Alice Spencer

Ornament: Marking Time

Ornament, the term used in the title of this show, connotes the visual embodiment and encoding of pattern. Ornament in this context is pattern objectified, made concrete, attached to the objects of daily life.

All the patterns in my work refer to the foregoing sources and associations. The motif in each piece, however, is chosen not for specific meaning but for its particular graphic properties such as scale and complexity. The plane of each piece provides a structured field, a stage set ready for a 'play'. I provide a counterpoint to its rhythm by altering and disrupting the surface. My intention is to create a narrative within this matrix that addresses the unfolding of time and its effect on the human spirit.

I work with Precision Board, an industrial foam used for commercial signage. Using a cut rubber stencil the surface of each piece is sandblasted to create a shallow relief. It undergoes further hand carving and shaping after which paint is applied. The last coat, a mixture of sand and acrylic medium, is poured over the piece allowing some of the previous application of color to show through. Finally, an application of loose sand is sifted over the piece and embedded with spray acrylic.


1a. Kinship

"My feeling is that chronology... is apt to be deceptive, and that archaeology often yields a completely false impression of the course of events. I tend to [rely] more on the internal evidence of the designs themselves, using broad comparisons, which often lead back to symbolic origins."

These are the words of Carl Schuster, an anthropologist and iconographer unknown even to most practitioners of these disciplines, who spent his life traveling the globe in search of the “symbolic origins” he believed were at the root of the designs, patterns, and graphic symbols found throughout the work of ancient and tribal artists. Intrigued by the visual relationships between objects and the patterns that adorn them, though they might be separated from one another by five thousand miles and ten times that many years, Schuster collected and catalogued countless examples of these symbols—in the form of textiles, bits of pottery, tribal tattoos… anything he could find that seemed worth finding.

Taken together, he believed, they built up a network of correspondences linking the present and the Paleolithic, serving as a kind of memory archive, a constellation of signs testifying to a perennial metalanguage of human visual practice. Its specific situational meanings may have been long lost, but its forms, he believed, continue to live on and, indeed, to hold open the possibility that something of this originary human tongue might be brought forth again through painstaking investigation.

In a letter dated June 19, 1966, Schuster wrote:

"So far as I can see, there is no clear picture of the actual world of cultural traditions, and no realization that such a picture can and must be built up, out of long, painstaking EMPIRICAL observations; and that this picture can only begin to have validity when these observations are made on a world-wide basis, without any arbitrary exclusions. Nobody has the vaguest notion of what this world is really like: the only thing that can be safely predicted is that it is very different from what anybody supposes."

1b. Worship

"Water in the ear is removed by more water, A thorn [in the skin] by another thorn. So wise men rid themselves of passion By yet more passion.

If one of the central teachings of the Buddha is the nature of impermanence, the need to escape our desire to cling to the notion of fixed, stable identities, whether of individuals, events, ideas, or events . . . and if the nature of all conditioned phenomena is to come into being only to disappear once again . . . then when the Taliban destroyed the colossal stone Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, in the months before Al-Qaeda became a household word, shouldn’t Buddhists the world over have been the first ones to congratulate them?

Zen Buddhists have a saying: ‘If you see Buddha, kill the Buddha.’ If you think you’ve arrived, think again.

Ought the world to have exercised a bit more equanimity in its judgment of the Taliban’s artistic efforts?

Certainly they amounted to little more than radical intolerance, to the dramatic performance— twenty days it took them—of a commitment to the obliteration of difference.

But the destruction was also the perfect inversion and consummation of their own intentions, enabling the Taliban, despite themselves, to craft the most eloquent monument to the Buddha yet imagined.

2. Rome in a day

Alice Spencer’s work begins with a plane of precision board, clear and clean, which is cut, carved, sandblasted and painted in order to arrive at a state not so much of completion as unearthedness; her paintings are complete when they appear as though they were not crafted but excavated.

Each painting’s first incision, and the path that emerges as a result of it, takes its bearing from the particular symbol, pattern, or ornamental motif that Spencer chooses as the work’s point of departure. Drawn from a living, breeding archive of images that provide its staging, the painting unfolds in an encounter with this pattern, with the formal, indeed spiritual, resonances that are particular to it, that its history has stored in it.

Moments from this kaliedoscopic history are pinned to the wall of her studio: the restored cornice of a giant stone column at the temple of Artemis in Ephesus; the intertwining lines of foliage from an ancient Chinese urn; geometric patterns on a fragment of Roman tile; furrowed robes of great annihilated Afghan Buddhas…

She begins by isolating the pattern, like a note in a song, disembedding it in order to incise it into the board and thereby open it up into its new incarnation.

As the blade empties the board of its material, the work puts in play a motion of accumulation and obliteration. The surface is scraped, cut, and worn away, and in the process the patterns are able to proliferate.

The unfolding of the work is not random, but is characterized by a rigorous anarchy that results from the meeting in human hands of two orders of labor, one geological and the other morphological. That is, one mode of the work’s process is concerned with replicating geological force—but in the compressed form made necessary by the fact that its maker has but one life to live and cannot wait for nature’s elements to score and break and deposit what they will through the fires and floods of millennia. The other follows the form of the symbols she has introduced into the composition: the intervals of negative space in the first spiraling line dictate the placement of the next spiral’s introduction into the work’s surface, tell it where to go so that it might always have been there.

As one pattern is meshed with another, a rhythm builds, and soon finds a way to live of and for itself. As it does, that other order with which it is partnered (geological, morphological) devises a means by which to interrupt it, and thereby add to it—the one heightening the affective power of the other through their mutual interference.

Through this interchange and accumulation of obliterations, the work sustains a split focus upon a moment of consciousness, keeping the visible (what can be looked at, beheld as an optical phenomenon) just a step away from locking into place as the visual (what can be seen, and thus translated by the mind into an idea).

In Spencer’s work the visible always does ultimately give itself up to the visual—we will always come to see in its patterns something we will name and fit into a typology of our own or of someone else’s invention—but not right away. Her paintings enact encounters between sign systems, elemental and ornamental, allowing their comminglings as well as their tensions to work to thicken the moment of our engagement with them, at the same time and in the same breath carving out a space where, if Schuster’s perennial language does exist (the objective of the work is to join him in asking this question), it can speak itself to us.

Chris Thompson
November 2003