Keith Tilford James Harris Gallery
309A Third Ave S, 903-6220
Through June 12.

You see a lot
of things when you look into a Keith Tilford drawing, and those things are hard to name. The drawings are made up of tiny little components or elements, akin to atoms or building blocks or other variations on the smallest possible unit, so that each is a drawing not only of a subject (Tilford favors faces and mouths and books) but also of all these little elements that frenetically compose it; looking deeply into the work you might see shapes that at times resemble writhing figures out of a Bosch painting, and others wispier and flightier, like Jules Feiffer's deeply self-serious dancers. There are squares and rectangles, floppy curlicues, letters, sentence fragments, symbols for molecules, the molecules themselves. There is an appearance of randomness but a very distinct feeling of deliberation and control, as though the portraits and mouths and books had materialized not out of chaos, but out of something that only appears chaotic, like chaos theory.

These elements have distinct personalities and attributes, in some areas adhering to a system of perpendiculars and x- and y-axes and then devolving--over the course of a single drawing, even--to something more elastic and unstable. This is why it's also possible to see the images as being degraded, rather than constructed, by the elements, as though these elements were in constant motion and beginning to fly away at the edges. The effect of looking at Tilford's drawings is one of very calculated push and pull, what you get up close and what you get when you step back. It's more than a trick. Although a few of them--one of a cluster of toothy mouths, assembled into a face in the patchwork manner of Arcimboldo--have the air of a stoner infinity doodle, projecting a kind of basic acid-flash revelation about how things are made up of other things, most others hold on to this instability, an animating tension that stems from uncertainty about the elements--about their behavior, their structure, and, ultimately, their meaning.

Plenty of artists deal in abstracted or recontextualized information--Jason Salavon, with his shoe-sales figures turned into galaxies of lights, Lisa Liedgren's moon map spanning the length of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman's marriage--and Tilford's current installation, with black lines zipping from drawing to drawing, has a very inside-the-computer feel, although it would likely be a computer from some previous era. These lines suggest levels of data, but in a faintly quaint punch-card kind of way; some lines connect a larger drawing with what seem to be specimens from it, as seen under a microscope, complete with tiny creatures and their lashing, whiplike tails. This may be a meditation on systems and information, and it is appropriately complex and obsessive, but it is all done by hand, in some ways more like a devotional monkish illumination than digital investigation. Even the sculptural element of this installation--piles and piles of black zip ties formed into clusters--suggests nothing so much as the tumbleweeds of old technology, drifting across plains of unclaimed facts.

The installation doesn't entirely come together, as in the portrait of mouths, and a large open book from which a cryptic language rises off the page in a Harry Potterish way. These seem too simple for whatever it is that Tilford's driving at, something about language and its function, which proves itself most neatly and powerfully in his portraits (which are counterintuitively blank and not terribly portraity). I don't think it's an accident that he comes back again and again to mouths and books. Both refer to the production of language; the reception of language, and its decoding, become the responsibility of the viewer. The words and phrases that appear as part of the tangle of images--"stripmined," "after all is unsaid and done," "nothing but the thing," "cut in tin cut/ink cup/in cup/cutting"--provide an aura of wordplay that, like Roy McMakin's, is both gentle and deliberate, ruminative and nonsensical. That you can't figure out Tilford's systems--why some things are made of one thing, and others are made of others, even what those things are--is part of his complicated game.