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The Project X Files : A Clever and Complex Group Effort in ‘After Pierre Menard’ Plays Up the Politics of Data Gathering

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Project X is back, in rare form, at Chapman University’s Guggenheim Gallery. This loose confederation of artists, which exhibited locally at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton in 1993, is showing a group of works with a central theme: the impossibility of collecting information without having some kind of agenda.

The title of this delightfully rarefied exhibition curated by Project X artist Stephen Berens--"After Pierre Menard"--comes from “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” by Argentine fabulist writer Jorge Luis Borges.

In Borges’ short, ironic piece of fiction, Menard is described by a narrator as a recently deceased man of letters who had been trying to write the 17th century novel “Don Quixote.” No matter that Cervantes already wrote it; Menard intended to make it his own without changing a single word. The narrator then embarks on a serious discussion of the differences between Cervantes’ book and Menard’s manuscript.

This improbable narrative has a counterpart in real life, in the sense that our understanding of any body of information is colored by social and cultural influences that shaped it.

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The artists in this show--David Bunn, Meg Cranston, Dave Muller, Mitchell Syrop and Jero^me Saint-Loubert Ble--play with this concept by constructing idiosyncratic little universes from information organized by others. Bunn is the poet of the group; Cranston, the researcher; Muller, the summarizer; Syrop, the cataloger; Ble, the documentarian.

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Bunn, whose installation “Of Color” was exhibited at Newport Harbor Art Museum in 1991, assembles piquant poems from titles found in the card catalog at the Los Angeles Central Library.

Displayed in their original order, the cards demonstrate the simultaneously temporal, random and culturally determined qualities of a library collection. Snowy white or weathered to various shades of yellow, the cards are visual records of the library’s history of book collecting, guided by the tastes and needs of generations of librarians and readers.

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The titles themselves reflect another, intersecting set of influences: widespread attitudes about particular topics, specific writers’ interests and publishers’ efforts at book marketing. When Bunn looked up the word “girls,” for example, he found a preponderance of books titled “Girls and Boys.” A close runner-up: “Girls and Sex.”

The poetry that Bunn finds in these titles is filled with surprising yet oddly meaningful juxtapositions. The shortest and most wryly exquisite poem in the series, “You Are a Consumer,” reads in its entirety: “You are a consumer / You are a data processor / You are a rainbow.”

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Cranston’s work also reflects generally unacknowledged values that are reflected in library holdings. She researched the number and physical bulk of books about certain individuals contained in the University of California library system.

Rather than draw a sober bar graph to illustrate her findings, she visualized each person’s “book mass” as an irregular, sculptural form in a different color. In these drawings--and a three-dimensional installation--she flaunts her one-shot image of these people as one more variable in the complex of cultural reasons why libraries devote more space to one famous person than to another.

Cranston’s installation, “Who’s Who by Size: University of California Sample,” consists of slipcovered blocks in various heights. They represent the relative amount of information in the library system about such wildly disparate individuals as Santa Claus (covered in red velvet trimmed with white fake fur), inventor Nikola Tesla (black-and-white striped plastic), chess master Boris Spassky (novelty fabric in a vaguely Russian Constructivist square pattern) and activist Angela Davis (red wool).

Strangely, Irish patriot C.S. Parnell (whose block is upholstered in cheesy green plush, as if Cranston doesn’t quite trust his value as a freedom fighter) turns out to have had much more written about him than any of the others.

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While these artists use library systems as their data bank, Syrop’s raw material is old yearbook pictures. He scans them into a computer and laser-prints them to achieve as much tonal and spatial uniformity as possible, then arranges them on aluminum grids according to common traits.

The sets include a group of bearded Caucasian boys who wear various kinds of ties, a group of smiling Asian girls and a trio of square-jawed blond girls with large-framed glasses.

Although the overall similarities are immediately apparent, the subtle differences (whether in hairstyles or types of smiles) are what animate each sequence.

By choosing vintage photos (most appear to date from the 1970s), Syrop more easily allows us to focus on stylistic distinctions. As if bearing out the notion that there are only “six degrees of separation” between every person on the planet, the faces seem to morph into one another uncannily.

Muller’s hand-painted, one-of-a-kind art posters play with yet another set of data: the styles of contemporary Los Angeles artists. Some of Muller’s works are evocative in a straightforward way (a painting of a loose-knit “weave” of film strips alludes to the work of Carter Potter), while others abstract or tweak artists’ imagery. (By adding cartoon-like “highlights” and a few black dots, Muller turns painter Monique Prieto’s flat biomorphic shapes into whimsical, ‘30s-era salt and pepper shakers.)

Unfortunately, the scattered display of Muller’s work--presumably intended to highlight the way it abstracts bits and pieces of other people’s art--makes it hard to grasp, even with the guidance of an indispensable photocopied essay by art writer Andrew Perchuk.

Ble’s contribution to the show is enveloping yet far more interesting as a concept--particularly, as an elegant interpretation of the Borges story--than as a viewable piece. It consists of small black-and-white reproductions of 244 works of art, scissored out of the 1959 catalog of the collection of the Solomon M. Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Ble choose the Guggenheim because Chapman’s gallery was named after donor Robert Guggenheim Jr., a grandson of one of Solomon’s brothers. Ble’s conceit is to turn the university gallery into the famous modern-art institution by mounting the photographs on the walls in a spiral formation imitating the museum’s design.

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While the actual catalog (also on display) groups the art by medium and by artist, according to long-established practice, Ble displays the photographs according to the date the works of art became part of the Guggenheim museum collection. This peculiar and unhelpful arrangement points up the artificiality of any ordering system.

The cut-up catalogs, with their interchangeable empty rectangles accompanied by snippets of biographical information, offer another culturally jarring way of viewing the collection--as if the individuality of a work of art were somehow irrelevant.

Ultimately, Ble’s re-creation of the Guggenheim museum is as quixotic and as peculiarly original as Menard’s “Quixote"--a fitting signature piece for a show consumed by the idea that any group of facts is really a fiction.

* “After Pierre Menard,” through March 5 at Guggenheim Gallery, Chapman University, 333 N. Glassell St., Orange. Hours: Noon-5 p.m. Monday-Friday; 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday. Free. (714) 997-6729.


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