How to Do Things With Hog Guts 

Watkins professor explores rich trains of thought in visual and sonic dimensions

Watkins professor explores rich trains of thought in visual and sonic dimensions

Unusual materials figure in the work of many artists, to such an extent that this alone doesn't make for noteworthy art. Barbara Yontz makes pieces out of unconventional stuff, but she does it with intellectual depth and emotional purpose that result in distinguished work. What's more, she has started to look beyond the visual realm into sound. Her show at the Tennessee Arts Commission displays the results of these two lines of aesthetic inquiry.

Yontz's identifying material in recent works has been pig intestines, the humble substance used for sausage casings. The casings are translucent, with a crinkled surface that seems brittle, although they can be sewn and arranged like cloth. Using this material, and using it as a form of cloth, brings inherent overtones of traditional women's worlds—the consumption and preparation of food, dressing and caring for families, or just dressing up. This material also ties into Yontz's interest in skin and membranes as metaphors for the porous barriers of consciousness and identity that both separate people and serve as a medium for interaction.

In "The Gift," four blooms of pig-intestine fabric billow out in layered sheets. Threads fall out of the fabric and brush rice paper that Yontz has rolled out along the foot of the wall. The piece invokes a presence that is elementary and alimentary: paper made from rice, fabric made from sausage casings, both offered in relatively unmodified form. It also has ritual dimensions in the way the rice paper has been rolled out to receive the threads and provide a space for presenting the food-related material, like an offering left at a shrine.

"What I Know About Love" takes the embodiment of nutrition and ritual further. On the right side, two tubes made from the intestine hang down, covered with lipstick kisses. Each tube is capped with a wax hand sitting on a square of text encased in beeswax. Threads run from the fingers of each hand and join in the space between the tubes. On the left side stands a stack of letter-sized paper that has been cut in fours and drenched in beeswax; a column of the same paper sits on the floor, cut but untreated, with instructions to take a sheet. These sheets are from a paper discussing psychological treatments of love by writers like Freud, Lacan, Kristeva and Cixous. Because of the way the paper is cut, you can't read any full sentences. The papers rest on, and the other materials hang over, rice paper rolled out on the floor as in "The Gift," only this time it's been splattered with wax drippings.

The piece's collection of elements creates a complex of meanings and emotions related to consumption and passion. The presence of food and consumption has been amplified thanks to the beeswax, which smells like honey; the splotches bring to mind food drippings. The tubes approach the form of sausage, but their shape also belongs to fingers, animal teats, a doubled phallus or any number of other things. The lipstick traces brought the mouth into direct contact with the art—a mouth that could eat, kiss or bite. The hands that cap the tubes recollect the maker's hands, whether she makes food or art, or uses them to hold and caress a lover or child.

The title and the text sheets work out, ironically, a parable of reading. The fine words show up in fragmentary form that gets absorbed by the piece's raw materials. Text constitutes one way of knowing love (or anything else), but it is easily shredded and overwhelmed by the more complex and direct meaning that comes from the visual means of shaping, combining and juxtaposing. The piece ends in a performance gesture. It offers up a small part of itself, a snippet of text.

Two other visual works are more representational and less successful. "Can the Barrier of Space Be Broken" overlays that phrase on the outline of a woman's head and upper body. The words become clearer in the dark, colored sections of the work and get obscured in the sections with the clearest background color. "Especially Considering Exposure" consists of a sleeveless blouse and a skirt made from pig intestines, hung in front of the wall and set at curve, like an invisible woman dancing. In both works, the more conventional images are less engaging compared with the dense associations of the more abstract pieces.

Yontz has recently started exploring sound in her work and has two examples here. The simplest is the strongest. "Four-Letter Words" consists of a single CD player mounted to the wall with headphones. On the recording, a woman (singer and former Nashvillian Jen Cohen) speaks, without expression, all of the four-letter words from English philosopher J.L. Austin's first two lectures in How to Do Things With Words. The voice pans left to right and back by steady increments. The words add up to nonsense, but surprising conjunctions occur. Words repeat in succession; some go together as short phrases. Among many colorless words like "that" or "like" and technical words like "fact," something with more character pops up, like "damn" or "wife." You wonder what role these words played in the source text.

The recitation is more than disembodied words; it has a performance quality. You get a sense that it occurs in a real space where papers shuffle and the speaker takes deeper breaths from time to time. You just can't envision the space because the audio track gives no clues to the space's character or content.

On one level, Yontz could have used any text to achieve these conjunctions and disjunctions of words brought together by a mathematical rather than a grammatical principle, but it does matter that she used this 1958 text by Austin. How to Do Things With Words documented lectures in which he explored performative utterances—cases when people use words to do something rather than describe something. By speaking certain words, a person causes a change in the state of the world: by giving a baby or a boat a name, declaring a couple to be married, or delivering a verdict. As Austin explores this class of utterances, he finds that to determine what makes a statement a performative, you have to look at in context, not purely in terms of grammatical rules. Furthermore, he finds that all speech acts have performative power, in that even simple statements of fact have an intention of creating an impact on listeners, transforming the world in some way. Austin's argument brings into sharp relief the creative power of language (and art) to shape the world. Yontz's use of this text turns Austin's book about performative utterances into a performance, recalling the fact that these words first existed as speech with the physical characteristics of sound and volume, not just mute markings on a page.

The other sound piece, "Chance Encounters With Utterance and Matter," comes closer to a conventional musical performance. Two CD players are mounted to the wall and feed into one speaker set. The viewer/listener is instructed to play them in the sequence he or she chooses. One CD includes a track of Cohen speaking and singing, but her voice has been processed in a variety of ways—into loops, low throbbing sounds or a metallic fluttering. She says the words "I knew I know some things" and "I don't actually know the music" and sings in a foreign language, probably Hebrew. On the other CD, a bass player spins out a relatively conventional modal improvisation that becomes an accompaniment for the other sound source. Yontz introduces the chance element of having the listener turn the CD players on or off, but due to the nature of the bass track, no combinations result in jarring conjunctions, unlike some of the strange combinations in the Austin piece. In this, it behaves more like a conventional musical piece, with a vocal track, albeit an unconventional one, laid on top of the solid bass line.

How do Yontz's visual and sound pieces come together? They don't fully. They do deal with some similar ideas, like the separation of individuals across boundaries of skin and dimensions, but approach them from different directions. Both bodies of work improve as Yontz moves toward abstraction, whether it means getting away from human figuration or from conventional musical forms. "What I Know About Love" and the sound pieces both ask the viewer to take action to complete the work; this, along with the ritual overtones of some pieces, suggests a movement toward performance. For now, at least as represented here, Yontz's two trains of artistic inquiry come across as that: two separate trains. But rich ones.

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