You Are in Montana
Ruth Marie Tomlinson's Mountains and Postcards
It's in a small enclosed room steps away from the traffic of Roosevelt Way, with one brick wall, two long cloudy windows, and a dumb thin black carpet laid down in squares. I've been to this place before: It's a gallery, the Jack Straw New Media Gallery, and a couple of months ago it gained a glassy lobby—you used to have to ring a doorbell then walk down a dim hallway to enter it, which could not have been a less fortuitous beginning. When the gallery door closes behind me this time, I have traveled someplace new. There are sounds: empty playground swings clanging against metal poles, a female voice reading weather conditions ("cloudless, windless"), distant thunder and dripping rain. A continuous line of white pins along the white walls outlines a mountain range, ringing me into a valley. In the center there's a low long table that glows. It has white branches sprouting out from under it like bleached antlers. A vascular system of the same branch shapes cut out of paper rests on the glowing surface of the table; any wind would blow it off. Cloudless, windless. I'm already someplace else, but when am I? Postcards tell me. Postcards with numbers on them are arranged on a continuous low shelf around the room, several feet below the white line of the mountains. Each one has three numbers painted on its front: 6.03, 6.17, 8.12, 7.22...
I am in summer. Maybe because numbers promise information, and this room feels like a place I've been dropped off at the tail desert end of a bus line, and I feel like I have to piece together a plan, I decide—no one's looking; the door is closed, the gallery attendant far away and forgotten—to pick up a postcard. (When I later find out this was allowed, I'll feel both disappointed and relieved.) On the back there's handwriting in ink by the artist. She's describing her summer days and a love affair. The love affair is with this place: Two Dot, Montana. Her lover is always leaving. "I keep gathering these images in words and lines to sustain me through winter," she writes. The words and lines describe trees, cattle, birds, "afternoon, the insect hours." She's a nice, spare writer. "And there it is at 5:33, that lucky old ball of fire blasting over the horizon; a sliver to round in less than a minute." Two Dot is not always in her good graces. "Gun shots in Two Dot and I don't like my town very much right now." A high hum like the sustained end of an amen comes over the speakers. I notice that on one wall there's a mysterious rectangle of light as if a window were letting in sun, but there's no corresponding window. I think it must be a light program, a multimedia ghost the artist made to remember the sun in Montana. She lives in Seattle the rest of the year. Her name is Ruth Marie Tomlinson. She's been making art and teaching at Cornish College of the Arts for a long time; her way is unshowy and relaxed.
I recognize Tomlinson's postcards immediately, from the fact that a few summers ago, she put me on her mailing list and sent me a few of them with the numbers painted on the fronts. I didn't know what she was doing, but I liked them. They're in the manner of On Kawara, the Japanese conceptual artist who's been living in New York City and making date paintings every day for decades, just to say he's here. Kawara's paintings are more uniform: every day the same font, same size, as close to impersonal prints as paintings can get. Tomlinson's want witnesses who love looking at paintings. She uses a basic font to unify them all, but she also introduces variation into the theme by painting the numbers lighter or darker and leaning more or less to the side, as if they were the shadows cast by sundials. To achieve this effect, Tomlinson paints multiple layers, from dark black to washy brown. (Her materials are ink and coffee, it turns out.) Each date is a landscape, temporary, recorded. Was it hot and bright out when the ink is dark and the letters stand straight up? Was the light weak and rain coming when the number is falling over, made only of thin coffee? I have never been to Montana. I'm gazing like a fool at the light on this wall. I'm totally ready to fall in love with the lying heart of this place.