ESSAY BY WILLIAM SARRADET
When we think of the creation of visual culture in the US, we often look west. California is responsible for much of the star-making, the personality that the world enjoys in film, tv, and sometimes is mistaken as the identity of the West as a whole. But creation is not enough. Texas’ role in the US has always been one as hub for distribution. It is a logistics powerhouse in commercial printing, shipping, broadcast technologies, and the energy sector. In the sewn esoterica of Ellen Frances Tuchman, we come to realize, that media often has two sides. Art has the power to illustrate the tension between dualities, and Tuchman uses the post-production item as a sieve through which to consider what is prime and what is unseen.
Tuchman’s studied textiles at the California College of Arts, informing the references and techniques employed in the work. Textiles, as a process, require an implement, or greater structure, to weave processed materials into patterns, as mediated by the hand. Printmaking is a similarly process-based art form, and many examples of printed materials can be found sewn, with beads, into the compositions on display at Cliff Gallery, contained within Mountain View College in Dallas, Texas.
There is no specific timeline in the work, but there is a relatively linear set of eras nonetheless. Women are not represented photographically; they are more generally printed from illustrations, spanning the nineteen-teens to the approximate current era. There are a number of lesser-known female supervillains and superheroes, printed on shiny holographic and iridescent trading cards from obscure and unpopular games. There are pulpy precursors to men’s magazines, which allege to be ‘real stories’ of sensual intrigue. Women’s visages and their bodies are often sold for the attention that they can garner, something that underwrites media as an industry.
The eponymous The B-Side Redux piece for which the show is named is modal. It consists of five interchangeable panels which can be installed in a variety of orientations. Hannah Black’s theory of astrology as a ‘relational aesthetic’-one that doesn’t dispense truth as much as it allows a vernacular for translating idioms between unique individuals-is aptly demonstrated here. The constituent referents that are applied to the surface don’t follow a single orientation, they sit next to each other at right angles, even as text is often laid on its side. Art at its apex has a multitude of readings, and Tuchman shows this by making sure that not everything in the frame can be seen ‘correctly’ in any one orientation.
Divination is the practice of putting a predetermined orthographic system through a set of rules for a single reading. Tarot cards have different meanings when pulled upside-down. Astrological birth charts position celestial objects as ‘fixed’, though we now know them to be moving bodies. A close inspection of any printed image will reveal a dot matrix, whereas a far view can contextualize its environment. Looking is often a practice of divining; understanding truth at different angles.
Who knows the origins of pagan symbols? Historians or ancestors? It depends on what one wants to know about the symbol: its meaning or its function. Tarot decks appeared in a similar timeline to the Gutenberg press, possibly brought over in some handcrafted iteration from Egypt, translated into a printed card game of the European suits of nobility. As the deck became popular in Europe, Tarot readers, or cartomancers, also came to the fore. These cartomancers, participating in translation as a trade, may have participated in the bifurcation of the deck we see in modern times: playing cards versus reading ‘Tarot' through divination. When the Gutenberg press was just warming its wheels, there would have been many different versions across the nations of France, Italy, Germany, and so on. Today, the only differences in Tarot decks are superficial; the illustrations change but the suits are always the same.
The superheroes that play out our modern myths of strength, courage, and constitution have their own timelines. Not only in their fictive worlds, but our own. Is Superman a purely postwar-American invention of a single publishing house, or does he have a deeper history? The answer to this is also contextual to whatever surface displays his copyrighted figure. This is true of any intellectual property that has been made possible by the printing technologies that bring them to our mailboxes, television sets, and now, individual LCD screens. The multiplicity of their production, through print and film, also speaks to the fight that is being waged over who gets to tell their story, the story of heroes and villains, victories and defeats. Beauty and pain.
Tuchman, it could be said, is playing cartomancer with this work. Pinning all this stuff flat, right-side-up and upside-down, making them available to be hung in various orientations, so she can read them to us in their infinite narrative potential. She is proving that these histories and heroes are not yet settled into the final cultural stalwarts that they will become, maybe generations or centuries in the future. Tuchman shows that the dealing of the commercial image inevitably produces deities.