Ballard Fetherston Gallery, 818 Pike St, 322-9440, through Dec 2.
VERB TENSES SLAY me. I date this strange grammatical relationship back to second-year Latin, when I learned that there is no way to express an impossible wish for the future. For the past, yes: Would that I had not cheated on my husband. But for the future, anything is possible.
Tenses situate us in time, which is not as obvious a proposition as you might think. Great writers mess with their verbs all the time, using them to express regret (or desire, or culpability) that may or may not extend into the present. And there's a visual equivalent to this kind of manipulation, and it exists most prevalently in movies. I'm talking about the kind of post-Armageddon film set in a future that resembles the distant past (like Mad Max, for example), or futuristic noir, like Blade Runner, in which things we haven't yet imagined are always breaking down. The result is usually a strange sense of not knowing where you are, which makes you, I think, more receptive to the vicissitudes of narrative.
This is where you'd find the machines created in the mind of C. Blake Haygood. His drypoint monotypes are most clearly read as images of impossible machines that are also broken. Whether they're absurd plans for such machines or commemorative memento mori is hard to say, and this creates the temporal dislocation that makes his work distinctly uncomfortable.
There is also the obvious discomfort of not knowing what you're looking at. Haygood's spindly, almost delicate renderings have parts that are nearly identifiable (hoppers, shafts, belts, blades), but they're usually gutted in some way that makes them useless, with holes driven through them, or ducts that look limp and artery-like and are, often as not, severed. The viewer's place with reference to the object is also uncertain. Cables drape in and out of the frame; nuts, bolts, and pieces of slag appear to be dropping through space or sailing through it--it is another dislocating effect that Haygood's objects have ordinary weight and density, but variable and unpredictable relationships to gravity. You have no idea how far back you'd have to stand to see the whole machine and begin to understand it. The menace that permeates this work is a visual analogue of the apparatus in Kafka's In the Penal Colony, which is described with just the right combination of vagueness and specificity to make a reader shudder at what his own imagination provides.
Haygood, who came to art through a background in engineering and industrial management, seems to revel in his work's ambiguity. His titles are suggestive, more elusive than allusive. Some of the prints have titles that suggest a possible use, or uses: Keener suggests both sight and sorrow; Demountable and Nestable recalls Shawn Wolfe's Remover/Installer in the range of functions it suggests, but does not specify. Easy, Now, Easy could be a command as well as simply calming words in an anxious universe.
The works in Haygood's current show are larger and more colorful than work he's shown in the past, and include two sculptures that embody (as in "give body to") his two-dimensional work in a quite literal way. One, Floterator, is manufactured out of some kind of fire-extinguishing tool, and the other, Deliverer, looks like a suspended cage for rat experiments, with one side closed and the other boxed in. Ropes extend to and from the sculptures, some leading into holes in the gallery wall, or up to the ceiling. Deliverer's pulley system suggests a user, a kind of artist-puppeteer, hovering above it. They're very, very cool, these sculptures, and an interesting direction for an artist who's been working in the same vein for a while, but they lacked for me the mystery of the prints. Once the impossible objects are given dimensionality, they're no longer impossible, and it feels as if some of the viewer's participation, the imaginative work that is the meeting point between viewer and art, is no longer necessary; I missed it.
Haygood cites Dada as one of his inspirations, and it's easy to see why, although in a way his work is a kind of reverse-Dada, or three-step Dada: Instead of elevating common objects into art, he makes imagined objects common, and then reveals their art. His work might well be read as a critique of the Industrial Age, or perhaps as a critique in advance of how things did not work, or, to be precise, will not have worked.
It's all, you see, in the verbs.