Critical Reflections: Thomas Ashcraft: Codices: Heliotown

Center for Contemporary Arts, Muñoz Waxman Gallery<br /> 1050 Old Pecos Trail, Santa Fe

Date July 31, 2008 at 10:00 PM

Publication THE magazine

Categories Performing Arts


Thomas Ashcraft's Heliotown is best experienced alone. The outer corridor is fashioned in such a way as to subtly suggest that you adopt an attentive attitude before entering through the fluttering curtain, and once inside you experience a space devoid of daylight. This twilight atmosphere, plus the old wooden chests and poles that flank the entryway, might initially suggest that you have stumbled on the remnants of a past civilization, the bits and pieces of a leftover world. But then, little by little, cabinets of curiosities; desktop displays, and diorama-like chambers housing improbable assemblages cause an inexplicable, slow pleasure to seep into you-they invite speculation. Ashcraft has repeatedly positioned both ordinary and unordinary objects in various contexts and presented them as inscrutable curiosities, thus you have no choice but to feel cheerfully inquisitive as you begin a leisurely stroll, circling the large exhibition space. The failure to sufficiently notice objects with fresh vision is felt acutely; rather, beginning right here in this room, things are out there just waiting to be noticed, carefully and patiently, and here's the man to help you rise to the occasion. This is a tinkerer's domain, after all, a space devoted to assemblages that subsume former distinctions between the so-called exotic and the so-called mundane. Displays and dioramas, punctuated here and there with potted snapdragons-all have a look of being individually cobbled together, suspended in individual moments. They blurt out of nowhere and then let the assembled force of their intrinsic reconfigurating powers blossom in the individual psyche that bumps into them. Ashcraft seems to read the world of form according to scientific theories, straight from the book, and then enhances his reading with certain homemade theories. Finally, he obliquely hints at his hunches, inviting the viewer to extrapolate and embellish, to go further in any number of directions.

Heliotown is an oddly still place, but infused with the luminous presence of the constant sound of dust particles floating through the air, ambient sound that suggests unceasing motion and perpetual rhythm at the same time, motion that communicates and inexplicably induces a stirring calm. This world in here"€¦ that world out there"€¦ a past and a future that was already past a long time ago-none of this may be all that grand and amazing at all, but looked at carefully, stitch by stitch, more things come into focus. They obliquely intersect and slice into each other and glitter with a modest allure, particularly when you note repeated and modified presences of an object in different contexts.

The cast of viruses, bacteria, strings of atoms-reproduced as static physical models and in one instance a magnified loop of an amoeba's continuous movement, projected on the wall-suggests the intersections between humankind and the infinitude of other beings that inhabit both the body of man and the greater outer space. In the center of the room is a grid of five hundred adobe bricks, a kind of launching pad for a single model of a bacteriophagic virus, replete with a kind of "stinger"€ that descends below. It has its own spotlight. We think that we can domesticate and control phenomena, and of course, to some extent we can, but then you look at the fast and furious life of a bacterium, and you begin to wonder"€¦ that is, about the nature of the intent, rather than the ability, as ability is essentially an afterthought, less fertile ground.

Elements such as track ties, wooden chests, potted snapdragons, bamboo antennae, exquisitely hand-casted coins-all of these stand as evidence for participating in quotidian, homely activities. We can't escape this. No matter what kinds of devastation or degradation or transcendent phenomena transpire, we will always have the hands-on human touch, the mind that at the very least observes and commits physical acts that are grounded in material form. Of course we could manage without Elmer's Glue and thumbtacks and plug adaptors and electrical tape, but why would we? The farther out you go in space, the more you get pulled back in. Thomas Ashcraft, master fabricator (he bears the credentials of toolmaker, woodworker, and currency designer in his repertoire of manual skills), has explored the poetry of existence and has illustrated how we transact that poetry by fashioning little men, tiny alert dreamers, sprinkled here and there throughout the various assemblages, all in the posture of observation. They are a kind of Everyman, patiently and carefully paying attention to phenomena. I too felt myself to be a kind of lucid dreamer, wandering around in there, a phantom in a phantom landscape, a casual one of many. Silhouettes of mystery abound, suggestive yet so inexplicit. One feels like asking questions ahead of their time.