Ben Rutter, Jan Estep: Ad Infinitum, The Optimist and the Skeptic, exhibition brochure (New York: Art in General, 2005). Brochure published in conjunction with Artist in Residence Exhibition, March 5 – April 2, 2005, Art in General, 79 Walker Street, New York, New York 10013.
and there is a quietly national quality to her work. American art was governed in the nineteenth century by an interest in the landscape. More recently, it bears witness to an interest in concepts. Estep’s art inherits each of these concerns — the claims of the land, and the life of the mind. What is refreshing in her efforts is the sense, never insistent, that these opposing endowments might be reconciled. In yoking aesthetic and scientific naturalism to an interest in conceptual art, Estep seems to pose a question. Can the life of the mind come to be at home in the world?
The artist’s interest in the relationship of landscape and intellect took shape in an early series on the exploration of Antarctica. Certain of these works elaborate the physical facts of expedition. Estep, who shares a cartographic flair with many of her peers, retraces survey routes and recasts a topo map in ice blue polar fleece. Other pieces, one of which cuts a gnomic query into frosted glass, recross the continent in words and thoughts. Language attains materiality here, as it does in the work produced during Estep’s residency. For a month in March 2005, a poem composed of place names drew a quiet horizon across a gallery wall. Adjacent to it, the definition of the word “skeptic” was stitched on linen, as if the stubbled words were there for hands to read. The same friction of ideas and things — Estep admires Joseph Kosuth — was felt on a greater scale in Ad Infinitum, the dense yet engaging video project she presented at Art In General.
Though it has a casual, unstudied attitude, not unlike the artist herself, the work is neatly scaffolded by interludes and acts, and by the firm frame of allegory. Act I opens as two figures, an Optimist and a Skeptic, work their way across the landscape into view. When they begin to speak, or begin again, it is the Skeptic (played by Estep) who compels us. Dispraising her partner’s idle faith, she resigns herself to a life of doubt-to the labor, in Hegel’s phrase, of the negative. For a moment, rigor enjoys its fractious triumph over hope. Then the walkers move off, lapsing into silence, and we are left with the pressure of their thoughts. Act II, unfolding on some later day, compensates the Optimist, who now presses his opponent along two lines. The first of these involves a classic sleight: in claiming to know that nothing is knowable, the Skeptic falls foul of her own rule. The second, more substantial charge is that while we await the reasons that will justify our deeds, life continues unabated. Hamlet came to see this problem clearly, though not in time, and the Skeptic must acknowledge it as well. For despite her sour estimates, her own restive search for answers betrays a simple faith that such answers do exist. In this deft exchange, Estep regrounds the intellect in its own animal pursuits, theory in the instincts of its practice.
Taken by itself, of course, this is a wisdom perfectly at home in books. (Indeed, an edition of the script will be published as an artist’s book.) Estep’s achievement, however, is to have brought these ideas quite literally down to earth. There is nothing in the nature of the philosophic dialogue that ties it to a certain place. A bar? A glen? The philosopher George Santayana titled his own experiment with the genre Dialogues in Limbo, and it is here-that is, nowhere-that Beckett’s clowns meet and wait. But it was Plato who brought the form its fame, and Plato’s thinkers always pause to set the scene. Estep does as well. Though we do not learn its name, the spare and corrugated landscape invokes the American west of John Marin and John Ford. Here is a habitat for the intellect, and one well-suited to its nature. The foremost American philosopher of the 20th century was a Harvard logician by the name of Willard Van Orman Quine. Philosophers are minimalists by temperament, and Quine famously avowed “a taste for desert landscapes” in his work.* Estep, an ex-philosopher herself, discerns in the desert (as in its antonym, the tundra) this philosophic quality. As the interlocutors disappear again into the wash, we note the fit between the abstraction of their talk and the abstraction of the terrain.
But if the desert is a fitting scrim for thought, as Estep sees, the deeper point is that the landscape itself joins the debate. This happens subtly. For several minutes before the hikers appear, the camera studies the scene. A twisted stump abruptly fills the frame, contrasting with the pleasant trade of birdsong overhead; then there is a hectic hill of ants; and then the desert once again. When the Optimist affirms, at the outset of the dialogue, the Leibnizian view that the present world is indeed the best one possible, he offers up as evidence (as had Church and Bierstadt before him) the beauty of the land itself. In this gesture, things are converted neatly into thoughts; the ants, or their idea, march into the argument.
The skeptic, of course, is unconvinced. The desert remains xeric and unadorned, and as the video runs its loop, and the walkers retrace their steps, a sense of confinement may set in. (The title of the piece is a minor triumph, by the way; while most videos loop for the convenience of gallery staff, Estep’s does so because it must.) There is no reason, however, why this recursion to the same terrain must be felt as an imprisonment. For the Optimist, who calmly peels an orange as the Skeptic asks “where are we going?”, the endless circuit of their travels is the very image of reconciliation, of what it is to find oneself at home in a given form of life. And it is this possibility, again, that is Estep’s great subject. In her polar work, concept and landscape interact only coolly. Wandering across the American west, however, Estep seems to feel more urgently the wish for resolution. To achieve this, to reconcile the intellect to the land in which it lives, would be to reunite two great traditions of American art. Perhaps if this were possible, it would be easier for all of us to find ourselves at home here.
Ben Rutter is a PhD candidate in aesthetic philosophy at Northwestern University. His thesis reconstructs Hegel’s aesthetic theory.
* From the 1948 essay “On What There Is,” reprinted in From a Logical Point of View (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1953), 3.