by Jeffrey Hoffield
New York City, February - March 2006
5 x 9" with seventeen full color prints
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. is described on the National Park Service website as “a place where everyone, regardless of opinion, can come together and remember and honor those who served.” Its purpose, we are told, is “to separate the issues of the sacrifices of the veterans from the U.S. policy in the war, thereby creating a venue for reconciliation.” To facilitate reconciliation, separating “the issue of the sacrifice” from any controversy that may arise over foreign policy, the website itself conveniently omits any mention of the 58,191 names of the dead and missing inscribed in the Wall.
Elise Engler is not one to let us off so easily. Her Tax-Onomies record, among other eye-opening subjects, a total of nearly 15,000 dead, so far, in the war in Iraq: 12,000 faceless Arab civilians, the “collateral damage” of the war, as well as 2,500 ill-fated members of the “coalition of the willing,” shrouded in their respective national flags.
Prior to her current preoccupation as self-appointed chief bean counter of the General Accounting Office, tracking where our tax dollars go, Engler assumed the role of cultural anthropologist: gathering and classifying people’s belongings, including her own, as if she were a fieldworker, under the direction of Claude Levi-Strauss, inventorying the makings of a record breaking potlatch. Everything I Own (2001) is an inventory, in color pencil drawings, of Engler’s own worldly possessions—all 13,127 of them. The Everything in Her Bag Series (1999), drawings of the entire contents of women’s pocketbooks, reveals, in Sophie Calle-like fashion, minus the element of snooping without permission, the astounding quantity and diversity of paraphernalia women carry around with them each day. Engler calls these “mini-biographies.”
The origins and development of writing and picture-making are closely tied to taking stock. Inventories of cattle, foodstuffs, and other property subject to commercial transactions are among the earliest evidence we have of efforts to record, in pictures and words, material goods. The Sumerians, in Iraq, and the Elamites, in Iran, nearly five millennia ago, made simple pictographs in clay tablets to record such things; these images evolved, over time, into a written language of cuneiform signs. Engler’s long, narrow drawing panels, containing row after row of images, many of which are nearly identical, have strong resemblances to these ancient bookkeeping tablets. Her device of creating narrative through juxtaposition and scale recalls the picto-hieroglyphic language of ancient shallow relief sculpture.
More contemporary sources also appear to have left a mark on Engler’s work. The whimsy and playfulness of Oyvind Fahlstrom’s remarkable drawings surely come to mind as one rich source of creative nourishment. Magritte is another artist who is recalled here, both for his use of repetition, and his knack for convincing us of the physical ability objects and people to be suspended in mid-air: floating men and clouds and crescent moons and baguettes. The scale of people and things in Saul Steinberg’s world, as well as the rubber stamps he employed, are surely strong influences for Engler, as is the populous, color-bathed universe of Florine Stettheimer.
Much of the history of art is comprised of the efforts of artists to capture a world teeming with people and things. This is as evident in the dry goods stacked in the windows of Walker Evans’ storefronts, as it is in the ancient stele of Mesopotamia. Abundance is celebrated; on occasions it is the subject of derision. Material riches are simultaneously festive and foreboding. I’m thinking here, for example, of the lush fruits and vegetables used by Carlo Crivelli in several of his paintings of the Virgin and Child. On one level the pickle/zucchini forms and bulbous fruit are metaphors for the concealed body parts of both the Virgin and Child. These foodstuffs are also evidence of the redemption, renewal, and vitality ushered in by the Holy Family. Fresh fruit—reminders of the forbidden nibbling in the Garden of Eden. However, there is also an undercurrent here, in the midst of all of the splendor and fecundity: our knowledge of what lies ahead.
The dark side of plenitude is one of the more pervasive and striking aspects of Elise Engler’s drawings. As ombudsman, we expect her to knock some sense into us, and make us face the facts of how our tax dollars are squandered on killing, over-outfitting virology labs, or supplying the Defense Department with daisy cutters. Her outpouring of images--the sheer wastefulness of resources, human and material--is nauseating. However, the effects of her investigations are no less disturbing in the face of far more innocent inventories, be they collections of chairs, the contents of refrigerators, women’s handbags, or all the stuff kept in the family car. Individual responses to excess obviously vary.
On a visit, in 1950, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Hemingway identified a Breughel as one of his all-time favorite paintings. He remarked to Lillian Ross that “It’s the great one, the harvesters. It is a lot of people cutting grain, but he uses the grain geometrically, to make an emotion that is so strong for me that I can hardly take it.” Faced with the richness of the harvest itself, the weary harvesters, and the luxurious mood of restfulness and abandon, setting aside their labors, the painting apparently triggered something in Hemingway that could not be anticipated.
In his memoir of life on a New Hampshire farm, String Too Short to be Saved, the poet, Donald Hall, describes the relationship between repeated motions (those associated with harvesting) and one’s personal knowledge of death. The perpetual motion associated with the harvesting suggests endlessness, perpetuity, at odds with one’s personal elegiac sense of doom and end. As Hall says, these two feelings “contradicted each other, but lived together like old brothers who had not spoken for forty years.” Perhaps it’s something along these lines that Hemingway was reacting to in the Breughel painting. It is this aspect of bountifulness in Engler’s work, coupled with the deceptively straightforward manner of its execution, that I find unsettling and disquieting.
On my first visit to her studio, I asked Engler if she knew the writings of Borges. She hadn’t read him. I encouraged her to. I had in mind, in particular, the story about Funes, the Memorious. I find it particularly well-suited to her sensibility, particularly as regards her obsessive preoccupation with descriptive detail and her means of clustering and otherwise grouping related objects. Marveling at Funes’ astounding memory, the narrator reports that “he knew by heart the forms of the southern clouds at dawn on the 30th of April, 1882, and could compare them in his memory with the mottled streaks on a book in Spanish binding he had only seen once and with the outlines of the foam raised by an oar in the Rio Negro the night before the Quebracho uprising.” Funes was also sensitive to the dark side of the material world. As in Elise Engler’s Tax-Onomies, Funes was able to “continuously discern the tranquil advances of corruption, of decay, of fatigue.”