Elizabeth Dove's It Started With Aardvark is not a particularly friendly exhibit, though its title has the sweet ring of a children's abecedarium. It's not even alluring in the delightfully creepy way of Edward Gorey's The Gashlycrumb Tinies, since Gorey's A-B-C collection, though told through a ghastly litany of children's untimely deaths, still provides an easy-to-follow structure. Dove's rendering of the alphabet, currently on display at the Missoula Art Museum, requires an understanding of her artmaking process to really appreciate. And it's worth the patience it requires.
Aardvark features 26 screenprinted works, each representing a letter of the alphabet. What sounds simple at first looks much wilder in execution. Each work is created from hundreds of illustrations layered in a chaotic knot of black lines and swirls. The illustrations comprise all 3,000 or so images in Dove's 1966 Webster's New International dictionary. For the letter A, there are 130 pictures compressed on top of each other. For S, there are 392. Depending on the way the layers work together, you can make out a handful of the images, but beyond that, it's like staring into the Tasmanian Devil's tornado. Trying to decipher the images, the tangle of language and meaning, is the point.
The story behind It Started with Aardvark begins in early 2001, when Dove, now a printmaking and photography professor at the University of Montana, lost a family member to an accidental death and then, months later, mourned the 9/11 attacks with the rest of the country.
"I was in this state of confusion, of grieving and groundlessness," she says. "I'm not a religious person, and I think when you are, at times like these, you turn to the Bible. But I turned to the dictionary."
With a sharp pair of hair-cutting scissors, she began cutting out every single letter on each page, as if the dogged act of doing so would somehow bring her out of the darkness.
"I knew this was absurd," she says. "I didn't literally think I was going to find an answer in there. It was an act of destruction and defiance, but also an act of digestion, where I thought, maybe if I read every one of these words and understood them, then I would have an answer for all these complicated questions."
The piles of tiny letters became material for sculptures and collages
- It Started With Aardvark features close to 3,000 layered images from Webster’s dictionary, including all the illustrations for the letter B, top, and the letter Y, bottom.
"It's like this text dust," she says. "It's rather gorgeous. It doesn't look like you've destroyed information so much as it's a puzzle, as if, if you'd just put it back together you'd have an answer."
Besides the letters, Dove cut out the thousands of illustrations, which she set aside without thinking much about them. A few years later, when she returned her attention to them, it struck her that the illustrations provided a commentary on language and its shortcomings. It could take more than words to convey meaning.
"I thought, 'Well that's curious—a limit to language!'" she says. "And that began my fascination with the images."
It took Dove three years to create Aardvark, working between teaching classes and other art projects. She printed each image and layered it with a glossy liquid to give it a shiny surface. She also applied cornstarch to the ink, which raised the ink slightly off the paper. That effect allows the viewer to see the image as a series of layers. Dove wanted to make sure that the hours of work—the laborious nature of it—were visible in the pieces.
"The way the ink is layered is like sediment, and that refers to the passing of time," she says. "I hope that there is a sense of something happening in increments. This didn't happen all at once."
Aardvark is not about artistic skill (though it requires it). It's a mechanical endeavor.
"Once I developed the process, I was very loyal to it," Dove says. "I was like a machine."
What makes the work worth a viewer's attention, despite its difficulty, is that some of the pictures can be recognized and identified, and finding them becomes a kind of reward. With "C," for instance, it's easy to see the illustrations for castle, cello, constellation and camel.
"I don't want it to be impenetrable," Dove says. "I took something sensible and I made it illogical. But I hope that there's still enough breadcrumbs that the viewer sticks with it. I want to conjure the desire to understand. Not just show a picture of understanding, but enact it. There's a beauty in that search."
Elizabeth Dove gives an artist talk about contemporary art at MAM Tue., Sept. 12, at 7 PM.