Fillip 2 — Winter 2006

Andrew Power

With Mirror Maze (2001), Charles Rea presents five convex mirrors—devices more typically found in commercial parking garages or in the corners of convenience stores—stationed at even intervals about the Belkin Satellite’s anteroom. Recontextualized in the gallery space and largely detached from their industrial lexicon, Rea’s mirrors are patterned with variants of a concentric maze. The design is described in the literature attendant to the exhibition as unicursal, that is, a maze with a single linear solution. Mirror Maze renders the unicursal route as evolute spirals transiting from margin to centre, and back.

Although it demands at least a few attempts, these unicursal routes eventually unwind to a single line between end points. Forward, or reverse, constrained on the path, there is, in effect, no correct direction. With motive effort a terminus is always obtained. This transitive solution seems important to Rea. Its simplicity is perhaps posed as a counterpoint to the critical mass of referential activity found in the exhibition’s accompanying work Crystal Lab.

With Crystal Lab (2003), Rea shifts conceptual focus from the centric radial geometry of the subtended sphere to an extensible, regular, and transparent coordinate grid. Working at multiple scales simultaneously, that is, working architecturally, Rea extrudes a vertical dimension with sheets of hand-painted Plexiglas, again provisioning a maze of unicursal type, simplified for the roving perspective of the perambulant. In Crystal Lab the unicursal diagram is projected topologically, as a single contiguous surface and, in this case, not onto the finite surface of a sphere, but rather a flattened plane whose horizon infinitely recedes.

Installed in the centre of the gallery’s larger exhibition room, Crystal Lab is comprised of forty-eight transparent Plexiglas panels set within a supporting framework of prefabricated powder-coated steel sections. The structure forms a large, flat truss, taller than the viewer and recumbent on the floor. Remarkable in the sheer extent of its one hundred and seventy linear feet of hand-painted Plexiglas folded and filling the room, Crystal Lab’s transparent panels each present a monochromatic image. For example, a group of isometric projections detailing space-lattices; a bar chart ranking the population of Canadian provinces by gender; a workflow model theorizing a relation between perceptual and linguistic faculties; and an arrangement of enlarged ASCII characters comprising a crude smiley face.

Many of Crystal Lab’s illustrations may be easily apprehended. Some have at least a familiar diagrammatic syntax. Others lack the descriptive context adequate to render them sensible. And a few are so obscure as to be mysterious. The images all have the flavour of appropriation, as if sampled from reports and textbooks, perhaps from printouts discarded on the floor at a university computer room. However, the fit within their frames is too neat. The layout of the diagrams is noticeably careful. Compositions do not bleed past their margins, nor do they often fail to fill available space. Rea inflects his illustrations with considered manipulation, subtly aggravating their provenance, perhaps intentionally eroding their explicit meaning even beyond the distanciation enforced by their topical specificity.

Of the apparent clues to assist with Crystal Lab’s hermeneutical provocation, the least obscure is the codification of the colours thematizing the illustrations. The text accompanying the exhibition identifies four classifications:

  1. blue indicates things physical, such as the chemistry of the body
  2. green alludes to economic and societal models and statistical charts
  3. red signifies computer graphs dealing with human intelligence
  4. yellow connotes philosophical and speculative data.

Interestingly, the four classifications of Crystal Lab’s colour-coded taxonomy are not equally represented in the exhibition at the Belkin Satellite. Those indexed by blue and green—things physical, such as the chemistry of the body, and economic and societal models and statistical charts—predominate. This weighting to cool is tantalizing. Is this an expression of the relative distribution of these bodies of knowledge within a universal corpus? Is the colour-code sequencing ordered by the operation of an algorithm? Or governed by chance? By intuition?

In a study for Crystal Lab undertaken in 2002, Rea drafted a configuration of the maze scheme that is arranged quite differently from the version installed at the Belkin Satellite. The sketch suggests that the specifics of the maze design and the sequencing of illustrations may be unique to each exhibition venue. With this study, Rea implies that Crystal Lab has no fixed arrangement—that unlike Mirror Maze, it offers no perspectival centre. The narrative engendered by the specificity of any particular arrangement will be deliberate. But over time, and through hypothetical re-installation, the narrative conducted by a viewer impelled through Crystal Lab’s unicursal conduit will multiplex and defocus. The condition limiting comprehension is found not in the extent of the semiotic field that might unfold infinitely, but rather at the termini of the route.

The pleasure of Crystal Lab’s puzzle, that is, its hermeneutical playfulness, is problematized by its situation of abstruse epistemology. This is evident in its extent of ambiguity and emblematized by its kaleidoscopic layering, diagrams and charts superimposed through translucent intersecting planes, erupting with errant detail, colours bleeding and receding to diffusion. The strategic program of Crystal Lab’s scientistic exhibition is allusive and non-representational.

Rea’s ambition is abstraction, but his technique is not anti-figurative or even primarily aesthetic. In keeping with the polemics of expressionism, his abstraction is the opposite of that process as it pertains to knowledge representation, which employs codification and compression to increase the density of information. Instead, Rea arranges an approximate epistemological catastrophe, and, in doing so, overwhelms the opportunity to parse representation into instrumentality.

Image: Charles Rea, Mirror Maze (2000), acrylic on security mirrors

About the Author

Andrew Power is a Vancouver-based media artist. He studied architecture at the University of Waterloo, and Fine Arts at Emily Carr Institute. Andrew is interested in science, and favours sentimentality.

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