See Artist for Title essay by Kristen Carter
Nihilist, humorous, impenetrable, perplexing, and playful. These are some of the words used by viewers to describe the work of Chris Howison and Tristan Sober-Blodgett. Such sentiments convey both the pleasure and frustration endured while experiencing their work. Much of this is because both artists recognize that pleasure typically comes in knowing - getting a joke’s punch line or being privy to telling information, and that frustration ensues when this knowledge or pleasure falls short. For Howison and Sober-Blodgett, this oscillation between pleasure and frustration—between revelation and inscrutability—drives their practice. Both artists struggle to draw a line between what the viewer can and cannot have, thereby challenging not only their own authority, but also the responsibility and investment of the viewer. Their work frustrates, mobilizes, and entices viewers both physically and conceptually. It seemingly withholds answers, defers position, and confuses legibility. This keeps the viewer active, invested, and wanting more.
Propelled by idiomatic deferral, earnest delivery and strategic positioning, the text-based and sculptural works featured in See Artist for Title demand engagement, inquiry and mobility. This exhibition offers little, if any, respite for the passive and apathetic viewer. Such is the case with Howison’s Untitled (work seventy-seven) i,ii,iii,iv. Here the artist has punctuated the gallery space with four plinths. From certain vantage points the white pedestals appear bare. However, as the viewer walks closer, moving around the supports, a corporeal, flesh-colored object materializes. To ascertain what exactly is being shown, the viewer must move, inspect and touch. But as an alluringly abject and ephemeral object, the form entices while never fully revealing its tricks—here vexing pleasure ensues, or perhaps sheer frustration prevails.
This oscillation continues into Sober-Blodgett’s work, but unlike Howison’s withholding of privileged information, Sober-Blodgett struggles to bare it all. His text pieces conceptually move the viewer through a series of ready-made motifs, but they all reach a point of arrest where their logic succumbs to inevitable deferral. For example, Self-Titled Text (Suite 2/ knock knock) foils expectations. Spatially and linguistically, the text follows the structure of a “Knock Knock Joke”, but the artist doesn’t give us a punch line. Instead, the last statement reads as a resolute declaration of presence: “Who’s there?” “It’s me”. Not a joke, but a sensible response to a serious question. Moreover, to accompany this work Sober-Blodgett presents a Skype conversation between he and his sister. “I find this frustrating,” his sister declares. “What’s not to get?” he responds. Here, his sister’s frustration hinges on the insistence of the joke. Unsatisfied, she looks for what’s missing; a loophole or some kind of explanation. As Sober-Blodgett insists with notable deadpan recitation, it’s all right there. This isn’t supposed to be funny.
Indeed both artists seek to move and challenge the viewer by deferring expectations and refusing answers. Howison and Sober-Blodgett suspend dependency and expectations, thereby thrusting their authorial responsibility back on to the viewer. This constant deferral re-situates their work within a liminal, to-be-determined state of ambiguity. Thus in heeding the work’s equivocation, the viewer is left with a choice: they either succumb to its stubborn inevitability, or the viewer apprehends meaning and answers for him or herself. You can see the artists for the title, but what happens after you do?
- Kristen Carter
PhD Student, Art History, Visual Art and Theory
University of British Columbia