What a long, strange trip it’s been for Gretchen Faust. In New York during the early 1990s, she became known for daintily incising textual fragments of art history lectures into gallery walls with the tip of an ice-pick, while also working as a critic and acupuncturist. After her gallerist, Pat Hearn, died and Faust herself suffered serious illness, she travelled to India, focused on yoga and meditation, and wound up in Totnes, Devon, where she is now a highly regarded yoga instructor. Google ‘Gretchen Faust’ and you’ll find her on the mat first, in the gallery second. But in the last decade she’s also had four exhibitions at greengrassi, each premiering a revised aesthetic approach. The first brought forth pensive, mandala-like paper cut-outs; the second included engraved slabs of Portland stone; the third paired photographs of handguns. There have, nevertheless, been continuities throughout: symmetry and asymmetry, refinement and violence, and a variably explicit focus on cutting, punching, firing – penetrating the surface of things.
The first thing one sees in ‘carne inteligente’, Faust’s latest and most aesthetically varied show, is Source (2013), a metal cup screwed to the dividing wall blocking off the gallery proper. The blackened vessel is filled with dried rice, upon which rest the dusty brown coils of used joss sticks. Incense, reduced to dust, recurs in four framed drawings collectively entitled ‘Amanuensis (Series 2)’ (2013), in the formof orange-brown smudges on paper – something once burned, now spent andcircular. The four-part ‘Amanuensis (Series 1)’ (2013), with its faint, scrabbly, vertical lines of ink on paper, suggests abstracted vitality or mediumistic reports from the ether. But both series are low-wattage. You must move in close, slow your heartbeat, attend patiently to minor shifts in density and pressure. At this point, one might note that, in a recent interview with Axel John Wieder, Faust compared art and yoga: ‘I’d say the personal process is the same. Cultivating presence and intimacy. And the outcome can result in different forms, depending on the circumstances ofintention and form.’
Interspersed with the drawings,on a wall-mounted monitor, is ‘Where is your tambourine now, sleeping bear?’ (F.P) (2013), a 20-minute HD video in which a lugubrious mechanical toy, a brown bear, is repeatedly wound up, set down in a blank white space that might be mental space, and allowed to walk grindingly, querulously, towards the camera. Once it stops, it is wound again and noses forward once more. The ‘F.P’ of the title, a little legwork suggests, is Fernando Pessoa, since the exhibition title, which translates as ‘intelligent flesh’, can be found nestling in his 1935 poem ‘Love is the Essential’: ‘Man is not an animal / Is intelligent flesh’. The involuntarily relentless mechanical bear, under these auspices, could be man – preinstalled with endless curiosity – or animal, blindly and unreflectively stumbling forward, not learning from its mistakes, having no choice in the matter.
One visits a similar zone of circumscribed ambivalence via Shroud 1 (Start) and Shroud 2 (Stop) (both 2010),the pair of large, rug-like circles that dominate the gallery floor. The former, faintly grotesquely, is made from stitched-together rabbit skins; the latter from camouflage hides, those deceptive domes used to get closer to wildlife – to admiringly watch it or to kill it – without frightening it away. There is, one would hazard, a philosophic equilibrium of life and death, hunting and being hunted here; a sense too that Faust wants viewers to travel, vis-à-vis this, towards a far shore of understanding and accepting.
One published criticism of her ice-pick works was that, while the phrases themselves were somewhat ambiguously decontextualized, the artist accompanied them with pamphlets specifying their intended effect on the viewer. This tutelary strain still seems present in Faust’s work, suggesting she’s a teacher not only in Totnes. The scent of the retreat swirls around her art, which appears keen to focus attention, facilitate presentness and entrain large-scale contemplations, to hail and harness the human capacity for abstract thinking. At the same time, however, Faust has a tendency towards the variously nebulous and gnomic that suggests someone who’s sojourned lengthily inside her own head, emptying and refilling it, and is relaying back the results in a species of stenography – one that, circularly, a viewer may already need to be initiated to appreciate.