Douglas MacWithey creates visual, performance, music and three-dimensional art from layers of words, their interconnected meanings and phonetics. His recent show at Barry Whistler Gallery comprised manuscript-like pages of words and repeating images. The same words are used in his visual, performance and musical art.
Over hand-cut and pasted typewritten texts illustrated with small, variously manipulated geometric drawings, grids, tracings and Xeroxes of shells, skulls, skeletons and star maps, he's penciled in a profusion of notes. These handwritten exegeses often metamorphose into tiny illegible textures. Only minute bits of color intrude into this world of black and white.
MacWithey's recent one-act performance, The Book of the City of Sighs, was produced by Whistler Gallery at the Club Clearview during his show. It was performed by actors Martin Rayner and Alyson Reim and directed by Doug's long-time friend and Half Price Books co-worker (and art critic), Charles Dee Mitchell--who admits even he doesn't always understand Doug's work.
The play's action and passion are the word and thought-filled creative processes of the artist at work-and the many revisions all art undergoes.
A transparent glass wall served as both canvas and proscenium. Behind it, actors pondered aloud the sense and implications of their visible-yet imaginary-art. They spoke in a staccato cadence of singular images and wrote key words backwards on the inside of the glass so the audience can read them. They also spin chairs, pour water on the floor, think, paint, sleep and dream. Once written, the words are altered, letter by letter, to reveal further tiers of meanings.
The stage area was nearly bare. Almost everything on it was either white-the back wall, most of the props, words, and the actors' clothes-or black-a microphone stand, some words, a chair and water poured onto the floor from a transparent pail. Stage right stood a 10' sculpture of unpainted wood and aluminum. It looked vaguely like a giant, angular wood snail with a curved, sheet metal shell.
Also white, liquid plaster in a mold completed by the glass wall, hardened as the play progressed and the lamina of denotations solidified in the audience's minds. Later, the actor removed the matrix and dropped the solid white cast onto the floor.
MacWithey, 34, has written and had produced three theatric productions. His first, Seventh Heaven Seventh Helping, was for the (now defunct) Manhattan Clearing House in 1979.
In 1981, while he was showing there, Pigdin English for My Little Idiot Angels was produced by the (also defunct) Carol Taylor, Art gallery, at the Greenville Avenue Theatre.
Soundtracks for the last two productions-and his Recent Music "concertizing" at the Bath House Cultural Center in 1983-featured Doug's nearly atonal singing, primitive guitar or piano playing.
Friend Tracy Hays Harris said his "melody functions the same way as [his] text, [with] notes on top of each other... deliberately patterned, one thing changing into another."
Doug claims "a sporadic, self indulgent college education." He was "essentially self-taught." He said, "I had the luxury of being able to narrow down my focus. The advantage of being self taught is what you derive is wholly yours; the disadvantage is that you have to do it on your own."
He got "enough school not to feel like a blithering idiot, but not enough to feel like I was done. [There's] always that desire to carry on." MacWithey, who attended Eastfield College in 1970-71, is now enrolled in SMU's elite MFA program.
Among literary influences, he mentioned James Joyce, Becket and Dante, in whose work he found "there's an incredible structure that continues to work on many levels." If you "take the whole thing as an object, it has a structure. As you break it down, everything works."
He quoted Joyce, who said it took him 17 years to write Finnegans Wake; he didn't see anything wrong in it taking 17 years to read.
Viewers who don't spend the time may be baffled by his unique narratives. But, MacWithey defended, "texture and obscurity are two different things... I never make things deliberately obscure." But "I may put things so the surface appears obscure. If you look at just the surface, there may be a certain-" he lapsed, finally concluding, "Nobody said it was gonna to be easy."
"The people who like the work the best are those who have the time to come back." He said his was "not that high impact, low duration art that overwhelms you visually-like fast food art."
His list of visual influences includes Duchamp, Jasper Johns, Bruce Nauman, Cy Twombly and Richard Serra. They have "no reluctance in making it more than just the object." Adding DaVinci to his list, he said, "If you see a lineage between Duchamp [and the others]... you can draw it back from Duchamp to DaVinci."
"It's like plotting a graph." At first it seems like a random group of points, but "there's a line connecting them." There were so few finished DaVincis, he said, because Leonardo was always adding new layers.
MacWithey's layers are often etymologically derived. In one sequence, the actors write 'corpse'-which has the same base as 'copse'-dead wood or underbrush.... As they spell it out, they spell out the one before the other," he said. "If you make this one connection, you can make others-and those connections are mottled and changed and colored by the ones before."
"There's a desire to not make a static object.... You want it open ended... something you can come back to; it's not an ultimate, be all.-that's a dead end, dead wood."
Doug's pieces "are in the guise of static objects just because they are posited as individual objects, but they are always part of a larger whole," he said. "If they're going to refer to each other anyway, why not use any number of ways-verbally, visually, attitudinally, geographically, etymologically...."
MacWithey suggested we "take something like the 'opticks' speech in The Book of the City of Sighs and show how it branches out into everything else." Usually, viewers must make these connections themselves.
The original 'Opticks' sequence was: "I'm quite blind in my left eye. Not quite. Blind. Cyclops." Added later: "Or perhaps cyclop. I hear thunder; maybe coup de foudre."¤- French for lightning-and love at first sight," he said.
"You go from Cyclops to cyclop." Quoting: "It is only in my head, not imagined; remembered. I would see blinking stars. Winking stars. Cyclope. The light hits my forehead."Ð Doug explained, "Cyclops and cyclone come from the same word... One of the things the Cyclops did is make lightning bolts..."
"It can take you back and forth, from actual experience, to remembered experience, to the memory of the experience, to the confusion of memory." He continued, "Cyclope is a device to see stars with, which makes the leap [in logic] not so long a leap." Reading: "I bruise my eye. My eyes shine. The light it lessens. The lightening, its lessons."
It is, he said, "a literary device... In this case it becomes less foreshadowing than certain insistence." He described the meanings in his works as "things that spiral instead of [just] being level over level."
"Trace, draw it like it was three-dimensional, label or mislabel, place things next to a drawing or representation. Even if they seem slight at the time, they incredibly alter how you have to deal with that image." It is "cut from the same cloth, but becomes something different."
"The whole thing about being a treatise on drawing, on replication, on representation, is about how you derive an image. You always end up with an incomplete thing."
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