled carrot, which Ms. Cameron-Weir made into an image by squashing it between a plastic frame intended for a snapshot and a crumpled cardboard backing. The root is pointing up–dreams go by contraries–and a curving, yellow-edged water stain neatly crosses behind it. This could make a figure like a cannon or a root growing backwards into the earth, but really it’s just an X that marks the spot: This means something, it says. It doesn’t matter what. It hangs directly above a white electrical socket, which, in the context, looks like it means something, too.
Instead of “Correspondence,” the show could also have been called “Columns of Memory.” The shortest, by two inches, is exactly six feet tall, an open-topped rectangular cage of brass wire like an Art Deco mail chute that’s survived some semiotic deluge. But the hope of endurance it evinces is really a nostalgia for hopes already forsaken. Eleven angled bits of wire, attached without structural function to the empty column’s sides, look back past early American skyscrapers to the ziggurat. Blue Black, a reclaimed wooden beam marked with bent nails and smudges of white paint, stands in a two-stepped concrete base. In an earlier column piece called Harem, Ms. Cameron-Weir impregnated concrete, as was once the practice in the Middle East, with perfume; Blue Black smells faintly of coconut oil. 100 is an eight-foot-long, three-quarter-inch-square line of tobacco-covered wood leaning against the wall. And Torso of a Young Woman, strong enough to hold the horizontal alone against any number of vertical columns, caryatids, chairs, phalluses or straight lines, is a found bench bearing, on one side, a careful pile of folded paper, cardboard, marble and concrete. It’s a sculpture about sculpture but also an odalisque whose beauty may drown out its idea–unless that tension between beauty and thinking is is the idea. One of Ms. Quentel’s reclaimed Eames chairs, partially covered in plastic and marked with a frayed little American flag sticker, sits in the middle.
The only weak note is a yellowed newspaper lying on the floor. Its headline reads MOON-MEN START HOME, and it’s covered with bird droppings. Text is too easy, so it’s also too hard. Ms. Quentel’s letters, on the other hand, because they were written not to all of us but to a single man–apparently, allegedly, as far as we know–are sometimes just easy enough to be moving. A letter about being accepted to Princeton typed on Milwaukee Athletic Club stationery has a handwritten postscript reading, “You better fucking write me back on this one.” A pink memo slip from MIT bears the single word “Here.” A page torn out of a phone book features an ad for Chicago Health & Tennis clubs; their motto: “Start your life all over again.” And on the back of an envelope, Ms. Quentel has started a game of hangman, writing the recipient’s name without vowels, guessing “U,” crossing “U” out and adding her head to the gallows.
To think is to speak, and to speak is to say something to someone. The trick is that the act of speaking is itself all we can say, and we don’t know what answer we get.