by Evan Moffitt
Published in Issue 2 of Foundations, April 2015
Theresa Eipeldauer speaks a familiar yet indecipherable language. There is certain comfort in her abstracted gestures, her curling calligraphic brushstrokes, her hard and sculptural angles. It’s high expressionism without any of the messy bravado.
I must confess: I have a love-hate relationship with semiotics. Perhaps I was told too many times in school that everything in this visual world stands for something, that all images are really just symbols—symbols that some people can read and others can only ponder. But then there are those unmistakable moments when I know I’m looking at language struggling to make sense of itself. Those new desktop icons, foreign street signs, strange advertising logos, and scrawled handwritten notes all must have meaning. Theresa Eipeldauer’s work speaks to me because it embodies this ambivalence. With a wide variety of media—painting, drawing, lithography, sculpture—Eipeldauer revels in the clarities and confusions of human language.
In her series Errata, a grouping of four prints clearly illustrates this linguistic ambivalence. In the first, each letter of the series’ title is printed over the other, so as to become almost totally illegible—the eye makes out the curling serif of an “a”, the base of a slender “t”, and the horizontal edge of an “e”, but little more. In the other three prints, the compressed word has been stretched out into groupings of two letters: er-ra-ta. The Latin word means “errors in printing or writing”, and the work looks as if Eipeldauer forgot to hit the spacebar on a giant typewriter. Formally and conceptually errata are endemic to her work. The entire series suggests that we cannot always trust our eyes to adequately translate images into ideas. Some languages cannot be put into words, and our brains become stubborn typewriters trying to understand them, hammering away at the same old keys, getting nowhere.
Language, insofar as its realized form (in writing or speech) consists of combinations from a limitless set, indicates both a presence and an absence. It presents a series of ideas through symbolic representation, while at the same time it denotes what has not or cannot be expressed. In the exhibition statement for her series “Inside Corner”, Eipeldauer acknowledges this notion of absence as her starting point: writing, for her, is “a reduced form of a block by which a rhythm is produced.” By reducing the set of formal possibilities to a simple set of abstract shapes, Eipeldauer creates a visual rhythm, a new system capable of serial repetition.
Eipeldauer’s printmaking is the perfect expression of this process. Artists created the first prints by carving wooden blocks and reducing their cubic mass. Although woodblocks were inscribed with the individual traces of their carvers, the prints these blocks produced were not direct effects of the artist’s hands but translations of them, infused with ink transferred onto paper. Nearly all of Eipeldauer’s works are translations, some faltering like Errata. By working in the print medium, she ensures that her original contact with the transfer sheet is reduced to a bare minimum in the finished work; at the same time, her prints are all editions of one, preserving the privileged notion of artistic authenticity and uniqueness.
Like her prints, Eipeldauer’s drawings challenge notions of the individual and the collective, of authenticity and seriality. Her drawings are hung like her prints, on glossy paper pinned at their top corners to the wall (allowing the bottom to curl upwards). From afar, they appear to be prints themselves. Dark linear “strokes” meeting in hard geometric angles are fine yet painstakingly straight, as if Eipeldauer dragged a wide brush across the paper. Each fine grain is in fact a line in graphite, made with a perfectly steady and anonymous hand, producing a delicate, minimalist geometric abstraction. The suggestion of quick expressionistic brushwork gives way to a methodical process of precise and repetitious gestures.
By purging her work of personal traces, and by repeating these “anonymous” forms, Eipeldauer offers viewers an honest look at language, both verbal and visual. Through the words and symbols she employs, the speaker or artist expresses not herself (as conventional wisdom would have it) but the referents to which her language refers, serving as a mouthpiece for a complex system of communication rather than as its originator. In the context of creative expression, this challenges widely-held notions of artistic mastery and genius, most often claimed by men. Eipeldauer’s painting series RGM, which recalls the postwar school of abstract expressionism dominated by male painters, brilliantly resists such masculinist posturing.
It may seem like a stretch to call Eipeldauer a feminist artist, but her configurations resist hegemony from every angle. A sculpture from Inside Corner, for instance, appears at a distance to be a pair of elegant white pillars. Up close, though, they are little more than paper rolls, filled with air and held together at their base by a modest wooden frame. The pedestal, that phallic fixture of masculine and institutional power, is revealed as a flimsy construction.
RGM interests me because it addresses such conventions through a highly traditional medium, Her paintings are beautiful all at once by their simplicity and their intricacy. Small gestures much like handwriting cover each canvas in a dense field, again introducing the serial, repetitious rhythms of Eipeldauer’s visual language. Colors transition seamlessly from black to gray, green to tan, pink to white. These gradations in shade are literal and metaphorical shifts in tone. As the eye scans the paintings, their moods swing: dark to light, opaque to translucent, brooding to balletic.
In a formal sense, Eipeldauer’s gestures loosely resemble the looping babble of Cy Twombly’s Roman Letters, or the abstracted calligraphy of Brice Marden’s Chinese Dancing. But hers have an unmistakable cohesion that the others (perhaps intentionally) lack—each form is bonded to the next, creating a unified picture plane and a supple chromatic gradient. This gradient reflects another characteristic of Eipeldauer’s work: what appears solid from afar dissolves into discontinuity, and what appears discontinuous up close merges into a harmonious whole. Such a reading recalls the theories of Clement Greenberg, whose forsworn fealty to the flatness of the picture plane and the medium-specificity of painting corralled the creativity of countless postwar painters. But just as soon as Eipeldauer’s paintings hint at this self-aware flatness, they swell with depth. Like the paper columns, the image here unfolds itself in an intricate spatial dialectic with the viewer—providing different images from different angles and distances. It embraces the subjectivity of the viewer and rejects the supremacy of the master artist.
To return to language for a moment, such a spatial dialectic reflects our individual relationship with voice. Between the one who speaks and the one who is spoken to, communicated meaning is highly determined by each subject’s physical and social positioning. Language—on a page or a tongue—cannot be treated as objective.
Eipeldauer never makes such a claim to objectivity. Her art is highly reactive. The flat planes of her paintings unfold layers of depth. The expressive marks of her drawings and prints calcify into repetitive rhythms. I know somehow that it is all trying to speak to me: if not an explicit message, then about its condition of indecipherability. Yet Eipeldauer’s work embraces this condition. It lingers in the shadows of Babel’s ruin.