Dental Floss Alchemist

Alchemy has long since lost its significance as a science, but not its hold on the imagination. Some of Jung's ideas grew out of his study of alchemic symbology, and more recently, James Elkins at the Art Institute of Chicago has turned to the language of alchemy to explain What Painting Is. And with our Whole Foods culture's interest in herbal supplements, homeopathy and holistic medicine (some of which recalls the 16th century alchemist Paracelsus), you might say certain aspects of alchemy are making a comeback. Not that the search for the philosopher's stone, the fabled element capable of transforming baser metals to gold, will be resumed anytime soon. But the idea of transformation, particularly the converting of materials as a way to transform our understanding of the world and our place in it, is still very much with us.

Rebecca Holland, whose first solo show in Houston is on view at James Gallery, is a San Antonio-based artist who has been transforming materials for some time. In earlier works, she has completely covered wooden structures with wax and pigment, creating enigmatic little objects that seem to glow from within; some of these straddle the line between painting and sculpture, looking like the former (flat, square plane) yet acting more like the latter (can stand alone, occupy space).

Of late, she has been involved with installations. During a residency at San Antonio's ArtPace last year, she applied silver leaf to the ceiling of her studio, creating a kind of inverse reflecting pool; and for the group show "Out of the Ordinary" at the Contemporary Arts Museum last year (see "Everyday Art," by Kelly Klaasmeyer, August 24, 2000), she covered one wall with wisps of milkweed floss and gold-leafed a single floorboard that ran the entire length of the building. She has also used everyone's favorite material for interior design -- dental floss -- to define space. Her concerns in these interventions is to draw attention to the architectural space and to explore the area as abstract sculpture, emphasizing its geometry while enlisting the medium of light.

Two similar installations appear in this show. In one darkened room, Rays (all works are 2001) is made up of seven gold strands hanging from the ceiling and lit by spots. These strands are gold-leafed dental floss (not, as you might at first think, finely hammered solid gold -- the price of gold hasn't fallen that far). They're grouped in the center of the small room, and as you walk around them, they respond to your movements, shifting in the light, turning slightly and returning. Individually, the strands have a poignant fragility, but they also have a presence, established by their proximity to one another, a presence usually felt only with larger, more substantial objects.

Lightness #2 is less successful, but it still has a certain appeal, owing mostly to the material. Installed in what amounts to a deep alcove, the piece consists of the gallery's hardwood floor covered with milkweed floss, to a depth of about an inch (Holland must have her own milkweed greenhouse). The natural light that fills this alcove is refracted into the space, softening it and making the area seem slightly smaller and warmer. (It certainly makes it inviting. I was tempted to lie down in the milkweed, perhaps fluff it around and toss it in the air.)

Most of the show consists of works on paper -- silk tissue, to be exact. A general description: The upper half of each work is thickly applied acrylic, pigment and ink; the lower portion is raw silk tissue. In four large pieces that dominate the main room, this bipartite format is constructed entirely of separate pieces of tissue, one painted, the other raw. The other six works are single sheets and (perhaps) represent variations on a theme. Dark Green-Violet with Ruffle deviates from the more squarish norm by being six inches high and running 66 unframed inches along one of the dining room walls. Double Yellow-Grey Blue departs from the upper/lower format with a left-and-right scheme with raw tissue in between. And Duo Green-Chartreuse is painted upper and lower.

Holland's agenda with these works seems simple enough: Mix different colors together and see what happens. But as is often the case, complexity arises out of simplicity. These are not formal explorations; they are, rather, more intuitive exercises. The works are intensely process-oriented. One imagines Holland applying layer upon layer of paint and pigment to the tissue, concentrating on the surfaces she's creating and the colors that are emerging. The colors in the titles refer to the primary color components that produced what you see hanging on the wall, which explains why the titles sometimes have precious little in common with the hues you're actually viewing. But move around a bit. Catch the light playing off the surface from an angle, and you might get a glimpse -- for just a moment -- of the purple and blue in the otherwise dark greenish-grayish-silvery-something else-looking Pale Lavender-Blue. They have their own Doppler effect -- which color you see may depend upon which side of the work you're standing on.

But these pieces are not mere optical illusions. As mentioned earlier, these works are process-oriented; that is, the more or less methodical pursuit of a particular self-imposed task. To the extent that these works succeed, it is because the artist has successfully communicated the pleasure of the process. These are reflective works -- they not only reflect light but also require a mind given to reflection -- and they evoke thoughts of Mark Rothko, Agnes Martin and early Brice Marden. The science of optics tells us that we know color and shape and surface -- hence, the world -- through reflection. And reflection can be a pleasure of quiet moments, such as spending time with the art of Rebecca Holland.