The Physics of Personal Identity

Amy Pleasant charts human actions in her drawings and paintings, forming an
almost scientific body of observation

The Making of a New Tale

Works by Amy Pleasant

Through Oct. 11 at ruby green contemporary art center

514 5th Ave. S. 244-7179

Human lives consist of a number of events that occur within a day and accumulate over weeks and months and years. The events might look similar to someone observing from the outside: A person takes out the garbage, stops to figure out if he or she left something at home, waits in a restaurant, has an intense conversation. If you watch people from a distance, like a zoologist, you can chart these actions and the gestures that go with them. From the summation of actions, patterns of different types would emerge, and from that, the shape of an individual life would emerge. Typical actions and sequences of actions would be discernible across individuals, forming common elements of life. And the actions and gestures of one person would mix with those of others, merge, intersect and interfere.

Such observations could be called a kind of physics of personal biography. Amy Pleasant documents these motions and behaviors in her work, cumulating an almost scientific body of observation and explanation. In the Birmingham-based artist’s paintings and drawings on display at ruby green, she builds up small figures into patterns that end up looking like the results from physics experiments: the traces of subatomic particles, the structure of atomic nuclei and the dense clouds of stars in a nebula.

The first room of the gallery consists of drawings from two series that lay out some of the fundamental designs and concepts of the entire show (which closes Saturday). In “The Points of Convergence,” small figures are repeated in close sequences that spiral and loop across the paper. The intermittent paths they trace look like photographs of subatomic particles. In each drawing, there are several separate paths containing different characters; the spirals they cover intersect and sometimes merge. The figures are in the poses of everyday actions—couples or individuals talking, kissing, sleeping, walking, stacking boxes, reading, praying. Within a sequence, the figure goes through a number of states, which sometimes seem to be the sequential steps of an action. The figures are all small, but at times they get smaller, as if they were heading into the distance, where they become simple dots and may then reemerge into view as human figures if the path loops back toward the viewer. While small, the figures express personality and emotion. One might be a distinctly middle-aged man, another might hold herself in a posture that denotes sadness.

The “Explosion” series has a different structure. In these pieces, there is one dense mass out of which smaller individual objects radiate. The dense focal mass includes human figures and splotches that might be figures we can’t make out. From this central source, individual people seem to float out along radial arms. In between those arms are patterns of dots and dashes that again could be figures too small to see, like the stars in the night sky we can’t quite make out. Out of a soup of undifferentiated humanity, countless individuals emerge.

Pleasant’s paintings take these basic themes and make them more specific. “Rumble” has a structure similar to one of the “Explosion” drawings. There is a dense mass of characters and marks on one side, and individual figures seem to float out from that source. They are surrounded by spirals of dots and dashes that appear to mark the trajectories of smaller objects. “Untitled” follows the pattern of “The Points of Convergence” series, with similar everyday gestures represented.

Most of the paintings also include some characters drawn at a larger size, like inset details. And some of the pieces have more of a grid organization, in which the images are laid out in varying degrees of detail and clarity. Several deal with specific dimensions of experience, like waiting (“Waiting”), separation and loneliness (“After So Long”) and sleeplessness (“Startled Awake”). “In the Back of a Car” shows in small snippets the everyday drama surrounding sex in the backseat of a car. “The Birth of Violence” mixes gestures of fighting and conflict—one person reaching to throttle another, or a person standing over someone on the ground—with more benign images. It suggests a continuum of actions that lead into violence, and we all can find ourselves somewhere on that continuum.

The paintings have a contemplative quality. The colors for the most part are very muted, and Pleasant relies heavily on black, whites and grays. In many cases, she paints over some of the figures with a thin overcoat that muffles them. The painted-over figures act like images coming out of our memory that take some concentration to recall. She also leaves space in the paintings, which works like swathes of silence. The pacing is similar to the way a musician might work, harnessing the silence and waiting for notes to come: Christina Carter of Charalambides comes to mind, or Miles Davis is a more common reference point.

Pleasant’s work presents a view of human experience that tries to reconcile individuality with the commonness of experience and the solidarity that entails. By assuming an observer’s stance, she identifies the patterns that define us uniquely at the same time they connect us to all others of our species. One way of seeing identity is that we are what we do—not in the grandiose sense of earthshaking achievements, but in personal and common terms. We are defined by actions that are common because they occur every day and because we share in them.